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School heads conference to plan future

PUBLISHED: 08:39 10 March 2010 | UPDATED: 16:59 30 June 2010

Hundreds of Norfolk headteachers and governors have been urged to attend an “essential” summit meeting to help them cope with a looming cash crisis in schools.

Hundreds of Norfolk headteachers and governors have been urged to attend an “essential” summit meeting to help them cope with a looming cash crisis in schools.

The conference at Norwich City Football Club will give advice to school leaders on how to “navigate the choppy waters ahead”.

It comes as the financial pressure looks set to increase, with Norfolk County Council planning to reduce the amount of money high schools can salt away in their balances.

Tomorrow, councillors will debate a proposal to reduce the limit on balances from 5pc to 3pc of high school budgets, in a bid to encourage them to “spend it on the children at school now”.

Heads are nervously awaiting news on their cash handouts for the next three years - amid fears of significant cuts as the government seeks to reduce its multi-billion- pound deficit and get the country on an even financial keel.

The conference on March 18, “future-proofing your finances - the challenges ahead”, has been organised by the county council.

The council moved the conference to Top of the Terrace at Carrow Road and made it free of charge to attract as many heads, governors' chairmen and school business managers as possible.

Paul Fisher, assistant director of children's services at the council, will brief the delegates, who will then contribute ideas to help the council draw up its financial support strategy.

A flyer for the event on the Nor-folk Governors' Network (NGN) website calls it “one of the most important keynote conferences of recent times”. It adds: “Given the looming financial issues and falling rolls that face our schools, we urge all schools to send three or four people to this conference.

“Your presence - and that of your colleagues - will be essential if the local authority is to help you navigate the choppy waters ahead.”

The proposal to reduce high school balances from 5pc to 3pc, while leaving primary balances at 5pc, will be debated tomorrow by the council's children's services overview and scrutiny panel.

Action is expected because the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) is threatening to step in, with 2008-09 balances totalling £1.92bn across England.

The department recently said: “We expect schools and local authorities to work to reduce balances by the end of 2010-11. If we do not see a substantial reduction, the government will consider further action to bring the total down to ensure the funding is being spent on improving outcomes for children and young people.”

At the end of the 2008-09 financial year, the number of Norfolk schools exceeding their balances limit was 103. If the level is reduced, more schools could be dragged in.

Last night, Norfolk heads and governors gave a mixed reaction to the likely change.

Ian Clayton, from Thorpe St Andrew School, said: “Philosophically I don't have a problem. The money that we receive is for the students that are here, so schools shouldn't be building up large amounts of reserves.”

Neil Collins, a governor at Long Stratton High and a member of NGN, said: “A carryover of 5pc is actually quite a lot - probably around £150,000 for an average high school.

“Managing a school's finances to a lower carryover is perfectly feasible but it does require good financial planning and management. Every school should try to have as small a carryover as possible - money in the bank does nothing to educate children.”

Melvyn Roffe, head of Wymondham College, said: “When times are tough, you don't want schools sitting on money.”

But he added: “There are lots of schools, ourselves included, with proper strategic plans which require the accumulation of balances to deliver them.

“I don't think reducing the level automatically is the way to achieve a balance. There should be a more intelligent system.”

If schools are forced to spend most of their money each year, the theory is the pupils who were supposed to get the money will benefit.

But there are concerns among some heads that short-term gain may result in long-term pain.

Some schools put aside money each year to save up for larger, planned projects that they otherwise would not be able to fund. Although there are some bits of money that are exempt from the rules about balances, there are fears that the reduced limit could scupper the planned schemes.

To book a place at the conference, from 9am-4pm on March 18, visit www.cpd.norfolk.gov.uk/sdms, course reference ESXR7 A.

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