Social justice and schools: Resources & funding

Written by: David Anderson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

In a seven-part series, teacher and school leader David Anderson considers how schools can be a key driver for social justice and how we can make our education system more equitable. In part three, he considers huge disparities between state and private schools when it comes to resources and funding

SecEd series: A school system that drives social justice

Every normal working day I drive past students walking in two different directions. One group is walking up the hill to the state comprehensive where I work. The other is walking down the hill, from their boarding houses to their lessons in an independent school. Both schools in this middle-England market town have a similar number of students – about 850.

These two groups of students walk the same pavements and breathe the same oxygen. However, once they arrive at their respective schools, their experiences are markedly different.

At the independent school, each student is funded between four and 6.5 times the amount of those at my school. Despite having very similar numbers of students, the following comparisons can be made.

  • We have six tennis courts, they have 39.
  • We have one cricket pitch, they have seven.
  • We have no cricket nets, they have 19.
  • We have no cricket coach, they have two full-time dedicated cricket staff.
  • We have one drama studio, they have a professional-standard 300-seat proscenium arch theatre.
  • We have one sports hall with a small dance studio, they have a state of the art sports centre which houses a six-lane 25m swimming pool, a 62-station fitness studio, three squash courts, a gymnasium, two dance studios, a large hospitality suite, and a six-court sports hall.
  • We have one art room, they have an award-winning art, design and technology centre including a dedicated gallery space.
  • We have six science labs, they have a world class science centre, complete with dedicated science library.
  • We have 11 buildings on a site of 17 acres, they have 75 spread over 120 acres.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture. I could have chosen from a range of independent schools to share similar comparisons.

These are not slight differences in provision but represent the massive disparity in resourcing of education that exists across our schools. It is this issue of resources that I will explore in this article. In my view, equity in education means giving all children access to a high quality of education regardless of their background.


Let us start with the basics. In an equitable education system, we might expect all similar schools, and therefore students, to receive broadly the same level of funding, with some adjustments for disadvantage. You might expect this to be true for the 93 per cent of our students who are educated within the state system (Sutton Trust, 2019).

However, similar state schools do not receive similar levels of funding. In 2019/20, according to Department for Education (DfE) statistics, the difference in state secondary school funding per-pupil at a national level ranged from £3,866 to £9,852. In my local city, the range was £4,860 to £6,675.

These differences exist because schools naturally have different contexts and therefore funding requirements, but also historically, the 152 local authorities have implemented their own local funding formulae. The new National Funding Formula (NFF) seeks to address these local variations in approach. It sets minimum levels of funding in schools from 2020/21 (albeit at a local authority level, so still maintaining local differences). In addition to local adjustments, voluntary-aided faith schools can receive extra funds, for example from the diocese.

In April, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, Paul Whiteman, said we are “making progress on a more equitable system”. He added: “The benefit to the new formula is that it will calculate what each school should get based on its individual characteristics and needs. Unfortunately, for now, money will still go to the local authority, who will then determine how to allocate it according to their own criteria – the so-called ‘soft formula’. This is very disappointing, and is where things start to fall apart. The national equity and transparency intended by the formula could be diluted and undermined by 152 local authority variations.”

There is of course another source of financial resource that state schools can tap into, some very much more lucratively than others – parents.

A 2018 survey from the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) found that 20 per cent of schools had asked parents for voluntary contributions. Perhaps this is understandable given the level of real-term cuts facing schools since 2010. However, such approaches can dramatically increase the funding gap.

For example, a report for The Observer (Ferguson & McIntyre, 2019) found that England’s 30 most successful state school PTAs raised £3.6 million for their schools. That is an average of £120,000 per school – equivalent to roughly four extra teachers. Meanwhile, the National Governors Association reports that the average raised by PTAs is £6,500 per year (NGA, 2011).

The Observer report also highlights that the schools with the highest proportion of pupils from low-income families usually do not have a PTA and those that do raise very little money from parents.

Many of the schools in the top 30 asked parents to donate regularly or to set up legacies. It is particularly noteworthy that those schools had an average free school meal (FSM) population of five per cent compared to the national average of 15 per cent.

In the local town where my children go to school, their state comprehensive PTA admirably raises roughly £5,000 per year to contribute to books, various prizes and resources such as recycling bins. The independent school in the same town, in the year 2018/19, raised £2.33 million through parent and alumni donations, legacies, corporate giving, transfer of assets and other fund-generation activities.

And of course, the disparity is growing. This is all set against a backdrop of state funding of education falling in real terms by eight per cent since 2010 and independent school fees rising by 29 per cent since 2007 (Belfield, Farquharson & Sibieta, 2018).

There is of course the Pupil Premium, but this is just a drop in the ocean compared to the disparity in resources between the state and independent sectors.

In their book, Engines of Privilege (2019), Professor Francis Green and David Kynaston point out that on average, independent schools can deploy more resources than the average state school. The average annual fee for an independent day school is around £13,250. By comparison, state schools spend between £3,000 and £8,000 per pupil, per year (Benn & Downs, 2016).

In my school, we are spending £5,744 on each student this academic year. The independent school has day fees of £23,970 and boarding fees of £38,718 per year. So, what is all this extra resource spent on in the independent sector?

  • Enhanced physical resources: Such as sports facilities and curriculum centres.
  • Smaller class sizes: OECD studies show that average class sizes in UK state schools are more than double those in independent schools (Benn & Downs, 2016). Meanwhile, Green and Kynaston (2019) point out that while 1 in 16 students are educated in independent schools, those same schools employ 1 in 7 teachers.
  • Enhanced social environment: Green and Kynaston argue that despite the existence of scholarships and bursaries, 85 per cent of independent school students come from families in the top five per cent of earners in the country.
  • A greater range and quality of extra-curricular provision. The independent school near me offers more than 50 “electives and societies” including rifle-shooting, water-polo, school radio, and theatre support.
  • Enhanced SEN resources.
  • A focus on “character” and “confidence”.

This last point is not to be underestimated, as it perhaps underpins the unseen benefits bestowed upon many independent school students that sets them up for a lifetime of advantage over state school alumni.

An intangible advantage

A few years ago, I was invited to spend some time at the independent school down the road from my school. In addition to seeing up close the fantastic resources and beautiful surroundings, I witnessed an almost intangible advantage that only a high level of educational funding can secure.

At lunch, the students and affiliated staff queued calmly in small numbers for a hot buffet lunch back at their boarding houses. We sat at tables of six or so in an elegant dining hall with girls from years 9 to 13. Each table had a mixture of age groups and was allocated an adult to sit at the head. The girls made polite and formal conversation with me for 40 minutes. They led the conversation confidently and were naturally inquisitive about the “school down the road”, as you might expect.

Afterwards I reflected on how that experience, for those students, engaged in quite formal surroundings and conversation with a variety of adults every day, week after week, for five school years, would contribute to their character and confidence provided by this type of school.

On top of this, alumni networking and being the “right fit” socially mean that a privately educated man has a seven to 15 per cent pay gap over a state-educated man with the same degree (Green & Kynaston, 2019).

This notion of “fit” is explored more deeply in The class pay gap: Why it pays to be privileged, an article by Sam Freidman and Daniel Laurison (2019). They write: “In accountancy, for example, and particularly in spaces such as the City (of London), the historical residue of an overwhelmingly privileged (White, male) majority is an enduring emphasis on corporate ‘polish’ – encompassing formal dress and etiquette, interactional poise and an aura of gravitas.

“This, of course, is not assessed in any formal way, but instead discerned via an instinctive gut feeling, an intuitive sense, as one senior accountant put it, that some simply ‘feel like a partner’.”

Quantitative analysis of the advantage offered by the superior resources of the independent sector comes in the form of the 2019 Sutton Trust and Social Mobility Commission report entitled Elitist Britain. It highlights that while only seven per cent of the population are privately educated, they make up 39 per cent of the “elite”, including senior judges (65 per cent), government permanent secretaries (59 per cent), newspaper columnists, (44 per cent), and England cricketers (43 per cent).

This all suggests that there are substantial barriers to people from less advantaged backgrounds – and I would argue that the disparity in resources is a major contributing factor.

Where to find a solution?

So, what is the answer? What does my blueprint for equity suggest for this most intransient and emotive subject? The current situation with Covid-19 has only highlighted the differences in resources between our schools and communities, with many independent schools being able to provide live online lessons for all their students. Most state schools have found reaching all their students in this way near-impossible.

But, does our current situation also give us a unique, once in a lifetime opportunity to stop, step back and look at the English education system with fresh eyes? For instance, it was after the two world wars that some of the most profound changes to our education system took place, namely the 1918 and 1944 Education Acts.

Is now the time to try and persuade society that it is socially and morally unacceptable to pay for superior access, so that those with the ability to pay gain an advantage at the expense of the rest?

In Finland, during their long period of education reform, it was famously made illegal to pay for education (Sahlberg, 2015). In other countries, where private education exists, it often provides funding in line with state education, or only slightly higher (Green & Kynaston, 2019).

In England, uniquely, independent schools are almost entirely exclusive to the rich.

There are many suggestions of how to reduce the disparity. These include: adding VAT to school fees, removing charitable status for independent schools and applying full business rates (they currently pay 20 per cent of the full amount); using contextual university admissions (this is already in place); increasing the number of state places at independent schools; integrating the two systems, phasing out and the abolition of all independent schools.

My view is that the issue of inequity in resourcing cannot be examined in isolation. It is tied up inextricably with the other themes I explore in these articles and requires nothing short of an educational revolution, the like of which this country has not seen since 1944.

If you would like to learn more about these highly complex issues, I would suggest the work of Private School Policy Reform, an organisation set up by independently educated journalist Jess Staufenberg. I would also recommend reading Posh Boys by Robert Verkaik (2018) and Engines of Privilege as referenced.

History provides us with a catalogue of missed opportunities, false starts and forgotten promises in regard to creating a truly level playing field in our education system. If we are going to bring about genuine and sustained reform, then it will only be through an inclusive and rational debate.

I urge everyone who sees the injustice in our current system to get involved. There are 500,000 teachers working in 21,000 state schools. Together we have a voice – challenge your union, lobby your MP, empower others with information. Above all, do not assume that the system we have is the best and only option. Authentic change takes time, but is possible.

In my next article, I will look at educational policy, and consider how decisions made at the top level contribute to the picture of inequity. In this context, I note that more than 60 per cent of the current government’s cabinet were educated independently...

  • David Anderson is deputy principal at Uppingham Community College in Rutland. The remaining articles in this series will publish between now and July.

Further information & resources

Further reading

  • Cleverlands, Lucy Crehan, 2016.
  • Engines of Privilege, Francis Green and David Kynaston, 2019.
  • Miseducation, Diane Reay, 2017.
  • Reframing Education, Mike Murray, 2019
  • The Truth about Our Schools, Melissa Benn & Janet Downs, 2016
  • Finnish Lessons 2.0, Pasi Sahlberg, 2015.
  • Posh Boys, Robert Verkaik, 2018.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin