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Posted by: John Brace | 16th March 2014

Strange: Why proceed with a consultation on closing Lyndale School when the reason for closing it no longer exists?

Strange: Why proceed with a consultation on closing Lyndale School when the reason for closing it no longer exists?

                                         

The Cheshire Cat from Disney's Alice in Wonderland (the 1951 version)
The Cheshire Cat from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (the 1951 version) which seemed about the only image that seemed ideal for this story about Lyndale School and Wirral Council

First, if you’ve been away on holiday the past two months a recap on what’s happened so far in a saga that’s seems to quickly becoming as complicated as the plot to the Lord of the Rings.

It starts with a proposal to Wirral Council’s Cabinet by Wirral Council officers to consult on closing Lyndale School. At the same meeting Wirral Council’s officers also proposed introducing a new system for funding “high needs” students where from 2014-15 extra funding to schools would be determined by which one of five bands that school’s pupils were categorised as being in. There was an emotional plea made to councillors on the Cabinet by Dawn Hughes (who has a child at the school) not to agree to consult on closure of Lyndale School (which was reported on this blog). However Labour councillors on Wirral Council’s Cabinet decided to both agree to consult on closing Lyndale School and also the banding proposals too.

It’s important at this stage to state the reasons given back in January for consulting on closing Lyndale School by Wirral Council officers, which are detailed both in the minutes and the report.

Here are some quotes from the report (although at this point in time some of these purported facts have been found to be factually incorrect).

“The closure of the Lyndale School is proposed for consideration because the viability of the school is compromised by its small size and falling roll, which both contribute to a difficult financial position.”

“In 2013-14 the school has set a budget for the year based on School Funding of £761,733 with a small deficit of £3,647. This was achieved using all accumulated balances brought forward of £51,707. The latest position indicates there will be deficit at the year end of £15,667. This has resulted from changes in staff costs and support services.”

“In 2014-15 the school forecast, before any corrective action, is that there would be a deficit of £72,000. This deficit has the potential to increase to in excess of £232,000 based on the numbers of children currently on the school roll.”

“This means that for 2014-15 the shortfall the school may experience will be approximately £72,000 for the year based on the number currently on school roll. This is approximately 9% of their budget.”

What this report in January didn’t mention at all (which was a pretty glaring omission at the time although a report to the same meeting did mention it but that other report didn’t specifically refer to Lyndale School) was this was all dependent on the assumption that Wirral Council would have its application to the government that the minimum funding guarantee of 98.5% wouldn’t apply to it approved. The minimum funding guarantee is a legal requirement on Wirral Council found in Regulation 19 of The School and Early Years Finance (England) Regulations 2013 not to reduce funding to a school for its 2014-15 financial year (based on its 2013-14 budget allocation) by more than 1.5%. However the regulations allow the Secretary of State for Education to agree to requests from local councils to a different minimum funding guarantee.

Wirral Council did at some point make an application to the Education Funding Agency for the minimum funding guarantee of 98.5% not to apply to it in 2014-15 (although I’m waiting for this Freedom of Information Act request to the Education Funding Agency to be answered as to the details on that). On the 27th January 2014 Cllrs Tom Harney, Phil Gilchrist, Jeff Green, Ian Lewis, Cherry Povall and Pat Williams called in the two Cabinet decisions.

These two decisions then went to the Coordinating Committee meeting of the 5th February 2014 to be looked at again. However the Coordinating Committee didn’t have the required parent governor representatives and Diocesan Body representatives that they were required by legislation to have when making decisions on educational (or school) related matters. So the meeting of 5th February 2014 was adjourned and a recommendation made to the Council meeting on the 25th February 2014 so that the parent governor representatives and Diocesan body representatives could be added to the Coordinating Committee. This was agreed at a meeting of the full Council on the 25th February 2014.

While all this was going on, the Cabinet made its recommendation on the 2014-15 Schools Budget to Council on the 12th February 2014 and Council agreed the Schools Budget on the 25th February 2014 (including matters that were yet to be decided because of the adjourned Coordinating Committee meeting). The issue of the upcoming call ins was raised at the Cabinet meeting and councillors were told that there was a contingency (of £908,900) included as part of the Schools Budget which would mean that whatever the outcome of the call ins were that it could still be funded.

On the 27th February the Coordinating Committee met again to consider the two call ins on the decision to consult on closing Lyndale School and the banding proposals.

Video of the Coordinating Committee on the 27th February to consider the Lyndale School consultation closure call in (adjourned from the Coordinating Committee on the 5th Feburary).

On both matters the draft minutes state that a majority of the councillors plus the parent governor representative present who had a vote, voted to uphold the original Cabinet decisions. It’s worth pointing out that on the Lyndale School closure consultation decision the Conservative councillors proposed instead a review (which was voted against by nine votes to six). On the banding proposals the Conservative councillors proposed the following motion “We would like to seek assurance that the required contingency funding is in place to top up the special educational funding to ensure that the level of funding required for the best care and education is provided for all children” (which was lost by seven votes for the motion and eight against).

The votes on the Labour councillor’s recommendations to uphold the two original Labour Cabinet decisions were on the Lyndale School consultation closure decision nine votes to six (the Labour councillors plus the Lib Dem councillor Cllr Alan Brighouse voted in favour of a consultation on closure whereas the Conservative councillors and parent governor representative voted against). The vote on a recommendation by Labour councillors to uphold the Labour Cabinet decision on the banding proposals was won by a narrower margin of eight votes to seven (the Labour councillors voted for it with the Lib Dem councillor, Conservatives and parent governor representative being opposed to it).

So, what’s new? Well unfortunately I had to go (and as the first call in on consulting closing Lyndale School had taken three and half hours had run out of tape anyway) after the first decision over the Lyndale School closure consultation decision. So I’ve only found out what happened at the second part of the meeting by reading the draft minutes of that meeting were available at last Thursday’s Cabinet meeting.

Here is what the draft minutes state about the minimum funding guarantee. My comments are in italics underneath.

The first quote is about the explanation of the banding proposals decision by the Cabinet Member Cllr Tony Smith.

“Basically, the report had dealt with the banding model and informed how top ups would be made. The Committee noted that the minimum funding guarantee was now more affordable, therefore the application for an exemption from this requirement had been withdrawn.”

Well that’s a revelation isn’t it? When did Wirral Council withdraw its application for an exemption from the minimum funding requirement? The minimum funding guarantee was always “affordable” as there was a contingency (in case the application for a minimum funding guarantee exemption was turned down of £908,900). Wirral Council also gets for 2014-15 an Special Educational Needs Reform Grant of £364,135 (see here for the details) which according to the letter linked to the government state that Wirral Council can “choose how to spend the money in order to best meet local need”.

Then this in the draft minutes from the evidence of the Vice-Chair of Governors at Lyndale School (and Chair of their Finance Committee) Ian Harrison.

“Mr Harrison informed that the Lyndale School now had a surplus forecast for 2013/14. It was going to get the minimum funding guarantee. There would be a small surplus in 2014/15.”

So if the original reason for consulting on closing Lyndale School was that an officer (or officers) at Wirral Council thought it wouldn’t have enough money, but the minimum funding guarantee exemption request has been withdrawn so that Lyndale School is now projecting a surplus (at least for 2014/15), why is Wirral Council going to the trouble of a twelve week consultation on closing the school?

“Members then asked Mr Harrison some questions which he answered as appropriate. It was noted that:

  • The Cabinet had received an early estimate rather than one at the end of the period when it would have been more realistic.”

Perhaps councillors were too polite to suggest that the Cabinet had based their decision on an estimate based on an assumption about the minimum funding guarantee (that is that the assumption that it would be approved and not withdrawn) which turned out not to be the case.

  • None of the special schools agreed with the formula that had been approved.

There are eleven special schools on Wirral (Hayfield, Clare Mount, Orrets Meadow, Gilbrook, Stanley, Elleray, Lyndale, Foxfield, Meadowside and Kilgarth). The 2014-15 budgets for each special school would have each been affected by the banding proposals. Had the minimum funding guarantee exemption application not been withdrawn, other schools could have been facing deficits (although Lyndale was the school most affected). The motion that was agreed on this item is stated in the draft minutes as “That the Committee upholds the Cabinet’s decision and it be ensured that consultation is meaningful, informed and transparent”. This is very unclear. Does that mean there’s going to be a consultation on the banding proposals or is it referring to the consultation to close Lyndale School?

So to summarise, Wirral Council officers thought there would be a large deficit in Lyndale School’s budget so recommended to the Cabinet that they should consult on closing the school. This decision was called in and during the call in it was discovered that Wirral Council’s application for an exemption from the minimum funding guarantee had been withdrawn. So now there’s a legal requirement that Lyndale School will get at least 98.5% of the amount they got in the previous year. As Lyndale School had looked into reducing costs of non teaching staff to reduce the original estimated large deficit, they now estimate a small surplus in their budget for 2014/15.

However Wirral Council is still going to carry out a twelve week consultation on closing the school based on an estimated deficit in Lyndale School’s budget that now can’t happen because the minimum funding guarantee of 98.5% is a legal requirement on Wirral Council.

How much is such a consultation, based on a guesstimate by officers (which ended up being wrong) going to cost? Bearing in mind the above, is it any wonder that people get confused by Wirral Council’s decision-making and politics? Am I missing something vital or is everything I’ve stated here correct?

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