Anger over plans to raid school coffers

Government plans to raid school budgets and hand back unspent cash to head teachers in the red sparked a Commons clash yesterday as ministers were urged to go back to the drawing board.

Government plans to raid school budgets and hand back unspent cash to head teachers in the red sparked a Commons clash yesterday as ministers were urged to go back to the drawing board.

Schools Secretary Ed Balls is proposing a 5pc levy on cash squirreled away in balances - which could then be handed out to cash-strapped schools.

But the Robin Hood-style move has been condemned as a tax on prudence and sparked anger among education chiefs and opposition MPs. There were also warnings that teacher numbers could be cut to ward off any shortfalls.

In Norfolk, education chief had already initiated a controversial clawback initiative after balances rose to nearly £30m two years ago.

The 2007 balances have fallen to around £18m, which could see £796,000 handed over.

North Norfolk MP Norman Lamb, who has written to Mr Balls urging him to shelve the plans, said 90pc of all schools would be hit and moves to take money away from schools based on their cash balances in March this year - even if these have now been spent, could force some schools into staffing cuts to cover money lost.

Most Read

“This is a tax on prudent schools - it's completely ridiculous,” he said. “Some schools that have saved for years for new facilities may now have to do their own fundraising to make up for money taken back by the Government.”

Chris Harrison, national council member of the National Association of Headteachers, for Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, said: “Headteachers will be hopping mad if they see schools in deficit gaining under this redistribution mechanism. That surely cannot be the government's intention. We recognise that that in some areas there has been a need to address the issue, but the message we are getting back is that this is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.”

Education officials in Norfolk also believe the government's scheme goes further than what was being proposed locally and was “not as expected”.

Paul Fisher, children's services' assistant director for resources and efficiency, said: “The money schools are given each year is meant to be spent on the pupils in school that year. Because we were concerned about the amount of money schools in Norfolk were holding back, we started a process two years ago to ensure that they were only holding balances for things that were 'reasonable'. “We were not anticipating the 5pc levy would be taken retrospectively from the balances at March 31,” he added. “As part of the consultation we have raised our concerns with the DCSF about any retrospective collection.”

In Suffolk the county council set a annual balances limit of £20,000 on school balances plus 5pc of the school's budget except where money is being held back as part of an approved building programme for which a school contribution has been agreed.

The scheme was introduced two years ago and the two years have so far seen clawbacks of £95,000 and £60,000.

Yesterday the issue sparked a row between Tory leader David Cameron and Gordon Brown during Prime Minister's questions.

Mr Cameron said the plans ran counter to proposals to give schools more freedom and would destroy the trust between headteachers and government.

“It would fly in the face of such autonomy to punish schools which budget carefully,” he said. “Why do you think you know best how to spend this money, rather than the head teachers?”

But Gordon Brown said: “There are £1.7 billion of surpluses in our schools at the moment. Many schools plan to use these surpluses and will be enabled to do that.

“We are determined that money goes to the pupils and the parents to improve their education.”

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter