15 March 2011

The nationalist party Mebyon Kernow (MK) has marked out the difference in per pupil education funding between the City of London and Cornwall. An article on the MK website says: “City of London children are valued twice as highly as those from Cornwall”.

Let me explain why I think this is a misinterpretation.

What is being compared?
In the City of London there is only one maintained state school, primary or secondary; it is Sir John Cass primary school. There are more than two hundred maintained primary schools in Cornwall. There are about 34 000 primary pupils in Cornwall and about 225 in the one and only state school in the City. There is no acknowledgement of this context in the MK website article.

It is not easy to compare such a disparate pair, an education authority with scores of schools and an authority with only one, the data of an individual school with the average data of many.

Key principles for public spending
I set out in my post Stripping the nationalist altar why matching funding to the circumstance of differences in need and costs is just. In a previous post I pointed out that Aristotle had said that treating equals unequally and unequals equally was unjust, disregarding relevant differences was unjust (Nicomachean ethics 5.2.1129 ff). For me, this is a key principle in public spending.

Individual schools
The government most commendably published in January 2011 expenditure at school level. The latest figures are for 2009/10. These mean we can compare individual schools as well as education authorities over a large number of financial and other data. We can cautiously look at the data for the City of London’s one maintained school, a primary, and for maintained primary schools in Cornwall.

Look especially at the costs of primary schools in the City of London and Cornwall (column Q and following). Then look at the figures for eligibility for free school meals (a few Cornwall primaries have a higher proportion of eligible pupils than the City school). Look at the proportions of pupils at the Sir John Cass primary school for whom English is not their first language (69.7 percent) and the vanishingly small proportion in Cornwall primary schools. Most pupils at Sir John Cass, an excellent school, are from minority ethnic backgrounds; again in Cornwall a small proportion. Of course there is a range, quite large, of costs and needs among Cornwall schools which makes me wonder how useful focusing on comparisons between education authorities is.

Valuing pupils
Putting that doubt on one side, the Aristotlean differences mean that in the City of London education authority the per pupil funding is higher than the mean average for maintained primary schools in Cornwall education authority. MK’s website article gives the monetary information; but its article headline (“valued twice as highly”) is infelicitous because ‘value’ carries two distinct meanings that cluster around regard and around the monetary and arithmetic. There are differences in per pupil funding (monetary value) but all pupils are valued (regarded) equally. MK does not explain that the difference in funding is not a question of arbitrarily giving more money to the City of London education authority but rather is intended to reflect differences in costs and needs. Again, I think that variations in funding objectively based on such differences is a just distribution of public money.

Note that the per pupil grant funding for the primary schools at Garras, Germoe, and St Levan, importantly very small primaries in Cornwall, exceeded that for Sir John Cass primary school in 2009/10 (column L). Pupils at these schools are of course not more highly valued (regarded) than pupils at other Cornwall primary schools.

MK disappoints
MK’s approach is general and disappointing. It should provide a detailed analysis of context, funding, costs, and needs, as I suggested in the post Stripping the nationalist altar, and that would command attention; and then from that analysis it should suggest any changes and they would elicit debate and perhaps agreement. For example, there may well be an argument about rurality and funding; let us hear it in detail.

(The City of London Corporation sponsors three city academies for secondary education in deprived inner London boroughs. The funding of these academies is directly from central government and not part of the comparative local authority funding that exercises MK.)

For the numbers and proportions of pupils by ethnicity and English as a second language see the excel file for local authorities (Final data, 17 June 2010) here. Look at tables 12a and 13a.

The MK article specifically mentions supply teachers: the comparative cost data is given in column R and the City of London cost is higher than for every individual primary in Cornwall for 2009/10. However, I think comparison is complex.

Addendum 17 March 2011
Sir John Cass primary school is in the Portsoken ward of the City of London, one of the City’s residential wards. End Child Poverty puts the proportion of children in this ward in poverty in mid-2010 at 47 percent. The figure for Cornwall is 21.3 percent and varies from 6 to 34 percent across Cornwall wards.