The thrifty are pressured to spend

17th February 1995 at 00:00
Local authorities in which schools have large reserves are taking a hard line on frugal management, but they are unable to force governors and heads to part with their cash.

Although guidelines relating to local management of schools recommend 3 per cent of total budgets as a benchmark for saving, some schools had surpluses amounting to a third of their annual budgets.

The problem lies in the fact that while officials can coax and persuade schools to spend, legally they cannot compel them to do so.

In Cheshire 47 per cent of secondary schools - 31 out of 66 - and 41 per cent of primaries - 181 of 438 - are holding on to surpluses which are above the national averages of Pounds 73,000 and Pounds 22,000 respectively. The total reserves held by schools in the county amount to Pounds 16 million and of these, the two highest individual reserves are Pounds 461,000 and Pounds 317,000.

In addition, 10 secondary and 11 primary schools were in deficit, although in most cases this amounted to less than Pounds 1,000.

Ian Aston, Cheshire's education officer with responsibility for planning, said: "The policy is that schools should have a conscious policy about what their level of balance should be and why they are holding it.

"This is more important than any specific figures. In the cases of our two biggest savers, both are putting by money for capital projects.

"We make it clear however, that schools should not hold money back at the expense of the cohort of pupils for which is was meant."

Meanwhile in Essex, five secondary schools had surpluses of more than Pounds 200,000, with one holding Pounds 384,000. Four primaries had reserves in excess of Pounds 100,000. The county's total reserves in schools come to Pounds 23.6 million.

Ian Traynier, education officer for financial services, said some schools had been unable to identify schemes for which the money was being saved.

"We tried to get them to commit themselves to some sort of expenditure relating to educational improvements because this is public money sitting doing nothing. But with LMS we have also encouraged schools to be cautious from the financial point of view."

Education chiefs in Birmingham - which has a total underspend of almost Pounds 17 million - have taken a hard line with schools holding excessive surpluses to the extent of pin-pointing areas where there are shortcomings and asking governors to spend money on improvements.

Five secondary schools hold reserves at or above Pounds 200,000, with one having savings of Pounds 400,000, and five primaries have more than Pounds 100,000 in the bank.

A spokeswoman for the education authority said primaries were among the worst culprits with some holding between 21 per cent and 33 per cent of their annual budgets in savings.

She added: "Our officers have gone into some of these schools to tackle heads and governors about how they are going to spend the money. In some cases, where we know the school has problems in, for example, maths, we have suggested they employ a teacher specifically to tackle this difficulty.

"We have also found that because the schools with the biggest savings tend to be in the inner city, they have been receiving money from other sources such as Section 11 or GEST and not been spending it on areas for which it was targeted. Unfortunately there is no law to force them to do so."

Officials in Hertfordshire, meanwhile, claim large numbers of schools in the county were built in the 1950s and 1960s and are now in urgent need of repair which explains large reserves in some schools.

Figures showed 48 of the 62 secondary schools had savings above the national average, and the same was true of 221 of its 418 primaries.

A representative from the education department said: "LMS in Hertfordshire started a year later than elsewhere, and this is reflected in the balances. We also have the problem with school buildings which is an enormous capital issue facing the local authority. Schools are saving up for themselves to meet some of these projects."

In Warwickshire, however, where the council is facing a Pounds 10 million cut in its education budget and the loss of 200 teaching posts, one-third of schools have virtually no reserves, while a further third have reserves of less than 4 per cent. In up to 100 schools, there is the prospect of class sizes exceeding 40, according to the council.

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