Schools must plug broadband funds gap

11th September 2009 at 01:00
Under grant changes, local authorities can use up cash previously spent on internet-connection expenses

Headteachers are facing serious funding gaps that could lead to redundancies in some areas, after it emerged that schools will be expected to pay for their own broadband costs.

Local authorities are blaming the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) after it changed the way it provided additional school funding outside the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG).

The new Harnessing Technology Grant was introduced in April 2008. Previously, local authorities were required to match the grant supplied by the DCSF to pay for basic requirements such as broadband line rental and associated costs.

The old DCSF grant was effectively a capital grant that the local authority was expected to match with revenue to pay for broadband connectivity and line rental. The new grant, however, no longer requires local authorities to match the DCSF cash. Councils can, therefore, spend cash that would previously have been put towards broadband.

These errors have left a number of schools with a funding black hole, which they will be expected to fill if they are to deliver even basic ICT.

Devon County Council is staring at a pound;2.5 million shortfall. It asked for special dispensation from the department over the forced changes, claiming its school funding is set out over three years. The DCSF accepted the plea and paid the council's broadband costs, but no such leniency is expected this year.

Devon's schools and skills committee described the Government's "late and unexpected" decision to change the funding as "unfair", but has told schools that they will have to pay their own way.

John Barnard, director of finance at Devon's Children and Young People's Services, said there was a lack of clarity from the DCSF, and that any change should only come after a 12-month period rather than the two given by the DCSF.

Mr Barnard said: "Schools are now facing costs of pound;4,000 to pound;8,000, which will put many into budget deficits. We had already set our budgets from the DSG, so we didn't tell schools to set any money aside to cover these costs.

"The timing is particularly bad, and some schools will have to make redundancies, especially when 201011 hits, when deficits will be even greater."

Ann Palmer, headteacher of Morchard Bishop Primary School, said the costs will are particularly tough on smaller, rural schools.

"The cost to the school doesn't bear any relation to the number of pupils, the size of the school or the number of staff," she said. "Small schools are being charged as much as, or more than, secondary schools in an urban setting. That's the issue for schools like us."

Ms Palmer said that, although the school's costs were going to be "pretty high", she was fortunate not to be in a "budgetary deficiency situation".

"We will be able to pay our bill when it comes, although we would obviously rather not," she said.

Wendy Harris, head at Cheriton Fitzpaine Primary, added: "Although there has been funding in the past to support us with this, that has now changed. It's going to make life a bit more difficult because we don't have spare cash sitting around for a big bill like this.

"It's not a luxury to have a broadband connection. That's how we run our schools these days."

The DCSF denied that it hadwithdrawn any funding for broadband. A spokesperson said: "We expected local authorities to match our funding in the past and in doing so cover the cost of line rental and other ongoing costs of broadband. We no longer insist that local authorities match funding as a condition of receiving these grants."

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