Last December, right when many commentators were focusing their attention on the just published primary performance data, the DfE chose the same day to also publish its annual update on maintained school finances for 2016-17. Why was that?
Comparisons from year to year are slightly handicapped by the conversion of schools to academy status and their removal from the relevant tables. Nevertheless, at the national level, some pointers do become clear, especially as the funding between academies and maintained schools is now roughly the same for most of their government funded income. (They do, of course, have different accounting years, which can affect issues such as salary spend and the payment of increments).
If you examine the average percentage of revenue income held as balances by maintained schools, you’ll see that this has now started to reduce after a long period when it was on rise for both primaries and secondaries. In primary schools, the total revenue balance as a percentage of total revenue income peaked at 8.4% in 2015/16, having risen from 5.9% in 2009/10. In 2016/17 it dropped back to 7.4%.
This is the first year that the primary sector has recorded a decline in balances as a percentage of revenue income. In secondary schools, the decline began in 2014-15 (with a dip to 5% from a high of 6.4% the year before), followed by declining revenue balances in each of the years since.
For schools with a deficit, the aggregate position is similarly deteriorating, at least where secondary schools are concerned – 4% back in 2009/10, and now more than double at 8.4% in 2016/17, though this may be partly due to those secondary schools that haven’t yet converted to academies being more likely to be in deficit.
Of the maintained secondary schools included within the 2016/17 data, 26% had a deficit budget compared with just 7% of primary schools. This may also reflect the fact that rolls have been steadily rising across the primary sector, but were falling across the secondary sector until this year.
Between 2015 and 2017, the average spend on teaching staff has increased in the primary sector by £68 per pupil, and in the secondary sector by £58 per pupil. During the same period, the primary sector reduced its running costs by £30 per pupil, and secondary sector by £25 per pupil.
That said, schools overall did succeed in increasing their non-government revenue income, by £25 per pupil in the primary sector and £13 in the secondary sector over. Some of this might simply be income to cover the costs of trips, meals and other expenses, but it does also include parental contributions and donations.
Overall, the figures show that the squeeze on income now really is beginning to affect schools, especially in the secondary sector, backing up the complaints made by many headteachers about their funding levels. With general inflation now over 3% – at a time when schools need to offer recruitment and retention payments to counteract below inflation pay increases – the next few years are going to be challenging times for maintained schools, and almost certainly for academies as well.
Schools can no longer rely on dipping into their savings for a rainy day. That day has now arrived, and the cash is being used up.
Professor John Howson is the chair of TeachVac, the free national vacancy service, and co-founder of Oxford Teacher Services