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West Berkshire schools facing budget deficit crisis

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Officers report overspend of nearly £3 million and new cuts to come

Schools across West Berkshire are facing a budget deficit crisis after council officers revealed an overspend of nearly £3m, and outlined a range of cuts to services in an effort to balance the books.

While West Berkshire Council struggles to find its own savings to the tune of £10.8m, the latest forecast for schools funding – paid for independently of council funding – predicts a deficit of £2,919,009 for 2016/17, based on the forthcoming allocation of the dedicated schools grant provided by central government for the three strands of schools funding for the area – schools, early years and higher needs.

This follows revelations last week that the local authority was ranked in the bottom 10 for the proportion of its primary school pupils attending good or better schools.

Speaking at a Schools Forum meeting held at Shaw House on Monday, schools finance manager Claire White said that the funding shortfall was bec-ause of an overspend on the higher needs block, caused by increased pupil numbers.

The head of education, Ian Pearson, said: “By talking to colleagues in neighbouring authorities it appears that every other authority is overspending on its higher needs block so maybe there’s something more national going wrong with the system. This is not an issue that’s unique to West Berkshire and, in part, is compounded by the way that funding flow works.”

There were also warnings that the number of schools in the area facing their own budget crises was growing.

Ms White said: “The picture we are seeing is that more and more schools are struggling to set a balanced budget and that’s a pattern I think we will see more and more in the coming years.”

Officers have outlined a range of services that could be either reduced or removed to curb the looming deficit.

In the higher needs block, which comprises around two thirds of the shortfall, officers have identified potential savings including home tuition for children and a programme aimed at better integrating autistic children in schools.

Two language and literacy centres at Theale and Winch-ombe schools are under threat as are a range of programmes designed to support children with special needs at mainstream schools and for children with sensory impairment.

Equipment for pupils with special needs, which saw £20,000 slashed from its budget last year, and therapy services for children are also highlighted.

West Berkshire Council spokesperson Martin Duns-combe said: “The Government is unwilling to fund additional places, so while we have more children who need support, our funding to provide doesn’t grow with it.

“In addition, the early years funding we receive is not keeping up with the actual cost of providing that support and this is increasing the pressure on local budgets.”

He added: “There is no doubt that the council faces significant challenges in setting our budget for next year.”

Education chiefs will decide at a Schools Forum meeting in January what measures they will take in order to reduce the deficit.

Ian Pearson warned ahead of the meeting: “It’s going to be a difficult round of decision- making because these are areas that are used by some of the most vulnerable and needy.

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