Councillors discuss school provision in County Durham
A review of school provision across County Durham is needed to ensure there is a good mix of high-performing and financially sustainable schools across the area, according to a report to be discussed next week.
Members of our Cabinet will hear that school budgets have come under increased pressure in recent years due to a combination of factors, including government funding levels, changes to funding regulations and, in some cases, reductions in admission numbers.
This has led to some schools operating with a deficit budget - with expenditure exceeding income - in order to avoid a detrimental effect on educational standards for pupils.
The report emphasises the need to consider a range of options, such as shared management structures, the creation of federations and conversion to academies, when undertaking any reorganisation of schools as a result of the review.
It also recommends that the review initially focus on the Wolsingham, Wingate and Horden areas - where schools are experiencing the most significant financial challenges.
Emphasis on educational standards
Cllr Olwyn Gunn, our Cabinet member for children and young people's services, said: "Historically, we have allowed some schools to set deficit budgets because it was in the best interests of the school and local community.
"This has been on the strict understanding that schools make every effort to minimise expenditure and work towards eliminating their deficit. However, this position is not sustainable and further action is needed if we are to help schools address their respective financial positions.
"There are now a range of options that can be considered which were not available to us in the past, such as creating federated schools, where the governing body is shared, amalgamations, multi-academy trusts and through-schools, which provide primary and secondary education.
"Whatever options we may look at as a result of the proposed review, the emphasis must be on ensuring enhanced educational provision for children and young people and it is also essential that pupils, parents, schools and other stakeholders are involved from the early stages of any review."
If agreed, the review would initially focus on two areas of the county where there are schools facing significant financial challenges - Wolsingham and Wingate.
A review of all 0 to 19 provision will take place in Wolsingham, where the secondary school and sixth form college has a deficit budget. Although pupil numbers are expected to increase over the next five years, this is unlikely to generate sufficient income to enable a balanced budget to be set. The review will look at all of the options to move education in Weardale to a position of financial sustainability.
Kate Morris, acting headteacher at Wolsingham School, said: "We are very proud of the excellent educational provision and superb results Wolsingham School and Sixth Form provides for its students.
"In recent years, national changes to the funding of schools have created an increasingly challenging financial situation, which has particularly affected rural schools such as Wolsingham School.
"We welcome the opportunity to work with the council in considering options across the 0 - 19 age range to ensure the financial sustainability of high-quality education for families in Weardale now and in the future. We are delighted that our initial first choice numbers for September 2018 are considerably up again on previous years, which will significantly strengthen the school's financial position moving forward."
Pupil numbers at Wellfield School, Wingate, had been falling. However, 2013/14 saw an increase and they have been rising ever since. This upturn is predicted to continue, with an expectation that by 2019/20, the school should be able to set a balanced budget.
The report states that a review of provision is necessary as the school's ability to pay down the accumulated deficit is uncertain and is dependent on the school maintaining an increase in pupil numbers.
Linda Rodham, headteacher at Wellfield School, said: "We welcome the opportunity to take part in the review.
"In 2012, Wellfield's budget deficit was destined to rise substantially as a failing school with a previously declining roll. Well supported by a strong staff and governing body, I have been able to transform standards within the school. Consequently, pupil numbers have increased since 2012 and our initial first choice applications for 2018, show that we will be oversubscribed for 2018. This adds further strength to our financial deficit recovery plan ensuring that a balanced in-year budget will be achieved by 2019 at the latest.
"Wellfield is an excellent educational provider, recognised as Good by Ofsted (2014/15). In 2017, we were delighted for our community that the school was identified in the DFE performance tables as the highest progress 8 achieving school in County Durham."
If Cabinet agrees to the review going ahead, a strategic analysis of provision in the Wingate and Wolsingham areas would begin this month, with the wider review of provision across the county beginning in early 2018.
Where appropriate, wider consultation with local communities and other stakeholders would also take place.
In addition, Horden has also been identified as a priority area for review as pupil numbers across the village's nursery, infant, junior and primary schools are falling significantly. The schools have undertaken staffing reductions in order to balance their budgets but are now facing financial difficulties. Discussions have already started regarding the future of schools in the village but the review will be incorporated into the wider process.
Cabinet meets at County Hall on Wednesday, 15 November.