School Funding - article in The Sunday Times

Last week Balcarras headteacher Dominic Burke wrote an article about the drastic reduction in per pupil funding for sixth form students over the last decade. The article was published by The Sunday Times on 22nd August 2021 and is available below. 

Schools work best when they are funded properly 

There has been an extraordinary amount of comment on this year’s A-level results. As the head teacher of Balcarras — a state comprehensive school — I am proud of the achievements of our pupils. The vast majority have gained entry to their first-choice course for next year and this includes seven who are going to study at Oxbridge, several who have highly sought-after degree apprenticeships and more than 50 per cent to Russell Group universities. 

However, the celebratory mood of A-level results day was quickly tempered by an uneasiness as I digested some of the media commentary on the widening gap between state and independent schools. The Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen argued that the gap had widened because independent schools had offered a superior provision during the pandemic. 

Grade inflation occurred across the system but was most acute in private schools leading many to the same conclusion as Mr Bridgen. However, I am convinced this is too simplistic an analysis. 

There is no way to tell whether the higher grades obtained at private schools, or indeed anywhere else, were justified because there was no proper system of national standardisation or moderation. That which did occur resulted in less than 1 per cent of grades being altered. In effect each school was left to its own devices and could award whatever grades it wished. 

Mr Bridgen and other commentators seem to believe that the state sector needs to look to independent schools for guidance on how to improve. My own school has a close relationship with the local independents, and we have over the years learnt much from one another. 

However, I am convinced that the most important lesson that state schools can learn from private ones is that schools work best when they are funded properly. 

In the analysis that I have read since results day no one has mentioned that there has been a drastic cut in funding for school sixth forms over the past decade. I believe that this funding cut is certain to entrench the advantage already held by private schools and do much to damage the cause of social mobility in this country. 

In the academic year 2008-09, my school received around £5,000 per sixth former. By 2020-21 this had dropped to just over £4,000. Taking a 2 per cent inflation rate into account this represents a cut of 37 per cent. By comparison the sixth form day fees at a local independent school in Cheltenham rose from £20,823 to £29,280 during the same period. This is an increase of 41 per cent. 

At the start of the last decade the school in question was receiving four times our income. By 2020 this had risen to more than seven times. 

I believe that state schools like mine have done a superb job of managing this cut in income, but I fear there will come a point where we are simply being asked to perform miracles. 

In many state schools class sizes have increased, the curriculum has narrowed, pupils are offered fewer A-levels (although not at my school) and enrichment opportunities are under pressure. 

With or without the pandemic we were always likely to see a widening of the gap between the two sectors. If you introduce such a drastic funding cut to one sector, while the other sees its income continue to rise, you would have to be naive to believe that this wouldn’t, sooner or later, affect results. 

This does not mean that schools like mine will throw in the towel. Quite the reverse. We will do everything we can to ensure that our young people get the education they deserve. However, we would benefit hugely from a government that was genuinely committed to the cause of social mobility and was prepared to put its money where its mouth was. 

Dominic Burke