Annual horror of the budget

15th April 2005 at 01:00
It is that time of year again. Up and down the land grown men and women have been tossing and turning in their beds, sleep eluding them.

They are the ones chosen to embrace a seemingly impossible challenge. They are the governors who sit on finance committees, grappling with the perennial problem of setting the budget to make the figures balance.

I am lucky, I do not do finance. But I have witnessed through my own governing body, and in discussion with both friends and colleagues, the real frustration and despondency evoked by the whole process. It is a crazy situation in which a school does not know from one year to the next what will happen to its budget.

A friend, who is also a parent governor, recently found himself in the strange position of attending back-to-back meetings in which he was expected to help appoint a new member of the teaching staff in one and, due to lack of money in the budget, start the redundancy process in the other.

At the last minute the money arrived from the local education authority.

With falling rolls, it appears the only option is to streamline staff. Too many finance committees have this discussion at this time every year, and go through purgatory. In May, the Welsh Assembly government opens its coffers, and there is a stay of execution for a further 12 months.

This precarious situation is further compounded by systems that allow the payment of services to take a whole year before appearing on the balance sheet. Who would run a business not knowing what the cash flow was?

What can be done? The Assembly government says that sufficient funding leaves Cardiff Bay and it is then a matter for the LEA to distribute it appropriately. Perhaps the county councillors who sit on governing bodies could lobby their fellow members to put the whole process under the spotlight.

The equations for determining budget income appear diverse. Pupil roll seems sensible until you look at demographic trends. There will be 62,000 fewer pupils in Wales by 2016. In London, one school I know of had its budget calculated using the square footage it covered. And what about special needs budgets?

Apparently, 2005 is the Year of Einstein, but I suspect even he could not have fathomed these equations.

Rhiannon Jenkins is a parent governor in a Monmouthshire primary school

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