Idle cash is not not useful cash?

Is holding some £2.4 billion pounds of public money in reserves a good use of our money? The DfE revealed that in August 2017 academies and their Trusts were holding this sum in reserves against committed and potential future needs. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/728768/Academy_revenue_reserves_2016_to_2017.pdf.

The position seems to have worsened over the most recent period, as the DfE note states that: ‘This is a decrease of 0.6 percentage points from 94.5% of trusts in 2015/16. 95.7% of academies (6,715) were in trusts that were in surplus or breaking even at the end of 2016/17’. Despite noting that figures could not be provided at an individual school level, the DfE does state that:’ Smaller trusts are more likely to have a deficit. This means that only 4.3% of academies (300) were in trusts that were in deficit at the end of 2016/17.’ Of course it is possible for some schools in a Trust to have positive balances and others to have a deficit. Following Lord Agnew’s recent letter to auditors of academies and Trusts, it is perfectly possible to transfer funds between schools in this situation, something not possible in the maintained sector.

The note doesn’t seem to consider whether benchmarks for levels of reserves are appropriate for academies and MATs? In the past 5% of turnover was considered sufficient for secondary schools and 8% for primary schools to hold as reserves. Even allowing for central costs, MATs should not be holding significant amount sin reserves.

Earlier this week, I raised concerns with Oxfordshire’s the accounting for positive balances held by maintained schools and schools with deficits. I have the same concern about the use of a table showing ‘net’ reserves in the DfE’s note. Any lay person looking at the table and associated text might think that the net position was because deficits could be offset against surpluses. As noted, that is possible at the level of the schools within an individual Trust, but not between schools in different Trust as far as I am aware. For MATs the table really needs to be split into two sections; deficits that can be covered within a MAT and MATs where all schools are in deficit or stand-alone academies where there is no current provision for covering the deficit other than by reducing expenditure within the academy to a point where the deficit is eliminated.

The STRB might be helped to be made aware of any regional trends in schools with deficits that might relate to pay decisions. The alternative is that schools and MATs with deficits are randomly spread around the country and are the result of poor leadership rather than the consequence of any policy decision.

Although the Command Paper on Legislating for the Withdrawal Agreement between the UK and the EU (Cm 9674) contains a section on rights to residence of EU citizens, the DfE could usefully publish a paper on how school budgets, including those of academies might be affected, should a percentage of EU citizens decide to return home, possibly because of their jobs transferring to another EU country, after March 2019 and Brexit.

Some five per cent of pupils in Oxfordshire’s schools have EU citizenship of a member state of than the UK. Some 14 schools, mostly in and around Oxford has more than 10% of such pupils at the last count. Any significant withdrawal might put their finance sunder some strain.

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