I recently wrote an article about the deficit at Casterton College, Rutland, a successful secondary school with a good Ofsted rating and a Progress 8 score for 2017 of well above average.
This was to make a general point about how new free schools can negatively affect existing schools. Casterton College had to close Rutland County College, an existing sixth form, after a new sixth form free school opened nearby.
Unfortunately, the standard wording used by auditors in Casterton College's accounts for year ending 31 August 2017, which I quoted in the article, caused concern.
The Department for Education (DfE) insists that academy trustees and auditors let the DfE know if academies have an operating deficit. But that doesn’t mean an academy is not viable. Reporting a deficit acts as a catalyst for action by academy trustees and, if necessary, the DfE.
Casterton College, despite having to close its sixth form, is actually thriving. The recent success of the 11-16 school has resulted in a sharp increase in admissions (Year 7 has risen from 109 to 186). It’s now oversubscribed and has a waiting list.
Carl Smith, principal of Casterton College said:
‘The success of Casterton has proven that really good comprehensive schools can outperform selective schools and are better for all children including the most able. Creating free schools, especially in areas where there are no shortage of places and the existing schools are performing well already, is a gross waste of public money and in this case it has also reduced parental choice.’
It should be noted that Casterton College is far from alone in having an operating deficit. It's a problem shared by thousands of academies and non-academies. The DfE's top official told the Education Select Committee in January that 9% of non-academies and 10% of academies could be in deficit. A recent report co-authored by Bishop Fleming, the UK's number one auditor of academy accounts, said as many as 80% of academies could be running at a deficit.
The DfE disputes this figure but education funding is not keeping pace with inflation, national insurance and rising employment costs.
All schools, whether academies or not, are having to make savings to balance the books. But there's a limit to how much maintenance can be put off, how many experienced staff can be replaced by less-experienced, cheaper staff, how many teaching posts can be axed or how much the curriculum can be shaved.
There is one way in which concerned parents, carers and grandparents can take action: write to their MPs expressing their concern about inadequate school funding. Those running England's schools, whether local authorities or academy trusts, need sufficient funding to do their work properly. Our children deserve no less.