Editorial....13th February, 2020
I’m not the best person with money, and have panic attacks at the sight of credit card bills on the doormat, but even I can see that school finances are messed up.
I’m not talking about the day-to-day, such as parents crowdfunding the schools their taxes are meant to support, or even the fact that Cheshire East schools are among the worst-funded in the country yet expected to do as well in national performance tables as financially better off establishments. (Although they do, and even out-perform better-funded schools; the Government should perhaps introduce a weighting for how much money each pupil receives, adding a fraction of a point onto children’s performance scores for every penny difference from their better funded peers. Never mind added scores for pupils, how about taking resources into account?)
No, what’s baffling is the stupid system of having the payments for pupils lagging behind pupil numbers.
If you or I, or indeed anyone sensible, was funding a school you’d say: “Right, you have 50 pupils starting this year, so we’ll increase your funding by 50 pupils, to pay for the teachers and extra geography books you need.” But does this happen? No. The funding is based on the number of kids at the school the year before, when there were fewer of them, the funding catching up with numbers some time later.
This can leave schools in a mess when the rise is large, and in our Congleton edition (and Biddulph) we cover high school Eaton Bank’s funding woes.
In a nutshell, last year’s annual report revealed that, seeing a period of rapid pupil growth from 2017, and following an earlier drop in pupil numbers — and thus lower funding — the school had borrowed money from the Government (via the Education and Skills Funding Agency).
Now — and try and follow this — this meant the money was paid in advance to cover the pupils who were actually at the school, but would have to be paid back before the pupils left.
This year’s report shows that Eaton Bank had to borrow a further £63,000 to cover costs — including salaries — last year, and faced having to repay a total of £360,000 to the agency by 31st August 2022.
To oversimplify, I’d guess the extra kids come from the new houses that the Conservative Government wanted built and the-then Conservative Cheshire East gave planning permission for. Nothing to do with the school.
So why, when having approved all these new homes — and even made the developers build a new primary school at Lower Heath — won’t the authorities increase funding to the high school that the kids in the houses will attend? The school is actually being penalised for taking on the extra children.
After running up the debt, Eaton Bank was forced to merge with a larger academy trust, at which point the Education and Skills Funding Agency waived the debt. Eh? I’m sure if the Chronicle ran up a large tax debt then merged with a larger company, the Government wouldn’t say, “Naah, you’re alright there lads, we’ll write off that tax bill.” Wouldn’t happen, would it? What’s going on? Why does one trust owe the money but another doesn’t?
Even worse is Alsager School, whose annual report is covered in our Alsager edition.
Extra housing in the town means that pupil numbers are expected to increase by 130, and the report warns that the delayed funding up to 2023-24 will leave it with a shortfall of £450,000, which it presumably has to borrow.
The situation in Alsager highlights to stupidity of the system even more: not only are the extra houses Government policy and approved by Cheshire East, the school has been given grants of £960,000 and £2.7m to pay for improvements and to expand facilities to cater for the extra kids.
So having agreed the school needs space to cope with the 130 extra pupils, and stumped up money to pay for those facilities, the Government will still not give the school the extra funding for those pupils’ education. How mad is that?
Children are going into a new classroom paid for by a system that then withholds the money needed to pay teachers to teach them, and if the school borrows it, the system will want the money back before the teachers have finished teaching the same kids.
If say, the fire authority was given £5m to build new fire stations but then told it wouldn’t be given any money to recruit more firefighters, it would seem insane, and there would be a rumpus. So why not with schools?
Alsager’s annual report doesn’t say what will happen if the school does need to borrow £½m but if it follows the pattern of Congleton’s Eaton Bank, it will forced to join a larger academy.
I say “forced” because the schools commissioner and headteachers board can apparently force a school to do that. Eaton Bank was slated for a merger with a trust in Northwich — the school denied this to us but it was minuted as approved at a headteachers board meeting — before it organised a merger with a Macclesfield trust. Where is Alsager going to go?
The schools commissioner answers only to the education minister, and presumably the fact that money is owed to the Education and Skills Funding Agency means that ministers can force schools to do as they say: stay as a standalone trust and you repay the money, merge and the debt is wiped off.
Perhaps someone can write in and explain.