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Schools facing £10m cash raid

PUBLISHED: 09:16 21 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:03 22 October 2010

SHAUN LOWTHORPE

Schools in Norfolk are facing a fresh raid on their budgets after figures revealed they have stashed away £10m more than they forecast.

Schools in Norfolk are facing a fresh raid on their budgets after figures revealed they have stashed away £10m more than they forecast.

Norfolk County Council is re-running its controversial “clawback” initiative after it emerged that money earmarked for school spending remained tucked away in balances.

But last night, school leaders accused the council of “arm-twisting” and insisted they provided detailed reasons in May about why they were keeping money in balances, so a fresh assessment was not needed.

The council's controversial move follows last year's bungled attempts by the authority to take back and share out £3.5m across the county's 450 schools amid concern that the amount being held in balances had risen from £9m to £29m.

That sparked anger from heads who complained they were being punished for their prudence. Others claimed they had been given contradictory advice by the authority when completing the original assessments.

Steve Kite, Norfolk president of the National Association of Head Teachers and headteacher at Edmund de Moundeford Primary School at Feltwell, near Brandon, said most of the money was being legitimately held and the council had failed to learn the lessons of

12 months ago.

“We do not take too kindly to being asked for the same information again,” he said.

“There's also a kind of arm-twisting going on. What they have said is that if we don't do this, it will be treated as a contingency and subject to clawback.

“There are all sorts of errors in the first clawback and the assumption is that schools are hoarding money.

“It makes you wonder whether or not they have learned their lessons. We seem to have moved no further forward and I find that frankly unacceptable.”

But education chiefs are still concerned that schools are not heeding calls to spend the money now.

Heads had promised that the total stashed away would fall to £15m this year.

However, official County Hall documents show that, despite signs that schools were heeding the 'use it or lose it' warning, the amounts in balances is still £10m higher than that, at £25m.

Rosalie Monbiot, cabinet member for children's services said the council was justified in finding out why the money was not being spent and clawing back money if necessary.

“It still seems to me that schools are saying they will hang on the money 'just in case',” she said. “I think we have good reason to investigate that figure and see if the money would be better serving children if it was returned to the county council.

“I don't think it's unfair - everybody knows the guidelines they have been well explained. Head teachers have had adequate opportunities to ask questions.”

Details of the clawback emerged during a meeting of the council's scrutiny meeting yesterday.

Labour's Sue Whitaker said she was disappointed that schools had not heeded the message not to hoard the cash.

And she was concerned with plans to reorganise schooling in the county some of the cash was at risk of being lost.

“Given that this is money given for the education of children, I'm very disturbed to see budgets at that level,” she said. “Twelve months down the line and we are no better off than we were to start with.”

Mervyn Scutter, the Lib Dems education spokesman, said it was sensible to revisit the clawback issue.

“This is likely to become a permanent issue and it's important to make sure that the money for children is really being spent.

“It does seem high and I'm comfortable with the authority looking at the levels to make sure the reasons why they are holding the money are sensible ones.”

Paul Fisher, assistant director of children's services resources and efficiency, said there was concern at the high level of balances but more research was needed to find out why schools were still hanging on to the cash.

“It's true to say it's surprising given where we have come from,” he said. “But you have to say it's the individual schools that make the decisions.

“Certainly we say to schools, and the School Forum says to schools, that the money is there for schools in that year. The message constantly given out from the service is that the level of balances needs to be lower than currently reported

Yes, it's a concern but we need to find ways of getting that message across to schools.”


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