September 2013

The know zone

  • Checks and balances
    Inadequacies have emerged in the procedure for issuing enhanced criminal records certificates. It should give schools pause for thought, says Richard Bird. More
  • ‘Fair’ but not ‘fit’
    In a complex world, schools should be funded according to their present and future needs, not by the requirement to appear ‘simple and transparent’, says Sam Ellis. More
  • Inspectors under scrutiny
    Amid criticism of inconsistency in Ofsted judgements, Jan Webber examines the claims that some inspectors are not fit for purpose and suggests what could be done to restore confidence in the system. More
  • Fighting for better pay and conditions
    ASCL exists to reflect and promote the views of its members, which is why ASCL Council is so important. ASCL Council is made up of 148 elected representatives and is the association’s policymaking body, meeting four times a year. Council members represent ASCL at meetings with government officials and other organisations. It is from Council that national officers, including the president, are elected. In each edition of Leader this year, we will spotlight the work of a particular committee of Council. This month, it is the turn of the Pay and Conditions Committee. More
  • How is ASCL policy made?
    Council, ASCL’s policy-making body, meets four times a year and each of the 148 elected Council members serves on one of its main committees: Education, Pay and Conditions, Funding, Professional, and Public and Parliamentary, where future policy is discussed in detail. More
  • Could you be an ASCL Council member?
    Council membership is often described as the best in-service training that members can have. More
  • ASCL PD events
    "Curriculum Planning: Balancing the Vision Against the Funding" and "Conversion to a Multi-Academy Trust – the Options" More
  • Are you new to SLT?
    If so, then you will doubtless have richly earned your promotion and hardly be new to the concept of effective leadership. More
  • Presenting with impact
    What makes a great presentation? We all know when we have heard one. More
  • Stimulating physics
    The Stimulating Physics Network (SPN) is managed by the Institute of Physics (IOP), in partnership with the national network of Science Learning Centres. More
  • Adding value
    Understanding performance More
  • Direct action?
    ASCL members in some areas of the country are raising issues with recruitment on to the School Direct programme for teacher training, although in other areas it seems to be successful. Here members share their experience of how School Direct is working in their schools. More
  • Leaders' surgery
    The antidote to common leadership conundrums... More
  • Best supporting ‘actor’
    There is bound to be uncertainty when a school leader moves on... not least for the replacement who is given the strange title of ‘acting head’. But what does the job actually entail? More
Bookmark and Share

In a complex world, schools should be funded according to their present and future needs, not by the requirement to appear ‘simple and transparent’, says Sam Ellis.

‘Fair’ but not ‘fit’

It seems fairly obvious that when everyone is ‘outstanding’ no one will be. Along with that, it also seems fairly obvious that when the vast majority of people have hauled themselves to the top of the greasy pole the only ones that will stand out from the rest will be the few left at the bottom.

These are the kinds of verbal twists that keep me vaguely distracted when I am trying to cope with the toxic litany that pours out of Ofsted and Westminster all too frequently.

“Simple and transparent” is another one. It is sometimes wrapped up with that slippery customer, “fair”. For someone whose working day is spent in the world of school funding, the idea that I may actually be disinterested in these words may come as a shock to some readers.

I am actually interested in trying to find a way of funding schools that is fit for purpose – by which I mean you have sufficient funding to deliver what is expected of you to the level required or higher and a bit more to keep in the back pocket for a rainy day.

To be honest, I think that if that was the basis for funding any school, no matter where it was or whatever its situation, it would follow that that was ‘fair’.

Political will

I am equally convinced that the mechanism for doing that would be neither simple nor transparent. While the current political will prevails, there does not seem to be much hope of moving to anything that is sophisticated and complex, even if it does produce a better result.

Just about everyone I meet in the corridors in Westminster is locked into the paradigm of lump-sum and per-pupil funding. Trying to discuss any alternative approach is like trying to suggest to an Aristotelian that if we want to decide whether heavy objects fall faster than lighter ones then we should just drop a couple of objects to find out, rather than spend years arguing about the possible result. I am not much good at arguing or debating but I can drop heavy things!

When the Reform group published its bewildering conclusion in May 2013 that you could remove about 20 per cent of funding from schools and not affect educational output, I did not expect anyone to suggest that we could select a few hundred of the highest performing schools, square their current deficit or carry forward to zero and then run them for five years on 20 per cent reduced funding and watch what happens. Some empirical tests are out of the question.

Putting Reform’s conclusions to the test or even implementing them seems to me to be beyond acceptable if we do it with real people. I am convinced that Reform’s conclusion is demonstrable rubbish. The problem is to demonstrate that it is rubbish without actually damaging a school or the individuals in it.

Inevitably, I wrote a spreadsheet to model any secondary school in any area of the country with the funding and expenditure for 2013. It shows the impact in terms of budget deficit or surplus of attempting to operate the same user-defined curriculum in different parts of the country. It then allows the user to investigate the impact of global funding changes of the type suggested by Reform on similar schools operating identical curricula but in different geographical locations.

Needless to say, it shows quite clearly, what most of us know to be true: The playing field is far from level and in some places it is almost impossible to manage on current funding levels.

Spurious arguments

The spreadsheet is currently sitting with DfE officials in the hope that we can stave off any remote Aristotelian leap of faith that cuts school funding on the basis of spurious arguments based on out-of-date statistics. I do not intend to release the sheet for public consumption but, if you are interested, all of the relevant data is sitting on the DfE website at and also at

Will the inevitable block sum and per-pupil approach be good enough for funding schools when we reach the promised National Fair Funding Formula, sometime just after 2015? I think the answer is again demonstrably clear. By which I mean that you can test it, rather than just make assertions about it.

I think it will be fine for quite a lot of schools. They may well be able to become ‘outstanding’ as a result. Unfortunately, it will be far from fine for those consigned, through no fault of their own, to the foot of whatever greasy pole there is – or even into the ground below it.

I fear that the trick of a simple and transparent funding formula that is unfit for purpose will make some schools ‘outstanding’ in the negative sense.

  • Sam Ellis is ASCL's funding specialist