Heads plan human rights challenge to funding

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A group of headteachers is planning a landmark legal challenge that could force ministers to change the entire state funding system for schools.

A group of headteachers is planning a landmark legal challenge that could force ministers to change the entire state funding system for schools.

Lawyers advising schools in Worcestershire say there are grounds to bring a "deliberate discrimination" case under human rights legislation against the Government, claiming pupils in the county are being penalised.

Primary schools in Worcestershire receive £2,472 per pupil – £242 less than the national average – because of a complicated spending formula for allocating government funds to schools. In secondary schools, the disparity is £302. A ruling in Worcestershire's favour would have immense implications for the entire school funding system.

Forty local education authorities, all of which receive less than the national average in funding per pupil, have banded together and are planning to mount similar actions if the Worcestershire heads are successful.

The present system allocates extra money for a whole host of indicators such as the number of pupils on free school meals, the number of children from the ethnic minorities and estimated running costs. The Government has acknowledged the system is unfair and issued a Green Paper on funding, calling for changes to be brought in from April 2003. However, ministers have also pointed out that to devise a system fair to everyone would be extreme-ly difficult .

Cledwyn Davies, chairman of the Worcestershire Headteachers Forum and head of Droitwich Spa school, a comprehensive for pupils aged 12 to 18, said the legal challenge under the human rights legislation would probably have to be mounted by a parent or a child. The heads have banded together and found money from their own pockets to finance a legal challenge.

They sought counsel's advice from a leading barrister over the challenge and have now been told they have a case.

On a national level, both the National Association of Head Teachers and the Secondary Heads Association have complained that the present system is unfair.

A survey by the NAHT revealed that funding could vary by as much as £1,268 per primary school pupil, depending on location. In Derbyshire, schools receive £1,751 per pupil while those in Kensington and Chelsea in London receive £3,019. In secondary schools, the disparity is much the same. Gloucestershire pupils are the poorest with £2,379 funding while Kensington and Chelsea youngsters receive £3,898.

In the main, the shire counties with their lower cost of living and relative affluence are given less money. The formula can also discriminate against white working-class communities, such as former mining towns. Hence Derbyshire's position at the foot of the spending league table.

Mr Davies said: "We will be working alongside headteachers in other education authorities to ensure fairer funding can be achieved for all."

Estelle Morris, the Secretary of State for Education and Skills, admitted the funding formula needed changing but said she had to progress cautiously to ensure "winners" under the present system did not become impoverished. No education authority would admit to being overfunded, she added.