Government will be urged to ‘write off’ Cambs education deficit at top level meeting with education minister organised by MP Lucy Frazer
PUBLISHED: 08:15 22 January 2020 | UPDATED: 09:14 22 January 2020
Money woes persist for Cambridgeshire’s schools despite an increase in funds from central government this year.
Despite the increase, Cambridgeshire County Council is in conflict with the representative body for the county's schools "for the first time" as its children and young people committee approved a transfer out of the main schools budget to alleviate growing financial pressures.
The council has now written to every MP in the county in an effort to lobby government for more funding.
Cambridgeshire County Council's children and young people committee voted on Tuesday (January 21) to transfer 1.8 per cent of money from its "schools block" - a government grant for primary and secondary schools - to the high needs education budget.
The committee also voted to lower the schools' per pupil minimum by £50 in order to rebalance the budget increases between the county's schools, which will be affected should the 1.8 per cent transfer between budgets go ahead.
The decisions are subject to approval by the secretary of state for education, Gavin Williamson MP. The situation is further complicated by Tuesday being the deadline for the council to submit its education funding proposals, and although the council said it sought approval for the transfer well before the meeting, the secretary of state has not yet decided whether or not to give his approval, leaving the council to submit an education budget with a number of unknowns.
The council forecasts a £16m-£17 million cumulative deficit on its high needs education budget by the end of this financial year.
Strategic finance business partner at the county council, Martin Wade, told the committee that since April, the county has seen the number of education, health and care plans (EHCPs) - which make specific arrangements and allocate funding for a child in need of special educational needs assistance - increase by 11 per cent. Since 2017 he said there had been a 35 per cent increase in the number of EHCPs, saying the council only received a 17 per cent increase in funding over the same period.
The county's schools will almost all see their budgets increase this year as the government's per year per pupil minimum of £3,750 for primary schools and £5,000 for secondary schools takes effect in 2020/21.
Cambridgeshire's "schools block," which Mr Wade described as "primarily the funding that goes to primary and secondary schools", has increased by six per cent - £20.9m - to £370.20m. About £3.8m of that increase is due to the increase in pupil numbers, but the other £17.1m is mostly due to changes in the funding formula - meaning more money per pupil. Mr Wade described it as a "considerable uplift in overall funding".
The "high needs block" - the money for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities - has also seen its funding increase, by nine per cent, up £6.17m to £75m. But Mr Wade said even with the increase, the budget still has a "significant deficit," which is anticipated to be around £9m this year, making a cumulative deficit of £16m-£17m over the past two years.
The "central services schools block," which provides a central service to support schools in the county, reduced by £1m, to £7m.
The information for early years funding has not yet been provided, so the council will only be able to use an indicative figure in its budget. That is currently forecast to rise by about 1.8 per cent.
Ahead of the transfer of money to the high needs budget, the council carried out a consultation within the education sector at the end of last year. Of the 117 respondents, 54 per cent backed the idea of a transfer of funds, with 42 per cent opposed and the rest undecided. Only 18 per cent backed the 1.8 per cent figure, and two per cent even suggested a higher transfer. A 0.5 per cent transfer was the most popular choice of those presented, with 57 per cent in favour.
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The schools forum, which represents the county's schools, opposed the £6.5m transfer, instead recommending no transfer, but it was a close decision, and came down to the casting vote of the chair.
The council's service director for education, Jonathan Lewis, said: "For the first time we are in a position where we will be in conflict with schools forum. We have always historically agreed their views, we have always set the budget according to their perspective".
Mr Lewis said the county's schools have been "historically underfunded" and although he said the council welcomed this year's funding increase, he said it "isn't enough".
Mr Lewis said he had been requesting a meeting with the Department for Education for six months before finally meeting with them last week. He said the council presented its case in a "straightforward, transparent and forceful way".
He said despite laying out the difficulties "we certainly had no answers come back".
"We are very much between the DfE and the schools here," he said. He told the schools forum last week the process has been "divisive" for that reason, putting the schools, council and government at odds over funding and the way to address the issue.
Mr Lewis was sympathetic to the schools forum's position, saying they are facing a "moral dilemma".
He said Lucy Frazer, MP for South East Cambridgeshire, has "very helpfully" managed to facilitate a meeting with the school's minister responsible for schools' funding. Mr Lewis said he intended to "go with a very clear view that he should be writing off the deficit for the high needs block because it is going to affect children in Cambridgeshire".
The chair of children and young people committee, Conservative Simon Bywater, said "the schools forum have a huge dilemma" and described the decision as "hugely difficult".
"There's more money coming into the system, but when you look at the system in place there's not enough," he said.
Mr Lewis told the committee: "The one thing we are very frustrated about is the government, with treasury, agreed a three-year settlement for education, which was a really positive step forward. They haven't, however, told us what we are getting in years two and three".
He said that if the council and schools knew what their medium-term funding looked like then Tuesday's decision could be made as part of a wider plan.
"We are not simply looking to get bailed out here," he said, adding that the county was looking to address issues and seek out and emulate best practice elsewhere.
He also warned there were likely to be cuts in the council's provision for special educational needs going forward.
Mr Lewis said overspending on high needs was a "national issue" and there are councils elsewhere with larger deficits on their high needs blocks.
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