This week the DfE published the annual update on revenue balances and deficits for schools across England. Once again the data for 2017-18 shows a deteriorating position for many schools. It will also fuel the debate about how London schools are funded compared with those in the rest of the country. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/la-and-school-expenditure-2017-to-2018-financial-year
Overall, the figures seem to show schools diverging between those with a surplus and a growing number with a deficit. The percentage deficit as a share of revenue budgets is also increasing, especially among local authority maintained secondary schools. Data for schools that are academies or free schools is published separately and covers a different period of the year to the budgetary cycle for local authority maintained schools.
As a result of the conversion to academy status by some schools, the number of schools in the tables differs from year to year. However, the last two years have seen a slowdown in conversion to academies and there enough schools in each cohort to suggest the trends might be worth monitoring across all schools.
All maintained schools with revenue balances saw those balances, on average, hold steady at 6.3% of revenue (6.4% in 2016/17). However, those schools with deficits saw these increase from 6.3% to 7.3% on average. The number of such schools also increased, despite conversions to academies reducing the overall number of schools in the table this year.
In the primary sector, schools with positive balances slightly increased them as a percentage of income from 7.4% to 7.5% whereas primary schools with deficits saw those widen from 3.5% to 3.9% of income.
There must be more concern over the secondary sector, where those remaining maintained schools with a positive balance saw it decline to just 1.9% of income. The previous year the percentage was 3.0% across all schools. Of even more concern is the 300 or so maintained secondary schools with deficits where the figure increased from 8.4% of income to 9.8%. Will these deficits increase in future or, as pupil numbers start increasing in the secondary sector, stabilize and eventually reduce in percentage terms?
Might the end of rising pupil numbers in the primary sector lead to an erosion of the relatively more favourable financial position of this sector when compared with the secondary sector? Certainly, the cash injection from the Chancellor in his budget might help at the margins, but, if there is a snap general election in 2019, school funding might just play a part in some contests alongside the dominant issue of Brexit.
Looking at the geographical distribution of schools with large percentage balances compared to income, the North East London area that includes, Tower Hamlets, Newham and Barking & Dagenham seems to be over-represented with schools showing large percentage balances; several for a number of years. Many schools, and especially secondary schools in f40 authorities will no doubt gaze in amazement at schools where the percentage balance is more than 20% of revenue. Some might question why the percentage has stayed so high for a number of years in a few schools and whether these schools are producing the best possible outcomes for their pupils.
Personally, I believe that schools revenue is largely to be spent in the year it is received, with cash only set aside into reserves for the consequences of the depreciation of long-term assets to be added to reserves to ensure that these assets can be replaced. I don’t think such reserves require to be more than 50% of revenue, as is the case in a school that has been increasing its percentage each year for the past few years. I would be especially unhappy if that school were saving for a building project at the expense of the education of their present pupils.