THE number of West Berkshire schools running on a deficit budget has trebled in the last year, new council figures reveal.
Fifteen schools spent beyond their means in the 2016/17 financial year compared to five in 2015/16, prompting calls for West Berkshire Council to take tougher action against headteachers who fail to manage their budgets.
The district council now says it is looking to introduce tighter in-year budget controls to rein in the spending of ‘repeat offenders’.
Speaking at a meeting of the West Berkshire schools forum, the council’s schools finance manager Claire White said that the figures were ‘disappointing’.
Seven schools in the district had predicted an end of year deficit, however the final figure proved to be more than double that.
Ms White added: “That’s a huge increase when you look at the unplanned deficits.
“That’s of quite a bit of concern. It possibly means there needs to be more in-year scrutiny carried out on those schools.”
Headteacher at Thatcham’s Kennet School, Paul Dick, told the meeting that West Berkshire Council should look to take control over spending on behalf of headteachers at the most high-risk schools.
“This really, really concerns me,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of that money leaking out and the authority is not taking the robust action that it should.”
He added: “The authority can remove financial delegation, I’m not saying you do that overnight, but I think that should be clearly on the table with some guidelines.
“It’s not fair on other schools and children who are losing out through these subsidies when it doesn’t have to be that way."
The long-serving head, who is due to retire later this year, concluded: “You need to help them do it better or do it for them.
“It’s public money and there’s not enough of it.”
A council report also revealed the overall closing balance of schools across the district was in the black, however, end of year balances had reduced by 23 per cent compared to 2015/16, from £5.2m to £4m.
Speaking about the drop in overall end balance, Ms White said: “That’s what would be expected although I would’ve expected an even larger reduction.
“There are so many schools struggling to make ends meet with reduced costs, so it is quite amazing there is still over £4m in school balances still sat there.”
Headteacher at Little Heath School in Tilehurst David Ramsden also raised concerns over schools ending the year with a large surplus, after the council opted to stop a clawback process of excessive surplus balances.
He said: “I take Mr Dick’s point about saving up for difficult times, but that still worries me.
“I worry just as much about that and making sure we are as rigorous.”
Following the meeting West Berkshire Council portfolio holder for education Lynne Doherty pointed out that the deficits ranged from one thousand pounds to one hundred and nine thousand pounds, with eight schools in single figure deficits.
She added: "This is of concern as schools need to spend within their means and governors are responsible for setting balanced budgets and recovering deficits.
"In 2017/18 eleven schools have set a deficit budget, a significant reduction from the twenty two who had originally planned to.
"This improved picture is the result of much hard work by schools and some significant input from the Schools’ Accountancy team.
"Going forward we are planning to enhance the work the council is able to undertake in relation to scrutiny and support.
"While schools are undoubtedly under a range of financial pressures, by working together and planning ahead we aim to balance budgets over time. We also await the final detail of the government’s national school funding formula to assess the local impact.
"There is currently no evidence to suggest that learning has been affected. The council can and will continue support and scrutinise, but it is ultimately the responsibility of each school to take the appropriate actions to balance their books."