Increase in the number of Lancashire schools facing financial difficulty - but cutting staff will always be a last resort, says former headteacher
If any Lancashire school child needs convincing of the value of maths in everyday life, they probably need look no further than the example of their own headteacher.
For most school leaders, balancing the financial books has long been a bigger part of the job than marking the workbooks - but a growing minority are finding that the numbers do not add up.
Figures show that five percent of the county’s maintained schools are now receiving support from Lancashire County Council in the face of financial difficulty. A report presented to a recent meeting of the authority's education scrutiny committee described the increase as “significant”.
But in a rare interview, the two men responsible for helping schools to cut their cloth according to the cash available to them, say the statistics must be set in context.
Andrew Good, Head of School Financial Management at county hall, says Lancashire boasts “an efficient bunch of schools” - and reveals that none of the 30 which are in financial difficulty are beyond recovery.
However, eight schools do require specialist intervention from the local authority, while the remainder have been identified as “reserve burners” - those who are relying on stockpiled savings to get by. It is the latter group which has grown in the last twelve months.
“These schools have got their structures set up from when funding was increasing - and that’s not been happening for a while,” Andrew Good explains. “They built up some healthy reserves and now they’re using them.
“We know which ones are going to need support - and if we get in early, it stops them falling over.”
The situation in Lancashire is set against a national backdrop of government claims that school funding is at record levels in England - an additional Â£1.3bn was pledged last year for the two years up to 2020. But in July, the Institute for Fiscal Studies claimed that funding - calculated on a real-terms, per-pupil basis - has fallen by 8 percent since 2010.
And just last week, a group of Lancashire headteachers joined a march in Westminster to protest at the strain being put on their schools’ budgets.
So where does the man monitoring the purse strings in Lancashire’s schools sit on that debate? As a politically-neutral council officer, Andrew Good’s assessment is purely analytical - but he points to an increase in pupil numbers in the county of approximately 4,000 per year since 2012.
“The numbers of children have gone up and budgets have gone up, but...school funding has not kept pace with rising costs - some of the teachers’ pay rises have had to be part-funded by schools and then there is the rising price of energy.
And financial distress can quickly morph into personal distress if schools are forced to cut back on their biggest cost - staff.
Former headteacher Steve Belbin, now Lancashire County Council’s Head of School Improvement, says schools will look at their staffing levels only as a last resort.
“The hardest thing to do is to reduce staff - they’re friends as well as colleagues,” he explains. “In some of the small primary schools, you’re dealing with a very close-knit group of people, so it’s a very difficult and painful process to go through.
“You are also sometimes faced with a dilemma - an experienced member of staff leaves and every school can benefit from the youthfulness and excitement of bringing newer people into the profession. But you want to balance it with those who have experience and sometimes you do make more expensive appointments to lead improvements in certain areas,” Steve Belbin says.
If jobs are the last thing to be jettisoned by a headteacher facing a financial crisis, what might be sacrificed first? According to Andrew Good, almost anything.
“The first thing you look at are the non-staffing costs - for example, photocopiers, leases and electricity. Most of that work certainly seems already to have been done [in Lancashire]. And quite often, it’s been overdone.
“Sometimes schools have gone too hard on the non-staffing costs in order to maintain a curriculum structure that might not be sustainable,” Andrew Good suggests.
Steve Belbin adds that the unseen work of a school can also be lost when school leaders are searching for every penny.
Hours are cut at “what some might perceive as the peripheries”, he says. “For example, pastoral support staff, who work with some of our most challenging pupils or link with children’s social care to try to protect vulnerable pupils - [if they are reduced], it does have a knock-on effect.”
And while there may be no easy answers to the myriad ways in which a school’s financial problems can manifest themselves, the underlying cause of a classroom cash crisis is, according to Andrew Good, usually a simple equation to solve.
“It’s rare to get either a curriculum, or a performance or a financial problem - they tend to come together.
“When you get a bad OFSTED report, you often get financial problems associated with it. And because parents have choice, some will take their children out of the school.”
With 90 percent of a school’s funding tied to individual pupils, such a scenario can quickly lead to a spiral of decline.
Alarming as that situation may be for a school, the men tasked with coming to the rescue say headteachers can take comfort from working in a county which still has the capacity to help.
With the vast majority of schools still under the local authority umbrella - and far fewer academies than many other parts of the country - Lancashire County Council has retained the kind of supportive schools department which has long since disappeared elsewhere.
“In terms of numbers of maintained schools, we’re the largest in the country,” Andrew Good reveals.
“Lancashire’s schools are very well-connected with the authority. The phrase which slightly makes me cringe is the “Lancashire family of schools” - but that’s what it is. It works because we respect what they do and they respect what we do.”
But while the county may have a good track record at bringing schools back from the financial brink, can those schools ever really be the same places again?
Steve Belbin admits that it will not always be possible to give pupils the “exciting, diverse and vibrant” curriculum which came before a crisis. But governing bodies - whose ultimate responsibility it is to set a balanced budget - are often more knowledgeable and “better engaged with the senior management of the school” at the end of the process, he adds.
Andrew Good adds that there is often a happy ending to what can seem like a horror story when schools are first faced with a financial challenge.
“I’ve seen schools which are better after the intervention - you end up with a more robust business model and, often, a more stable and deliverable curriculum.
“That leads to a more successful school, which attracts more pupils, which brings more money to have a broader curriculum - it’s a virtuous circle.”
And one which Lancashire hopes will keep on turning.
DEPARTMENT FOR EDUCATION STATEMENT
A spokesperson said: “There is more money going into schools than ever before, rising to a record Â£43.5 billion by 2020 – 50% more in real terms per pupil than in 2000. The OECD has recently confirmed that the UK is the third highest spender on education in the world, spending more per pupil than countries including Germany, Australia and Japan.
“Every school attracts more funding per pupil through the National Funding Formula, high needs funding has risen to over Â£6 billion this year and the 3.5% pay rise we announced for classroom teachers on the main pay range is backed by Â£508 million government funding.
“We know that we are asking schools to do more, which is why we are helping them to reduce the Â£10 billion spent each year on non-staffing costs, providing government-backed deals for things like printers and energy suppliers that are helping to save millions of pounds.”
Andy Mellor has spent the last 14 years as the headteacher of St. Nicholas Church of England Primary School in Blackpool. During that time, the school has gone from an OFSTED rating of “requires improvement” to being classed as “outstanding”.
But the Preston-based school boss - who is currently spending a year as president of the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) - says the good work of his staff risks being undone by squeezed budgets.
“This is our sixth year of cuts. Initially, we were able to trim back on things like printing in colour - but now there is nothing left to trim,” he says.
“We went out of our way to recruit people who would have the maximum impact with our children - but we have now lost several valuable members of staff whom we had been careful in appointing.”
Teaching assistants on temporary contracts were amongst the first to go - and Mr. Mellor says he does not want to see that process repeated with permanent staff.
“I don’t want to have any more difficult conversations where I have to say, ‘You’ve been vital to our journey, but I can’t afford to pay you anymore.’”
In his current role at the NAHT, Mr. Mellor says he has met fellow headteachers who are doubling up as caretakers and catering managers - and he warns there will be a price to pay.
“If people are going to be taken away from the jobs they’re supposed to be doing, then teaching and learning are going to suffer.
“Many schools have put money away for a rainy day, but we’ve had six years of rain - and it’s been torrential. Unless the government owns up [about levels of funding], it looks like schools are unable to manage their budgets - but that’s not the case.”
And Mr. Mellor adds that he is unsurprised that a recent survey showed a growing number of teachers willing to consider working abroad.
“My own sister teaches abroad - and she would never come back to teach in this country,” he says.
In Lancashire County Council's area (which excludes Blackpool and Blackburn with Darwen), there are:
107 local authority-maintained secondary schools
29 secondary academies
515 local authority-maintained primary schools
12 primary academies
5 percent of maintained schools in Lancashire are receiving support from the county council to help with financial problems. Of those:
8 have a structural deficit - "Without serious intervention, they are going to struggle to recover," according to Andrew Good, Head of School Financial Management at Lancashire County Council.
22 are "reserve burners" - schools which are using their reserves to cover day-to-day spending