Nine Barnsley primary schools facing budgets too small to cover their costs in future could form an academy-style federation as a radical option to balance the books without dropping educational standards.
It has emerged that primaries in the ‘Penistone pyramid’, those which feed the town’s grammar school, are all facing severe financial pressures which will come to a head within the next few years unless their budgets improve.
Some are closer to the crisis point than others, but all face similar prospects and have already taken steps to safeguard the quality of teaching but have been forced to take action such as asking parents to pay for activities provided by the school’s parent teacher association in the past.
The scale of the combined problem was revealed when Penistone West ward Coun Dave Griffin asked schools in the pyramid to complete an anonymous survey about their findings, with seven from the nine providing stark information.
“All the respondents were worried or very worried they won’t have the finances in three years time to provide a good education for their pupils,” he said, with 70 per cent now asking parents to pay for activities which would have been free three years ago.
One school in the area is already operating at a deficit budget, with four expected to plunge into the red next year and another in the following year and if the situation continued unchanged, head teachers may be forced to look at savings including reducing teaching support staff, classroom resources, holding back on buying new computer equipment and reducing staff training.
However two meetings have now taken place, involving all the schools, council education staff and councillors, along with a secondary meeting involving councillors and Barnsley Council’s Cabinet spokesman for education, Coun Tim Cheetham.
The outcome of both those meetings is that the nine schools will now look for fresh ways to save money, possibly through sharing services and expertise, but also possibly through forming a more formal federation, which could operate in a similar way to academy trusts, where expertise from one centre can be used elsewhere to help raise and maintain standards across the whole group.
Coun Griffin said: “There are differences between different schools, some have Victorian buildings causing problems, others are small rural schools, some have underfunded special educational needs pupils eating into their budget.
“All these factors cause a myriad mixture of issues and the outcome of that meeting was that they should meet up in September and come up with a ‘place plan’, an argument about all of the schools in this place, which will be in deficit.
“They will identify how much deficit they have got, the local authority wanted something to give them evidence of the deficit.
“The more challenging thing suggested was how they could work together, sharing ideas. Maybe look at the back office, anything they could do behind teaching which could be shared or purchased together,” he said.
That meeting involved councillors from the Penistone West ward and the second had councillors from the Penistone East ward along with Coun Griffin present, with the outcome raising the prospect of whether the schools could evolve into a federation.
Primary school funding is set by a schools forum in Barnsley, using a grant from the Government but although that has been increasing, in real terms schools have been forced to make cuts because their costs have gone up faster than their incomes.
The funding formula is complicated by factors such as the need to include issues such as social deprivation and poor pupil performance into the way cash is allocated, something all Penistone area head teachers recognised were more significant problems in other parts of the borough, said Coun Griffin.
He added: “There are some very difficult decisions to make. The local authority certainly doesn’t want to close any of its rural schools.
“You might see a situation where they shared teaching assistants. There are a range of possibilities which require agreed will (among the schools) to try some of them out.
“In our part o the borough we have some outstanding schools, which means outstanding teachers.
“In an academy trust, you would be using some of those to help in schools were children were not making good progress.
“I am not an educationalist, so I don’t know how workable it could be,” he said.
He will also be briefing Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith on the situation, in the hope that she can raise the issue of school funding on a national platform.