Five Years Needed to Balance Merton Schools Budget

Council denies suppressing applications for special needs provision

Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, assistant director for education, says evidence is assessed thoroughly and fairlyElizabeth Fitzpatrick, assistant director for education, says evidence is assessed thoroughly and fairly

October 3, 2022

It will take at least five years for Merton Council to get its education budget back on track after the authority was granted a £29 million government bail. Earlier this year, the council was identified by The Department for Education as having a “very high deficit” in its dedicated schools grant.

It was given £11.6 million in March and another £875k in July 2022. These are the first instalments of a total of £28.9 million which it will receive over the next five years.

Richard Ellis, interim assistant director for strategy, commissioning and transformation, said this came after six months of negotiations with the DfE. The rescue package is only part of the way in addressing the shortfall, which earlier this year was estimated as being £44.5m gap at the end of 2022/23.

Speaking at a scrutiny meeting on Thursday, Mr Ellis said: “It was a very detailed and hard piece of work to get there. We are now six months into the five year plan. I think it it really important to note that the DfE doesn’t expect us to be in balance until year five of that plan because they recognise the difficulty of the challenge of balancing the system while also meeting children’s needs.

“Also we are not operating in the most favourable of circumstances, post Covid and the economic circumstances. However, we are making very good headway, we submitted our second monitoring report to DfE on September 17.”

A report on the funding, which is known as the safety valve programme, details the process of getting on a more secure financial footing. It said there are currently fewer Education Health Care Plans (EHCPs) issued by the council, this is a legal document that describes the special educational needs of a child and any help they require.

Councillor Jil Hall asked whether the authority was working to “suppress” applications to reduce costs an assertion that was rejected by Elizabeth Fitzpatrick, assistant director for education. She added, “[We are] not suppressing, this is about looking at the evidence thoroughly and fairly.”

Tara O'Connor - Local Democracy Reporter