Education Minister, John O’Dowd, has announced changes to the way schools are funded that will directly target educational disadvantage.
Alongside changes to the school funding formula he announced in the Assembly today, the Minister moved to provide an additional £30million targeted directly at schools teaching children from disadvantaged backgrounds over the next two years. Mr O’Dowd also announced an extension to the free school meals eligibility criteria that will see, by September 2014, an additional 15,000 children entitled to free school meals and support with uniform costs.
The Minister also revealed that he did not plan to remove the small school support factor of the funding formula at this time.
Mr O’Dowd said: “Last year I commissioned a review of the Common Funding Scheme which determines how funds are allocated to schools. I did not believe that the scheme adequately supported my key policy objectives, in particular raising standards; targeting social need; and building a network of strong, sustainable schools.
“I therefore commissioned an independent panel, led by Sir Bob Salisbury, to examine this area and to report back to me.
“The report, published in January, was the subject of much debate and, since its publication, I have listened to the views of the Education Committee before deciding on the way ahead.
“A key area of focus for the independent panel was to examine how a revised funding formula could better support my determination to address educational underachievement and help break the link between social disadvantage and low educational outcomes. A system which, despite continued yearly improvement, still sees disadvantaged pupils only half as likely to achieve five GCSEs or equivalents at grades A*-C including English and maths as their more affluent counterparts presents an education, an economic, a political challenge that we cannot ignore.
“The panel recognised that pupils from economically disadvantaged backgrounds have greater obstacles to overcome and that schools need to do more to assist them in breaking this linkage. It made very clear that more funding should be targeted at pupils from socially disadvantaged backgrounds.
“I accept and fully endorse these recommendations. Indeed, I intend to inject a further £30million into school budgets over the next two years, with that funding being allocated to help schools with the greatest concentrations of disadvantage to address underachievement among their disadvantaged pupils.
“I expect the interventions to link teaching and learning with the work that these schools undertake as extended schools and to involve outreach to parents and communities as well as direct support for young people themselves.”
The Minister then turned to free school meal entitlement. The panel’s report had recommended adjusting the eligibility criteria for free school meals, a recommendation the Minister has accepted.
Mr O’Dowd continued: “It is my intention to apply the same eligibility criteria for free school meals for both primary and post-primary pupils from September 2014.
“This means that post-primary pupils from our lowest income families will be supported with access to free school meals in the same way as primary pupils. It is estimated that this will benefit 15,000 children. It also ensures that the post-primary schools they attend will be supported in a similar way.”
The Minister also made clear his view that schools should be using the money allocated to them on improving the outcomes for pupils at their schools. The Minister revealed that, last year, 86 primary schools were holding surpluses in excess of £100,000, with seven of these holding in excess of a quarter of a million. He made clear that it was not tenable for schools to hoard surpluses, particularly where their educational outcomes are low and said that he would explore the possibility of changing the way schools manage their finances, to provide greater autonomy whilst securing robust accountability.
Turning to small schools, the Minister said: “The review panel recommended that I remove all small schools factors from the current funding. However, it recognised that strategically important small schools would, in that scenario, have to be supported by funding outside the new formula in order to deliver effective education for their pupils.
“While I am accepting the recommendation in principle I am not however implementing it at this time. Small schools should be reassured that those factors will not be removed from the common funding formula overnight.
“I do want to signal though that, while small schools factors in the current formula will be retained for the 2014-15 financial year, schools and managing authorities should not rely on the continuation of the funding allocated via those factors in the longer term.
“The area planning work currently underway aims to have the right schools that are the right type and size in the right place. Those area plans may determine that there is a need for a small school and where this is the case, small schools that have been identified as strategically important will receive the resources they need to provide the best possible education for the children they serve.”
In conclusion, the Minister said: “In the coming weeks I will publish details of the proposals for consultation. I will want to hear the views of all stakeholders – particularly schools – on the changes that will be implemented in April of next year.
“At the heart of the changes is the desire to use the money at our disposal to target disadvantage, to improve educational outcomes for all young people and to tackle the attainment gap that persists in our system.
“I am targeting more money to those most in need; I am injecting an additional £30million into the system, again targeted at disadvantage; and I am expanding the eligibility to free school meals to ensure more families can access this support.
“I believe that reform of how we fund our schools is needed if they are to be able to deliver the outcomes for young people that we need them to deliver. I have set out how I think improvements can be made and now I want to test these ideas with schools and with others.
“I am determined that in everything we do, including in the allocation of funding, we always put pupils first.”