Serious risk ‘levelling up’ will make lives of disadvantaged children even tougher

By Carole Willis, chief executive of NFER

Friday 25 March 2022

The recent White Paper, Levelling Up the United Kingdom, has 300 pages of ambition. It recognises the “vicious” cycles which occur when key factors are absent in an area - leading to poverty, poor health and lack of opportunities - and the need to address these challenges.

One of these factors is human capital, acquired through education and training. This is key to everything the White Paper sets out to achieve.

With that in mind it is absolutely vital we do not view levelling up through a lens of squaring up the amounts of hard cash provided to schools, but in terms of levelling up outcomes - the attainment and prospects of children.

The government should not make the mistake of assuming that levelling up means every school should get the same level of funding – in fact doing so could widen, not narrow, the ‘disadvantage’ gap between children.

It wouldn’t achieve the government’s ambition to have 90 per cent of children in England to achieve the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, and for the percentage of children meeting this standard in the worst performing areas to have increased by over a third.

The school funding system was in desperate need of reform when the National Funding Formula was introduced in 2018. It was based on out-dated information and different areas received very different amounts of funding per pupil. In 2017/2018, funding per pupil in Wokingham was only £4,152, while in Tower Hamlets it was £6,965. The National Funding Formula introduced a new, more consistent approach to allocating core funding and aimed to address the existing post code lottery.

This sounds fairer, right? Well, not necessarily.  

In recent years, the Government’s apparent focus on ‘levelling-up’ the amount of funding which schools receive per pupil has focused on reducing the differences in funding between different areas.

Making similar levels of funding available to all pupils fails to take account of varying levels of need in different areas. Schools receive more, on average, per pupil in disadvantaged areas to reflect the additional support required to help pupils escape poverty. But that disadvantage uplift is being whittled away in the name of ‘levelling up’ as schools in more advantaged areas receive larger percentage increases in per pupil core funding. In other words, many schools in wealthier areas have received larger funding boosts in percentage terms than the poorer ones. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has shown that since 2017, the least deprived schools have seen almost double the rate of increase in per pupil funding through the National Funding Formula compared to the most deprived schools, skewing resources away from the areas that need them most. This could technically count as ‘levelling up’, but it’s unlikely to reduce a disadvantage gap which has actually widened during the pandemic.

Given all of this, it was somewhat jarring to read in the white paper that the new school funding formula is helping to “spread opportunities and improve public services, especially in those places where they are weakest”.

The white paper’s focus on 55 Education Investment Areas - the third of local authorities in England where education attainment is currently weakest – sounds like it might help with levelling up outcomes. But the government also acknowledges “pockets of affluence and deprivation may exist in the same district”. Therefore, targeting investment at the local authority level is unlikely to be the silver bullet we need. A more sophisticated approach is required to target support, and clarity over how much investment will be available for these areas. There is less detail on this, beyond previously announced initiatives.

It’s true that a child’s outcomes depend on a much wider set of factors beyond the school gates. And how funds are spent, using evidence-based approaches, is just as important as how much is made available. But education funding is a necessary - if not sufficient - condition for schools in disadvantaged areas if they are to provide the best possible education to children in the most challenging family circumstances.

Potential economic gains from levelling up are estimated to be around £50bn a year. I hope the forthcoming Schools White Paper presents a more inspiring, detailed, properly resourced and evidence-based set of education initiatives to help secure this growth. This is key to creating a long term, sustainable, and, above all, meaningful approach to levelling up.