Spotlight on funding for schools in St Helens

Only one secondary school finished the year in deficit
Only one secondary school finished the year in deficit

A school governor has warned of the “horrendous” balances some schools in St Helens are predicting over the next two years.

School balances for 2018-19 have been published by St Helens Council and show that no primary schools finished the year in deficit.

Other news: St Helens Council going through period of 'turmoil', says independent panel

St Augustine of Canterbury Catholic High School, which was placed in special measures in March 2018, was the only secondary school to finish the year in deficit.

Last month, Labour’s Dennis McDonnell claimed that “dozens” of schools were on-track for a deficit budget in 2019-20.

Andy Howard, secretary of the St Helens branch of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), also warned in June that schools were at “breaking point” due to funding woes.

The issue of school balances was briefly discussed by the schools forum last week, although the item was deferred until October for a full discussion.

Retired teacher Bill Bradbury, vice chairman of schools forum, claimed at the meeting that some of the deficit balances predicted by St Helens schools for 2019-20 and 2020-21 are “quite horrendous”.

“I hope by October somebody will have an explanation on how we’re going to address this,” Mr Bradbury said.

“I’m glad the teaching unions and especially the (NAHT) are now making some quite valid points about the state of school balances, especially in primary schools.

“I wait with interest on the October meeting.”

A recurring issue of rising school balances year-on-year was also discussed by the schools forum.

Currently, if a school’s surplus balance is greater than eight per cent of the preceding year’s budget share (secondary schools) or 12 per cent (nursery, primary, and special schools), then the authority automatically deducts from the current year’s budget share an amount increasing on a sliding scale according to the extent to which the permitted threshold has been exceeded.

A total of 12 primary schools, one high school, two special schools and a pupil referral unit exceeded the threshold in 2017-18.

Professor Sarah O’Brien, the council’s strategic director of people’s services, reserves the right to exclude any school from the clawback process under exceptional circumstances.

The clawback mechanism was branded a “pointless exercise” by one primary school head teacher.

And one primary school governor accused some schools of “running them like a business” due to balances rising year on year.

It was also requested by the forum that when the item was discussed in 2019-20, the strategic director or her deputy would attend the meeting.

However, when the schools forum met last week, Prof O’Brien sent her apologies as she was unable to attend the meeting, with the item being deferred until its October meeting.

Mr Bradbury said it was a “pity” the item had been “virtually shelved”, as a number of schools exceeded the threshold.

Stephen Webb, business support manager for people’s services, said Prof O’Brien had “formed a view” regarding school balances and will communicate that to the schools forum in October.

Frank Taylor, governor at Eccleston Lane Primary School, reiterated his previous concerns around schools operating as a business.

He sought assurances that the strategic director will meet with schools to try to understand why they have surplus balances prior to October’s meeting.

Mr Tracey said it would not be “appropriate” for him to comment on the matter in advance of the strategic director coming in to speak to the schools forum herself.

Wayne Leatherbarrow, chairman of the schools forum, said any explanation provided at the October meeting by the strategic director has to be with “substance” and not retrospective action.

The schools forum requested that Prof O’Brien present a report at its October meeting detailing her intentions around the issue of school balances.