Focus on Schools Forums
Now that the National Funding Formula (NFF) has been introduced, we thought we’d take a look at the role of the Schools Forum, considering how it might operate in the context of the school funding reforms. In this post, we discuss why Schools Forums are important, how school representatives can be effective, and how other school leaders can keep themselves informed about the issues that the Forum is engaged in.
Role of the Schools Forum
All local authorities are required to have a Schools Forum. It has a dual role in relation to school funding: consultative and decision-making. The Forum’s powers are limited to decisions on:
- the extent to which the LA can retain funding centrally from the Dedicated Schools Grant (DSG), which may include funds for growth, falling rolls, and schools in financial difficulty, as well as a range of specific services delivered centrally;
- whether to transfer funding from the Schools Block to the High Needs Block, although we do not yet know whether this facility will be available in 2019/20;
- de-delegation of funding (local authority maintained schools only), i.e. returning an element of budget share to the LA for particular central functions;
- whether a deficit on centrally retained DSG can be carried forward to be offset against the Schools Budget in the next financial year;
- changes to the Scheme for Financing Schools for LA maintained schools (similar to the Academies Financial Handbook).
You will see from this that a Schools Forum does not have any powers over the distribution of funding to schools through the local funding formula. That is a local authority decision, usually taken by the Lead Member for education or children’s services.
However, if the LA intends to make significant changes to the formula, it has to consult all schools as well as the Forum. It is best practice for the LA to set up a working group as a subgroup of the Forum, to develop options and assist in the drafting of consultation documents which Forum members will see before they are published.
Similarly, the LA decides on the Early Years Single Funding Formula, although it should consult all nursery providers before making any substantial changes.
The LA also has full control over the High Needs Budget. The only requirement is to consult the Schools Forum annually on the use of this budget. However, during the last year or so, all LAs have been expected to conduct a review of their High Needs funding arrangements, so Schools Forums should have received progress updates and may have contributed to the review via a working group or other consultation mechanisms.
If contracts are being entered into or re-tendered on behalf of groups of schools or all schools, the local authority should consult the Forum on the specification and evaluation criteria. Again, there may be a working group which allows more detailed involvement.
Responsibilities of Schools Forum representatives
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School staff and governors who are elected as members of the Schools Forum are there to represent their fellow school leaders, not to promote their own school’s interest. They need to take a strategic view, and consider what is the best outcome or decision for all pupils and schools across the area.
This can be a difficult balancing act, since it is very tempting to vote against anything that will disadvantage your own school. It can also be hard to challenge your colleagues, for example on the subject of excessive balances. Academy representatives must liaise with and inform all academies about Forum business, not just those within their own MAT – they are there as generic academy representatives.
Good communication is essential if Schools Forums are to be effective. It is vital that Forum representatives engage with their fellow school leaders, both in terms of identifying issues to take to the Schools Forum and in providing feedback about the discussion and decisions taken at the Forum. This is often most easily done via standing agenda items at network/sector meetings or by using other existing mechanisms.
Best practice would be for the LA, Chair and Vice-Chair to plan agenda items well in advance, so that they can be discussed at network meetings, enabling representatives to be fully informed about their colleagues’ views before they attend the Forum. Of course, this is not always possible; there may be unexpected business which might have to be circulated via email if representatives want to test out their colleagues’ opinions.
How the Forum affects you
Whether you are a school representative on the Forum or not, it is in your interests to be informed about what goes on at meetings. The items that are discussed are likely to impact on the amount of funding your school receives, one way or another. It’s not just the local funding formula that will impact on your budget; there may be developments in how the local authority manages its High Needs Budget, or new contracts may be entered into on behalf of schools.
Schools Forums have not seen many changes in their responsibilities for several years. However, when DfE published its original consultation on the school funding reforms during 2016, it indicated that a review of the functions of Schools Forums was going to take place. At the time, the government was planning to introduce direct funding of schools from 2019/20. Now that that has been delayed, there has been no further mention of a review.
Regardless of this, we are in a period where local decisions will continue to be made on the distribution of funding between schools in the local area, until primary legislation is passed to change this. However, in the last couple of days two opportunities have arisen for Schools Forums to provide evidence of the difficulties that have arisen as a result of three years of unfunded cost pressures and the impact of the NFF.
The Education Select Committee has just announced it is opening an inquiry on school and college funding, to examine what the DfE’s priorities should be for the next spending period. Submissions are invited by Wednesday 30th May 2018. The Committee wants to know whether a longer-term plan is needed for investment in education (it seems rather obvious that it is needed) and what resources are required to ensure schools and colleges get the support they need. It will also examine the effectiveness of targeted funding such as the Pupil Premium, and the practical implementation of the NFF.
The same Committee is also conducting an inquiry into support for SEND, which includes ‘the level and distribution of funding for SEND provision’. This has a slightly longer timescale, with a closing date of Thursday 14th June 2018.
We will be preparing submissions for both inquiries, and will make copies available to our newsletter subscribers, so if you want to receive them, please visit our home page to sign up. We’d be very interested in any robust evidence you might be able to provide on the impact of the funding reforms on your school to help us in drafting our submissions – please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org, or let us know in the comments below this post.
How does the National Funding Formula impact on Schools Forums?
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In this first phase of the funding reforms, there has not been a significant change in the powers of LAs and Schools Forums. There has been a little more flexibility allowed in the decisions that LAs can take on the funding formula; for example, they have been able to improve on the Minimum Funding Guarantee rather than adopt the statutory position of a maximum reduction of 1.5% per pupil per year. On the other hand, DfE has imposed restrictions on the amount that can be transferred out of the Schools Block (no more than 0.5%) to cover High Needs pressures.
Centrally retained expenditure within the DSG has now been identified in a separate block, with a clear message from the government that it expects historic items to “unwind” over time. So far, no decision has been taken about what would happen to any savings. There doesn’t seem to be much incentive to cease these items if the funding is likely to go back to the government, rather than being transferred into budget shares for the schools in that same area.
While some local authorities have taken a conscious decision to ignore the reforms and keep their existing local formula, others have had genuine difficulties in replicating the NFF in 2018/19. As we have discussed in previous blog posts, there are various reasons for this, including transfers to the High Needs Budget, demographic change, and cost pressures in so-called ‘historic spend items’: premises-related factors, pupil number growth, and pupil mobility, where 2018/19 allocations were based on the level of planned spending in 2017/18.
These difficulties might extend into 2019/20. The DfE is reviewing the historic spend items and could decide to make some changes next year, to bring these into the NFF where possible. It is hard to imagine what the outcome might be if LAs do not receive sufficient funding to cover costs for factors such as PFI charges, rates, and year groups being added to new schools.
Furthermore, until we know whether transfers to the High Needs Block will be permitted in 2019/20, it is difficult to anticipate how local authorities and schools will manage rising needs and cost pressures, particularly where an LA is only receiving the minimum 0.5% increase in its High Needs NFF.
We don’t yet know when direct funding will be introduced, i.e. the “Hard NFF”. Whenever it happens, it seems inevitable that the Schools Forum will lose its influence, at least in relation to mainstream school budgets. But given the situation with High Needs funding, it seems likely that difficult decisions and debates will need to continue, if local areas are to ensure that the right level of support is given to pupils with SEND and vulnerable learners.
How to stay informed
Until there is a clear indication of changes in the role of Schools Forums, all schools should ensure that they are kept up-to-date with the business that is discussed and decided there. The decisions taken will have a direct impact on the amount of money each school receives over the next two years, and possibly longer, if Parliamentary time is not secured to pass the necessary legislation for the introduction of direct funding.
Remember that Schools Forum meetings are held in public, so if you want to find out what is going on, why not attend the meeting as an observer? You will not have a right to speak, but if you do wish to make your voice heard, the Chair may give you permission. All papers should be available on a public-facing website and should be published at least a week in advance of the meeting. DfE carries out checks to ensure that all LAs are complying with the requirements, but if you can’t find your local Forum’s information, get in touch with the LA’s education finance lead or the Forum Chair.
Where to go to find out more
You can familiarise yourself with the requirements by visiting the DfE’s summary guide for schools at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/schools-forum-a-guide-for-schools-and-academies.
There is a more comprehensive set of information at https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/schools-forums-operational-and-good-practice-guide-2015, which provides best practice guidance, documents on the Forum’s structure and its powers and responsibilities, and a self-assessment tool with prompts to check whether your Forum is compliant. You could suggest to the Chair that the Forum undertakes the self-assessment together at a meeting.
If you are already a member of a Schools Forum, are likely to be asked to take up a place in future, or even if you just want to know more about it, watch out for a new School Financial Success online course, ‘Be an Effective Schools Forum Member’, which we are currently preparing. This will go into greater detail about the purpose of Schools Forums, their functions, how they operate and the responsibilities of members.
Beyond these areas, the real added value that this course will provide is in explaining the important topics that you are likely to discuss in your Schools Forum. It can sometimes be difficult to take in all of the information on offer, particularly where it relates to decisions and discussions that only take place once a year. Even experienced members sometimes find it difficult to probe and ask questions. Our course will offer bite-sized modules, which you can watch at your own pace, to increase your confidence and knowledge, enabling you to be an effective Schools Forum member.
We will announce the launch of the course in the usual way: in our subscriber newsletter, via our blog, on our Facebook page, and by tweeting. If you haven’t signed up for our newsletter, which brings you a monthly update of school funding news, go to our homepage and sign up for your free funding information.