Challenging the Challenge Fund

As the Opposition Spokesperson for Education at the County Council, it is my privilege to speak up for Suffolk young people, teaching and non- teaching staff, parents and carers. And, having had a previous career as a teacher and Head of Year at a High school, I like to think I know how to raise attainment and outcomes through targeted educational strategies.

During my time in this position on the Council I have seen a county authority that was once among the highest rated in the UK, be recognised as one of the lowest ranked for Education in the country.  I’m very pleased and not a little relieved that things have picked up slightly in the last year – and I extend my gratitude and congratulations to the school staff, pupils, parents and carers that have made it happen. Let’s hope this trend continues!  However Suffolk is still ranked in the bottom 40 in England for the funding of its pupils, at just £4,354.00 per year.

The Challenge Fund was launched last year as a means to provide additional local authority funds for individual projects within schools. The process involves a small group of schools, with a main school taking the lead, applying to the County Council and receiving Challenge Fund sponsorship to cover the cost of their project. The fund itself is attached to Raising the Bar, the County Council’s initiative to improve schools in Suffolk, and is seen as part of the overall strategy to improve attainment.

Since its launch almost a year ago, the Challenge Fund has injected a headline sum of around £400,000 in to Suffolk’s Schools.  I, and the Labour Group, welcome this.

However, as with most things with the County Council’s ruling Conservative administration, if you dig a little deeper than the headline, you see the real picture.

Since May 2015, 15 projects have been awarded Challenge Fund sponsorship by Suffolk County Council. These 15 projects involve 103 different schools (High and Primary) across the County.

All well and good so far, but let’s keep digging.

Of that reported £400,000, how much have schools rated “RED”, under the County Councils own snapshot RAG (Red, Amber, Green) rating system, received?

The reason this question is so important is that in Ipswich half of the High schools are `Red` RAG rated and in Lowestoft all the High schools are `Red’ RAG rated, so targeting support is urgently needed.

At last month’s session of Full Council, I asked the Portfolio Holder for Education, Skills & Young People, Cllr Gordon Jones, this very question. He could not answer, instead asking that he provide this information in writing after Full Council – I presently eagerly await his response.

However, I have been conducting my own research and can tentatively estimate that of that reported £400,000, between £50-65,000 has gone to schools with a RED rating – or around 12% of the total fund. Based on these estimates, the Challenge Fund – though a good idea, in principal – is not getting to the places it is needed most.  This system is a microcosm of the Suffolk approach to educational improvement in the county; there is still a lack of strategic oversight to identify those areas and schools that need support and ensuring that those schools are targeted effectively with measured outcomes for educational improvement.

Until we get the exact information, it is not possible to work out precisely what is going wrong and how to fix it. Nonetheless, I think it reasonable to assume that school’s that are already struggling lack the staffing or expertise to initiate cross-school projects and apply to the County Council for the Challenge Fund.

The simple answer is that the County Council needs to be more open and proactive in its use of the Challenge Fund – actively encouraging and supporting ` RED` RAG rated schools to organise projects and tap in to the funding that is available.  Over time the outcome of this precise targeting can be measured and then the effectiveness of the Challenge Fund programme itself can be measured.

Until then, I and the rest of the Labour Group, shall continue to highlight the issues that the administration try to sweep under the carpet and fight for our county’s young people and their future prospects.

Cllr Sonia Barker

Labour Group Spokesperson for Education

Suffolk County Councillor for Pakefield


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