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Shock felt as £8m schools cash stash revealed
THE amount of money held in school reserves instead of being spent on pens, paper and classroom essentials has risen more than 250 per cent in two years.
Concerns have been raised about whether schools are spending enough on pupils’ education after it was revealed more than £8.6m was put into reserves by Oxfordshire’s secondary schools in 2012/13.
The figure is a 257 per cent increase on the amount put aside in 2009/10 – £2.4m – and the rise has prompted warnings that revenue budgets should be spent on today’s pupils, not squirrelled away for a rainy day.
School revenue budgets are spent on equipment like pens, paper, computers and printing, teacher salaries and other everyday needs like cleaning and maintenance, but increasing amounts of leftover cash is being ploughed into reserves.
The Department for Education recommends secondary schools keep reserves equivalent to eight per cent of their total budgets, but some Oxfordshire schools have reserves worth 12 or 13 per cent of their spending power.
The figures show that seven schools in the county had reserves above eight per cent.
The four highest were all in excess of 11 per cent.
Blessed George Napier in Banbury had the highest percentage in its reserves, at 13. 1 per cent. The school did not comment when approached by the Mail.
Bartholomew School in Eynsham had 12.9 per cent, but said it had to plan its spending over a number of years. Icknield Community College in Watlington – which had 12.2 per cent in reserve – also did not comment when approached by the Mail. Oxford’s Matthew Arnold School, which had 11.7 per cent in its reserves, did not respond to a message left by the Mail.
The others with more than eight per cent were all only marginally over the target: Chipping Norton School (8.4 per cent), St Birinus School in Didcot (8.2 per cent) and Larkmead School in Abingdon (8.9 per cent).
But the practice has been defended by Bartholomew headteacher Andrew Hamilton – whose school has £653,487, equivalent to 12.9 per cent of its budget, stashed away.
He said: “In our case we have a situation where we, as an academy, have to look after our own buildings, our own contingencies and everything else.
“We have just been awarded £1.8m for a new build, so we can increase our numbers and to go with that we have to put in between £500,000 and £700,000 of funds. When people just look at raw balances, they aren’t looking at the context and the situation the school has to plan for over a number of years.
“My children are with me for seven years, and I have to plan for that, so the idea that I should spend it all in one year is ridiculous.”
County council education boss Melinda Tilley said: “I agree with Andrew Hamilton. We know about this. We ask them to come in and talk to us or write letters, but usually this money is earmarked for something, as he rightly said. We have no power to claw the money back, but the Government does. I can see them at some point looking at it and thinking ‘oh, there’s money there’. That worries me, as I know most of it is earmarked.”
But critics say pumping up reserves is a bad idea.
Lib Dem councillor and education expert Prof John Howson said: “For years this county has complained about under-funding, and I remember one former Conservative leader of this council complaining about the disparity in spending in Tower Hamlets compared to Oxfordshire “So the question we have to ask is how is it that a school in an under-funded local authority can build up the equivalent of more than 10 per cent of its budget in reserves? “The fundamental question is whether revenue funding is for today’s children, or for schools to spend on what they like?”
He said bursars often put money aside in case their school faced an employment tribunal or compensation claim.
Former headteacher and Conservative councillor Michael Waine, who has previously held the cabinet portfolio for education on the council, also raised concerns.
He said: “Year on year, these balances have gone up. “It’s colossal money and it’s sitting there earning very little interest when it could have an impact on children’s education.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We believe schools are best placed to manage their own budgets. “While it makes sense for schools to retain a small surplus each year, we expect them to have a clear plan for using that money.”
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