National funding formula

The national funding formula (NFF) was introduced for the school year 2018-19 (DfE, 2017) and updated for 2019-20 (DfE, 2018) and again for 2020-21 (DfE, 2019b). The NFF has not offered the anticipated significant increases in funding for small schools, despite government promises. Small schools appear under the NFF for 2020-21 to receive more funds per child than larger schools. Flowever, this is because a school’s ‘lump sum’ (a sum given in recognition of the school’s fixed costs that is applied in the same way for all schools) is included in the per pupil calculation rather than separately, as had been the case before in the previous two iterations of the NFF.

Small schools will also not receive a per pupil funding increase because, with the lump sum included, their per pupil funding appears over the threshold of £4,000 that triggers additional funding. This means that a small school can only receive the minimum possible uplift in funding of 1.84 per cent. Larger schools will get an increase of between 6 to 8.5 per cent (Moore, 2019). In addition to this, the ‘mobility factor’, which is additional funding for small and rural schools, is also absorbed through the minimum funding guarantee (MFG) protection calculation undertaken for schools at the funding floor level, typically small schools. Therefore, any additional funds that the Department for Education believes small schools are gaining as a result of the NFF are, it appears, lost through complicated calculations and readjustments (Moore, 2019). In essence, the NFF will continue to distribute the majority of the funding to large schools in 2020/21.

The consequence of the NFF is to make small schools financially insecure, with resources reduced, including staff, to offset funding reductions, all of which creates a question mark over the long-term viability of the school and makes attracting new teachers challenging. As Corbett and Tinkham (2014) eloquently put it, the issues for small schools are a ‘classic “wicked” policy problem’ (p. 691), that is, they are complex to define and cannot be solved by data-driven processes.

Multi-academy trusts (MATs)

The political context in which small schools function in England has been one of rapid policy change and reform since 2010. Educational policy appears to have focused on, and been designed for, large urban schools that can run autonomously through direct funding from the government (academy) and more latterly as groups of academies run by a single organisation (MAT) (DfE, 2016). School/groups of school size are important for efficiencies of scale when considered within the framework of school funding cuts generally; as noted by an Ofsted report in 2019:

The rationale for this growth |of MAT size] put forward by the government has been largely economic - for example, that larger MATs will secure economies of scale, more efficient use of resources, more effective management and clearer oversight of academies. ... In 2017, Lord Agnew, the minister responsible for academies, said that small MATs should merge together in order to achieve financial viability.

(Ofsted, 2019b, p. 21)

It therefore appears on first consideration that MATs work to the detriment of small schools and have elicited the increase in small school closures identified in the introduction (0‘Brien, 2019). In our work with small schools, we have seen small school leaders struggle to maintain their schools financially outside of a MAT. It should be considered, therefore, whether small schools in a MAT have more opportunities to access a high-quality teacher supply, access to professional development and greater all-round resource than those that stand alone.

MATs have been championed as the purveyor of best practice by the government, as noted in ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’: ‘Multi-academy trusts (MATs) and teaching school alliances have spread collaboration across the country, with the best school leaders providing challenge and support for underperforming schools’ (DfE, 2016, p. 6). ‘In 2017 almost three quarters of all academies were part of a MAT’ (Ofsted, 2019b, p. 4), with academies being 35 per cent of all state-funded maintained schools in England in 2019. Primary schools make up 27 per cent of academies in England (Ofsted, 2019b) and is the phase in which the majority of small schools are operating.

Our experience of the way small schools are supported in MATs is variable. The initial challenge for the small schools is to be accepted by the MAT as a viable financial option. The continued underfunding of small schools (O’Brien, 2019) has created financial challenges that make them unattractive to MATs, particularly as MATs have to run on a zero budget (no financial deficits are allowed). ‘Education Excellence Everywhere’ (DfE, 2016) states that a MAT requires ten to 15 academies to develop centralised systems and functions to deliver benefits, such as to offer career opportunities. This sustainability of the MAT is associated with total pupil numbers, making the addition of a small school with financial challenges undesirable based on the increase in central administrative and capital costs in relation to per pupil funding.

There appears to be little reason for a MAT to take on a small school, yet many MATs in our experience have taken a more community-based view and absorbed the cost to support the value they perceive the small school brings to the community it serves. An example of a MAT working to support and develop small schools is Kernow Learning Trust, a 17-primary school MAT in Cornwall. Small schools have been welcomed into the MAT and are included in whole MAT professional development and school improvement practices, with specialist teachers and leaders being seen as a resource of the MAT to be shared with the schools that need them. This has worked especially well with the new Education Inspection Framework (EIF) focus on subject knowledge and leadership, allowing small schools to be supported by subject leads in the MAT.

In Kernow Learning Trust, staff appointments are made to the MAT, not individual schools. Opportunities for staff progression are made available within the schools of the MAT, which has supported an increase in both MAT teacher and leader recruitment and retention. The small schools have maintained their special features, and they have been provided with opportunities as part of the MAT to access additional resources, which was seen by the MAT Trustees as stabilising and sustaining for small schools’ workforce. We have seen similar outcomes identified by the Trustees of The Learning Academy Partnership South West in Devon, a MAT also with small schools and MAT-based teaching contracts. Our experience suggests that a MAT that values small schools and has a

MAT-based teaching recruitment and professional development policy can create a positive professional experience for teachers and leaders in small schools, which by proxy supports recruitment and retention.

National standards

All schools in England are part of a performativity agenda and ‘regulatory gaze’ (Osgood, 2006, p. 7) that is focused on a national standard with target data. Small schools have been perceived as having ‘an uncomfortable and sometimes adversarial relationship’ with accountability and performativity measures (Strike, 2008, p. 169), due the inevitable unreliability of small pupil numbers on the statistics that are applied. National performance targets are skewed by small pupil number for per cent outcomes, for example, an attendance target of 95 per cent for all schools nationally.

It could be argued that the multiple responsibilities of a small teaching workforce and less funding (compared to larger schools) to implement regulatory body expectations, such as to have subject leads in primary schools (Ofsted, 2019a), results in huge challenges when held accountable in failing to meet performance targets. This performativity/accountability challenge should not be underestimated as an agent for discontent of the workforce in small schools, both for teachers and leaders.

Having a national standard of performance for all schools at the same per cent expectation does not take into account the school context and is set to create failure to achieve. The pressure in small schools to meet the expected standard for pupils in progress, attainment and attendance is huge and, as we have said before, easily lost through small pupil numbers skewing data. Added to this accountability for school performance is the Education Inspection Framework (EIF) (overseen by the Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills - Ofsted - as the regulatory and inspection body for school standards), which is again national and applied to all schools regardless of context.

In 2019, Ofsted introduced a new EIF (Ofsted, 2019a), having developed a greater understanding of contextual issues for schools in the preceding years of inspection and through research (such as Ovenden-Hope & Passy, 2019).3 Ofsted had been criticised for its previous EIF focusing too heavily on pupil data to inform judgements on school performance. The new Ofsted framework will still look at pupil data, but to inform an understanding of the purpose and usefulness of those data and to inform judgements on ‘intent, implementation and impact’ (Ofsted, 2019a, pp. 9-10). For small schools, one of the biggest challenges of the new EIF, outside of data being reviewed against percentage national standards, is the requirement for subject leads to develop the curriculum. In small schools, teachers will teach a range of subjects, but having a specialist in each of the curriculum areas can be difficult, if not impossible to achieve, if not within a MAT.

An inspector noted on a government blog for Ofsted that small schools would be worried about this and attempted to offer reassurance:

I know that some small schools are nervous about the new education inspection framework (EIF) and the demands that our ‘deep dives’ will place on staff. . . . Our inspectors understand the unique challenges you face as small schools.

(Sheridan, 2019)

This reassurance and recognition of the context of small schools by Ofsted suggests progress, but the overview of policy affecting small schools’ workforce we have offered in this chapter, and by proxy the effect on teacher recruitment and retention, does not create a sense of optimism for the fair treatment of small schools.

Sense-making for the small school workforce

So how can we ‘sense-make’ (Odden & Russ, 2019) education policy since 2010 in relation to small schools’ teaching workforce in England? Using Odden and Russ’ (2019) definition of sense-making, we must understand the ‘dynamic process of building or revising an explanation in order to “figure something out’” (pp. 191-192). In this chapter, we have tried to ‘figure out’ the lack of consensus around small schools by exploring the relationship between government policy and small school workforce supply (and the survival of small schools in the future).

There has been a shift in Ofsted’s consideration of small schools when making judgements under the new EIF, but this appears a minor change in the face of policy reform that is pushing through large schools in large M ATs for an efficient education system. The NFF does nothing to rectify the disparity in funding that small schools have experienced, and the move of these schools to a MAT, if it will take them, appears inevitable.

A shift of government focus is required if the disadvantages experienced by small schools are to be addressed and the proposition of working in one is to become attractive to existing and new staff. Educational policymakers need to consider the specific contextual challenges (not only Ofsted), and adjust standards, targets and funding to reflect these. From a political perspective, it is important to note that ‘small schools cannot flourish on the margins of the system: they need to be an integral part of it’ (Raywid, 2002, p. 51). For small schools to sustain and recruit a high-quality workforce, the removal of policy- related challenges is essential.


  • 1 Schools in England under Local Authority control receive a grant from the Local Authority the school resides in. The Local Authority receive school funding direct from the government for any schools within their control. Local Authority schools also have to adhere to national regulations in relation to their policies and practices, including the curriculum, and achieve national benchmarks for performance. Academies receive their grant funding directly from the government and have independent regulations that allow them to develop their own policies and practices, including curriculum, but still have to achieve the national benchmarks for performance.
  • 2 See note 1.
  • 3 Professor Ovenden-Hope and Dr Passy were invited by Ofsted to deliver a seminar for Her Majesty’s Inspectors in 2018 at Taunton on coastal, rural and small school challenges for school improvement and the ways school leaders were dealing with this to support their pupils’ outcomes.


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