Exclusive: Prepare for lower-than-predicted budgets, councils warn schools

Headteachers say it would be 'morally wrong' for local authorities not to honour the government's funding formula

Jonathan Owen

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Local authorities are already warning schools that their future funding levels could fall short of government predictions, Tes can reveal.

Schools are being told not to pay too much attention to figures released by the Department for Education last month showing what they can expect their budgets to be under the national funding formula, which comes into effect in 2018-19.

This has prompted headteachers to demand that the future budgets be honoured, while teaching unions have warned that councils are being put in the “impossible position” of having to implement a formula for which they do not have sufficient funds.

Patrick Leeson, corporate director, children, young people and education, at Kent County Council has told schools that the DfE's figures are “likely to raise school expectations around the level of funding you will receive in 2018-19”.

In a circular sent to schools in Kent, he added: “It is important to note that this does not necessarily mean that each school will receive this funding."

The government has pledged that secondary schools will get a minimum of £4,800 per pupil by 2019-20, with primary schools set to get at least £3,500 per pupil by this date.

However, as Tes revealed last month, these amounts are not guaranteed, because local authorities will still have a significant amount of freedom over how to allocate funding to individual schools in their area.

Mr Leeson added that budget increases for schools have been capped at 3 per cent per year, which “means that it may take some schools a number of years before they receive the new NFF rates”.

The government has also said schools will receive a 0.5 per cent per-pupil finding increase but this, again, is subject to local authority decisions over how much to hand to individual schools.

Telford and Wrekin Council, in a briefing on the national funding formula this month, stated: “The government has made much of a commitment to a 0.5 per cent per pupil increase in funding for every school. However, this will not translate directly to school budgets.”

And a report released by Cheshire West and Chester Council last week said that schools should not “assume that they will receive the published notional budgets or formula, as these are simply the mechanism to allocate the total funding to each local authority for the next two years.”

'An impossible position'

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, said the problem lay in the fact that the government was not providing enough funding to allow every school to receive the minimum amounts.

She added: "By failing to put an adequate amount into the schools’ budget, the government has placed local authorities in an impossible position where using their flexibility to ensure all schools have enough money to function may mean some schools receive less than they were expecting.”

A local government insider agreed that councils across England are in a difficult position, saying: “We’ve got this national formula and we’ve got all schools knowing what they should be getting, but then we’ve been given the flexibility to depart from it - and actually that’s quite a poisoned chalice for the councils because they will then will get the blame, not the government, for any changes.”

But it appears likely that councils will face significant pressure from schools that are handed less money by local authorities than they are technically "owed" under the government's formula. 

Malcolm Trobe, director of public affairs at the Association of School and College Leaders, said that “school leaders will be anticipating that the funding they will receive from next year will be closely based on the illustrative figures released by the DfE and will feel justified in challenging local authorities should they not be moving rapidly towards delivering the NFF”.

The concerns are echoed by the Grammar School Head’s Association (GSHA). In its latest newsletter, it warned that “schools are not guaranteed to receive the minimum per-pupil levels” and said “huge pressure” on councils will be needed to ensure that schools receive at least the minimum per-pupil funding of £4,800 in 2019-20.

The association has told headteachers to join forces with other schools in lobbying their local authorities, MPs and school forums. Councils have been “allocated additional money” to meet minimum per-pupil funding levels and “it is inappropriate and morally wrong to use this funding for any other purpose”, according to the GSHA.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Our formula allocates an increase in respect of every school. Local authorities will continue to be responsible for determining actual funding allocations to schools in 2018-19 and 2019-20."

The spokesperson added: "As every local authority in every part of the country will receive a per-pupil cash increase in funding, the great majority of schools should be able to receive a per-pupil cash increase, too. But ultimately this is a decision for local authorities to make following local consultation with schools.”

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