Schools facing financial crisis

By Jonathan BarnesMONEY worries are overshadowing the return to school for thousands of pupils with headteachers facing up to an unprecedented funding crisis.

By Jonathan Barnes

MONEY worries are overshadowing the return to school for thousands of pupils with headteachers facing up to an unprecedented funding crisis.

Many schools across Essex and Suffolk have been forced to axe jobs and cut specialist services in a desperate attempt to balance the books.

Some have encountered enormous budget deficits and have had to raid their reserves to avoid a major crisis, blaming the Government for an inadequate settlement for 2003/04.

Chris Harrison, regional spokesman for the National Association of Headteachers, admitted: “Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

He added many schools would be required to carry out “thorough” half-year audits to see whether they could afford to continue spending at the levels they budgeted for.

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Mr Harrison, headteacher of Oulton Broad Primary School, said: “The first opportunity to save money is to reduce the available staff to an absolute minimum.”

The biggest primary school in Suffolk, Sidegate Primary School in Ipswich, managed to avert money troubles by raising between £40,000 and £50,000 from taking over its school dinner service.

Its headteacher, David Crowe, said: “We are able to do that as we are a very big school - it would not be financially worthwhile for others.

“If it hadn't been for that, we would have to have looked carefully at classroom assistant support and extra teaching levels in the junior school.”

Tony Lewis, Suffolk County Council executive committee member with responsibility for schools, said the funding situation was the tightest he had known.

“We knew we had a very difficult settlement overall and the worst thing was that it wasn't expected,” he added.

“What made it difficult was the drop in funding was so big. Along with a lot of other local education authorities, we made these points quite firmly to Education Secretary Charles Clarke and he issued statements saying 'It won't happen again'.

“We will believe it when we see it, but at the moment I am quietly positive about the feedback we are getting from the Government.”

A spokesman for Essex County Council said its primary, secondary and special schools were short of about 200 teachers for the coming term.

But he added fears of a four-day-week or delayed opening for schools had proved unfounded, despite cash and staff shortages.

“It is held together very thinly. It will be the same as last year, but schools have had to make short term fixes,” said the spokesman.

A spokeswoman for North East Essex branch of the National Union of Teachers said: “There have been cuts, which are a result of the Government not getting its sums right.

“What is irking teachers is that while they have been told schools can go into their contingency funds, they are reluctant to because although they have been told there is more money next year there is no guarantee.”

A spokesman for the Department of Education and Skills said: “In July, we announced a package of measures which will lead to a more secure funding system for the next two years in which schools can have confidence.

“Headteachers in Suffolk and Essex can be assured that, working with the local education authorities, we are working to restore stability and predictability to their school budgets.

“Since 1997, our schools have improved beyond all recognition. We must now ensure that the funding system allows headteachers to know exactly how much there are getting and when, so that it supports our common goal of further raising standards in the classroom.”