Councillors failed to get guarantees that savings plans would not impact on educational standards, instead being given a grim list of possible consequences, including reduction in school staffing in schools and reduced curriculums.
The Lifelong Learning Scrutiny Committee met just before Christmas in another lengthy meeting that looked at ‘saving proposals’ including cuts to the school music service (separate report here) and a £1.15m saving produced by a ‘standstill budget’ next year and a £1.4m saving created by a similar freeze a year later.
The details on the document before councillors was thin, a common theme throughout the budget scrutiny meetings as we have documented.
Lead Councillor for Education Phil Wynn introduced the report, calling the contents and proposed saving “The impact of austerity on our nation”, adding that there was a legal obligation on the Council to deliver a balanced budget and therefore multi million pounds worth of savings needed to be found.
“I am not the first Lead Member to say this, but these decisions do not sit easy on the conscience.”
Discussion on freezing of schools budget proposals, with other costs shifted on to them. Suggestion is £1.15m saving, 'will mean reduction of teaching staff & teaching assistants' – gets silent glum nods from teachers in public gallery.
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) December 21, 2017
The meeting was told the proposal is in line with Welsh Government guidance to keep a 0% increase as a protective measure (with it noted that UK Government was the source of the budget cuts), with an explanation prefaced with ‘this sounds strange’. The detail was given that as other services aside from schools are having greater than zero cuts it is in a way a protected area.
With the final settlement issued by the Welsh Government hours before it was noted that at the time of the meeting there had been no change to that advice.
Cllr Alun Jenkins kicked off the debate to say Wrexham Council was ‘stuck between a rock and a hard place’, pointing out the overall schools budget was £79m and therefore a £2.5m saving was ‘huge’.
“To put schools in this when they take inflationary costs of over 3%, it will be very very difficult given that the majority of money spent on schools is on staffing.
“The practical result of what we are doing will cause great anguish and concern to schools and governing bodies trying to balance budgets and keep curriculum going.”
Cllr Carrie Harper said: “What jumps out to me is £1.2m cannot be found by schools without cutting teachers and teaching assistants, that is the bottom line. What is the impact on staffing? What has been the consultation response from schools?”
Cllr Phil Wynn replied: “As Lead Member I have taken active role reminding all schools to respond to the consultation. Ultimately it is their view that is important to me. I have a fair understanding of the pressures, and what the potential implications will be.”
A council officer pointed out that the consultation responses from schools and teacher unions will be made public this month ahead of the Executive Board meeting next week.
A Schools Budget Forum meeting in December was referenced where Cllr Wynn and others received ‘the hairdryer treatment from heads’, presumably a negative response to such proposals. It was noted that impact per school was not possible as the impact will vary school by school.
Cllr Harper was unhappy as she pointed out that the committee was due to make recommendations that day and therefore such information would be useful to help form them.
The council officer replied to point out that the Scrutiny process was part of the overall process and therefore the information was not public yet, and the committees views would go forward to the Executive Board. Again Cllr Harper voiced her annoyance, saying that was ‘the wrong way around’.
Mr Brent Evans, a co-opted member of the committee, pointed out that the primary sector had a positive balance of £1.5m whereas secondary had just £110,000. Mr Evans added the projected figures for this year would see that reduce to £1.1m and a deficit of £900k in the secondary sector, adding this was the ‘starting point for any future budget cuts’.
He said: “Nine secondary schools are starting the next financial year, with no increasing budget, but starting at a point where they are nearly £1m in deficit , when primary is more than £1.1m in surplus. It seems to say to me have not got spread of expenditure right.”
The council officer replied that it could be that the expenditure is not right, but also could be the schools managing budgets. Context was given with figures produced showing 18% of schools in Wales are operating a negative balance, whereas in Wrexham that is just 10%, “and that “although this is a national issue Wrexham is managing the situation quite well.”
Mr Evans added that if the proposals went forward and were implemented with such a large negative starting balance the added budget pressures ‘could be absolutely catastrophic for our Secondary schools’, adding that although the primary sector is in a better starting position ‘are more able to ride this particular storm’, ‘only for one year’.
The council education officer said he was ‘hearing what was being said’, noting it was a similar picture across Wales, with 85% of costs on staffing and therefore if savings had to be made ‘that was where the impact would be’.
Cllr Dana Davies said she felt: “Everything is being pushed from the local education authority into local school budgets, like the redundancies, support costs, everything. Everything is pushed in and we are seeing the impact of that on balances.
“The overall projected school balance fund is just £168,000. To give that some meat on the bones, of April 1st 2017 that was £1.1m, in the last 12 months it has dropped £1.5m. That is the starting point. So we are looking to take £1.15m out?”
At this point the council officer interjected pointing out that the statement was ‘misleading’ as budgets were being maintained, so no money was being ‘taken out’. He added that he did recognise costs would be higher due to pay awards.
Cllr Davies pointed out that the increased costs would come out of schools budgets rather than Wrexham Council’s ‘general pot’, adding: “To cover those costs they will have to reduce on teaching and teaching assistants wont they? Regardless of how it is phrased it is a saving towards the local authority’s budget but an increased costs to schools.”
The officer replied that it would be down to individual schools on ‘how to meet that gap’, with Cllr Wynn backing up that view: “I just wish we had a white rabbit we could pull out to avoid this discussion.
“I will work to protect school budgets where I can but we are working in a world where the world is revolving and these figures were right when we went out but there is now a 2% offer that could present increased pressures.”
“I am here to listen to what you have to say and I hope you come up with some solutions to this problem which I will note and take away and discuss with other Executive Board members.”
Education Officer paints grim pic of potential outcomes 'could include reduction in support for learners & maybe need to reduce staffing, reduced curriculum choice at KS4'. Can't give guarantee budget proposals will not impact on improvement plans. Various eyebrows raised.
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) December 21, 2017
Cllr Davies said she felt she was ‘not getting straight answers’, stating: “How are you going to deliver the improvement agenda for standards if over the next two years if over the next two years there is additional costs to schools of about £2.5m considering school budgets over the last two years have reduced by £2.5m?
“I want an guarantee now that this cut will not affect the raising of standards.”
The issue of referring to a ‘cut’ was made again by the council officer, who said: “It is not a cut. We are maintaining budgets at the same level, as we have been asked to do.”
The council’s education officer said: “There will be consequences. They could include, there could be a reduction in support for learners, because there may need to be a reduction in staffing.
“There maybe a reduced curriculum choice at Key Stage 4 due to a school not having the budget to offer as many subjects as they currently have.
“There maybe less funding available to support vulnerable groups of learners, or to provide targeted intervention services, depending on the school.
“It could be there are significantly more schools in an unlicensed deficit position. Those are all possible consequences and there maybe others depending on the school.
“You are asking for a guarantee it will not impact on standards, I cannot give you that guarantee. It would be wrong of me so to do, and would depend on each individual school on a case by case basis.”
Cllr Davies said there was ‘no way’ to support any proposals, “We are here to improve, we can’t support anything that will do the opposite.”
Cllr Harper thanked the officer for the ‘frank, refreshing response’, adding she hoped next year that the budget process will have lots more detail open to councillors.
A question was posed by Mr Evans over what else had been considered prior to this course of action, with the education officer saying: “It hurts me to say we are really at the stage as a department that we have nothing else we can put out there. That is why we are putting these proposals here.
“I would be extremely concerned to have to find this range of cuts from anywhere else in the education department due to the impact it would have on children across the borough.”
The meeting was told that school budgets will be set early this new year, however it was pointed out that such work would be after the budget decisions have effectively been made at the Executive Board meeting with several councillors again pointing out the process appeared the wrong way around.
2hrs 45mins later – Cmte decide recommendation to strongly tell the Executive Board they do not support proposed cutting of Music service, and additional costs to school budgets.
— Wrexham.com (@wrexham) December 21, 2017
A final decision on whether the cuts to school music funding and various other budget proposals will go ahead, will be made by the Executive Board possibly next week.
All 52 councillors will have the opportunity to have a vote on the final budget at February’s Full Council – so if there is something you feel passionate about that is at risk of being cut or seeing a reduction in money, make sure you get in touch with your elected representative.
Top pic: Lead Councillor for Education – Phil Wynn.