Did you see the funding crisis coming?

29th August 2003 at 01:00
As our survey shows how schools around the country are struggling with budget shortfalls, one head who took steps to avert disaster asks why the Education Secretary was so slow to react. William Stewart reports

TIM Dingle succeeded where Education Secretary Charles Clarke failed - he saw the schools' funding crisis coming and nipped it in the bud.

The head at The Royal Grammar school, High Wycombe, realised that his budget was heading for trouble in April 2002 when the Chancellor revealed plans to raise employers' national insurance contributions.

Gordon Brown had used the same speech to whet schools' appetite for July's comprehensive spending review when he announced the "biggest sustained rise in education spending in a generation" - an extra pound;14.7 billion a year.

But as Mr Brown took the plaudits, Mr Dingle was already several months into an action plan to avert what he foresaw as a looming financial disaster.

His school began a fundraising campaign to make up a predicted budget deficit of pound;375,000 in April 2002. The school caretaker offered pound;5 a month and Mr Dingle is contributing pound;15,000 from his own salary over five years.

The campaign was able to close at Christmas with pound;1 million in the bank, seven teachers' jobs protected for the next five years and pound;250,000 left over towards a new music school.

By then the penny had still not dropped at the Department for Education and Skills. It appears that it was not until March 2003 that Mr Clarke really became aware of the problem.

The Education Secretary spent an afternoon at the Secondary Heads Association being harangued by heads furious at the budget settlements that had flopped on to their doormats. Even then he was unconvinced, perhaps because, as one of his officials later admitted, the DfES did not fully understand how local education authority budgets worked.

Since then Mr Clarke has been forced to acknowledge the depth of the crisis, pledging an extra pound;800m for schools in 20045 and 20056.

But for this year heads have been left to soldier on with considerable shortfalls, as The TESSHA survey shows.

The head of one west London comprehensive reports that the crisis has left her relying on pound;120,000 of parents' contributions, pound;120,000 of reserves and having to use her leadership incentive grant money for staffing.

John Darker, head of the Beacon school, in Banstead, Surrey, has a shortfall of pound;340,000 that has resulted in the loss of 9.2 full-time teaching posts. There are schools in the county that had even bigger deficits.

Tim Dingle was helped by the fact that his chair of governors was Tesco's chief finance officer and aware of the impact that pension and national insurance contribution rises could have on employers' budgets.

"We saw it was going to wipe us out," said Mr Dingle. "I worked out that the only way to balance the books would be to lose seven teachers. But I refuse to make redundancies because it is teachers that improve results."

Instead, the selective boys school - the setting for Channel 4's experiment in 1950s education That'll Teach 'Em - took on fundraising consultants at a cost of around pound;70,000. Glossy brochures were printed and a team of parents, old boys and staff was trained to canvass potential donors face to face.

Among the team's targets were local businesses and parents whose children had come from fee-paying prep schools. Some governors felt a state school should not have to hold out the begging bowl.

And Mr Dingle admits that he found it "terribly depressing" to have to spend so much time on finance. But it worked.

There is one point, though, that still troubles him.

"I just don't see why the Government didn't see all of this coming," he said.

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