Martin Price explores the variation in funding for schools.
As part of the Welsh Budget announcement, Huw Lewis, the Minister for Education announced of a 1% commitment to extra spending on education, which “means that schools in Wales will benefit from almost £40m extra in the next year, with the majority being allocated through local authorities for the delivery of core schools provision.” Of course, with various inflationary effects and the impact of incremental salary drift and the changes to employers National Insurance contributions this represents a real cut in funding, variously estimated at 3 or 4%.
Comparisons with England are not helpful. Welsh Government statisticians gave up the attempt to compare in 2012, when the Academy programme got into full swing. The consensus is that more money is spent there, but whether that leads to better educational outcomes overall is impossible to tell.
However, there is a wide variation in funding for schools in Wales, because although there are National pay scales and terms of conditions for staff, a National Curriculum and a National inspection framework, we have Local determination of funding.
The average expenditure per pupil per annum for the current financial year in Wales is £5,526, but this masks a huge variation depending on where the child has the fortune or misfortune to live. This chart shows the variation of that expenditure per pupil per annum in each local authority area in Wales.
This means that a child in Ceredigion gets £800 more than the average and a child in the Vale of Glamorgan more than £400 less. The percentage variation is a difference of 22% – Ceredigion 14% more, Vale of Glamorgan 8% less than the average.
As a Governor of a school in the Vale, I have a particular interest here. For St Richard Gwyn Catholic High School in Barry, which has about 800 pupils, its budget would be increased by £313,600 per annum if it were moved three miles away into Cardiff. That means an extra ten teachers. If it went to the Welsh average, it would have even more – £354,400. If it were in Ceredigion it would have a whopping £636,800 more each year.
The Vale of Glamorgan has been 22nd out of 22 for the last twenty years.
How has this happened?
Unsurprisingly, Vale of Glamorgan Heads and Chairs of Government have been exercised over this issue for years. Every year, we meet the Leader of the Council and Senior Officers to plead our case for more money. This is a depressing meeting, but it is not rancorous, because the Vale of Glamorgan Council, as it has for the past three years, spends more money on Education than the Welsh Government recommends that it should. It allocates more than the Indicator Based Assessment (IBA). The Vale has also traditionally allocated more money to schools directly and less to central administration. The issue is about the size of the cake, not how it is distributed. The School, the officers and the Councillors are all on the same side.
The reasons seem to be locked in the arcane way in which the Welsh Government allocates its money to local authorities for all the activities they have to do. It is hidden in plain view in a succession of Bills and Measures and was originally designed to allow for deprivation, rurality, urbanisation, affluence, Welsh language demography and so on. It is all incorporated in what I imagine is a humungous spreadsheet in Cathays Park which is so complex that no-one quite knows how it actually works, and which it is dangerous to tinker with too much in case it collapses under its own weight.
Of course the Vale could increase Council Tax to raise more funds, but that is relatively small in comparison to the Welsh Government money and is effectively capped by Welsh Government and politically sensitive when elections are in the offing. Because council tax was frozen for a period twenty years ago by short-sighted politicians, even adding 4 or 5% a year to Council Tax means the Vale can never catch up.
Then there is the Pupil Deprivation Grant which rightly goes to schools based on deprivation. However, this is allocated on the number of pupils getting free school meals – a proxy for poverty which takes no account of the working poor. A family on Tax Credits is not eligible for free school meals. So the Vale is further penalised for being apparently wealthy because it has fewer free school meals pupils.
Why does this matter?
I have looked at the Vale in some detail because I know it quite well, but the inequity applies throughout Wales. Is a 22% variation really defensible?
The interesting thing about the table above is that expenditure appears to have little or no impact on outcomes. Of course Ceredigion gets what it pays for. It is the only Local authority graded Excellent by Estyn. However, second place Blaenau Gwent has been is Special Measures for some years.
Educational results at all levels bear no relation to funding. The Vale spends least, but is in the top three or four for most measures at all levels from Foundation Phase to A-level performance.
You could argue that the Vale of Glamorgan is actually the most efficient education system in Wales. It produces some of the best results at all levels with fewer resources. It is managed well at school level with no large deficits or unused reserves, unlike some schools in the rest of Wales. Everybody else is clearly wasting money.
The reality is that schools in the Vale have fewer teachers and pay them less. There are fewer posts of responsibility, teachers do more for less. Buildings are in poorer condition, except where the Welsh Government’s 21st Century Schools investment has started to have an effect. IT systems are older. Books are shared. Parents are expected to contribute more.
Of course the Vale is one of the most prosperous areas in Wales and you could argue that resources should be spent elsewhere where the need is greater. I suggest you tell that to the children of the Gibbonsdown Estate or Castleland in Barry who deserve better than this.
What should it cost to education a child in Wales?
No-one has ever worked it out.