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Bristol City Council asks government to help with £24m schools deficit

The council’s finance director Denise Murray said there were risks of further increases in the deficit.

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Bristol City Council is so worried about a growing multi-million black hole in its schools budget that it has written to the government asking for help.

The council expects it will have spent at least £24 million more than it has received from the Department for Education to run schools by the end of March next year. The forecast deficit includes £10 million accrued in 2020/21, and is largely due to spending more than was provided for children with special educational needs.

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The shocking state of the council’s education budget was presented to a meeting of school leaders on Tuesday (September 28), where the authority’s finance director Denise Murray was clear about her concerns.

Murray told members of the Bristol Schools Forum the financial position was “worrying” and there was a risk of “further increases” in the deficit. She said she had written to the Department for Education to tell them of the local authority’s concerns, and appeared to say the council has asked for extra funding.

“We’ve sort of set out our stall,” she said. “We’ve explained some of the rationale for why we believe we are seeing the increases [in spending].”

She said the council had “made representations” about funding, with “reference to some of the authorities that have had their legacy deficits supported”. But she warned the council’s ability to “attract additional funding” would almost certainly hinge on whether it can show it can “stabilise” its education spending.

The council is working on a plan to “turn the [spending] curve”, which the government has said it expects to see by the end of 2022/23, she said. 

But the plan relies on a programme launched by the council in March of last year to transform the way Bristol schools educate children with special educational needs. And the council is still waiting to “truly assess” whether the Education Transformation Programme, which includes work required by Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission to improve its services for children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), will eventually “stabilise” education spending, she said.

‘We need to be clearer on the milestones’

“What I think we need to be clearer on is the milestones by when we think we will start to see some of the improvements in the financial position as well as the outcomes,” she said.

The three-year, £6.1 million Education Transformation Programme made “good” progress last year, despite delays as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report to the meeting.

“Significant improvements in the quality of key education and skills data and management information products” were achieved and “eleven transformational projects” were started, according to the report.

These projects included the creation of 190 extra special school places by September 2022, with 80 added so far, and work to improve the statutory process around education, health and care plans (EHCPs) for SEND children. But Simon Holmes, headteacher at St Philip’s Marsh Nursery School and Cashmore Early Years Centre in Barton Hill, said: “There does appear to be some kind of disconnect between the lived experience on the ground for families and what’s happening in schools and what appears to be said about progress that’s being made.

“We know many families who are still really struggling to get heard with this SEND process, with their EHCPs, with the timing. We have families going to solicitors now because they can’t get what they’re needing.”

Murray agreed with Holmes that it was vital for the council to listen to families and incorporate any necessary changes into its transformation programme.

“This should be deemed to be a live document,” she said. “Whilst we’ve agreed a certain set of actions, there should be a feedback loop, and if the feedback indicates we need to change the actions in order to have an appropriate level of impact on outcome then that needs to be part of that process.”

The council received just over £403 million from the Government to run schools in 2021/22.

Early indications are that the ‘dedicated schools grant’ will be around 4% next year, but the final figures will not be available until the Autumn budget is announced on October 27.

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