Thursday 30 March 2017

Forest Hill parents, staff and students march to Lewisham Town Hall

Today, Thursday March 30, NUT members at Forest Hill School were left with no choice but to take their third day of strike action to oppose the damaging cuts to staffing and curriculum at FHS. 

After another lively protest outside the school on Mayow Road, a delegation of over fifty staff, students and parents marched with their banners along the South Circular Road to Lewisham Town Hall to hand in a petition of hundreds of signatures demanding Lewisham Council act to support the school. 

The march included two teachers still facing the threat of compulsory redundancy, teachers presently leading on PSHE and EAL support respectively. The loss of their posts illustrates the damage that the proposed job cuts will cause. Unless further financial assistance is found, there will be no teacher at FHS specifically to support EAL students and PSHE will only be covered in tutor time rather than being taught fully in separate lessons. 

The longer that the dispute continues without the Council acting to resolve it, the greater the ongoing uncertainty will affect students and staff alike. Regrettably, that will mean more teachers looking to leave Forest Hill to find posts where they will not see their time for preparation and marking slashed and their workload increased even further as a result. Lewisham Council urgently need to act to support the school.

Staff have been encouraged by the support given by some Labour councillors, including several who signed the NUT petition when they were lobbied outside the Council AGM earlier in the week. However, as things stand there has been no official change in the Council's line that it will not act further to assist the school, not even in meeting redundancy costs - despite the clear advice from the DfE being that this should be the Council's responsibility. 

NUT members therefore agreed that they have no choice but to call on their Union to issue notice for further days of strike action after the Easter holidays and that request is now being put to the National Union. 

In separate disputes, NUT strike action also took place today at Parkwood Primary in Hackney and by members of the Inclusion Team, also in Hackney, both against similar threats from budget cuts.

Tuesday 21 March 2017

FHS strike: Staff and parents demand Lewisham Council acts to stop cuts

There was a tremendous turnout of staff, parents and students outside Forest Hill School (FHS) this morning to support NUT members taking their first day of strike action against damaging cuts at FHS (see pictures below). Yet more staff were gathering support from commuters at Sydenham and Forest Hill stations.

The key message from today's protest was for everyone to meet again - with even more friends, neighbours and colleagues outside Lewisham Town Hall to:

from 5pm, Wednesday 22 March
outside Lewisham Town Hall in Catford,
London SE6 4RU

Sadly, the Council seem to be trying to wash their hands of this dispute even though they are the employer of the many staff that are being made redundant; even though they will remain the employer of all the staff who will be left to support the same number of students with fewer colleagues and so an even greater workload; even though they need to take responsibility for the education of local children that will be damaged as a result of these cuts.

Some councillors are even saying that acting to support the school would be 'illegal'. This is rubbish. The protest was told how Greenwich Council is agreeing to provide additional funding and extend loan repayments to support one of its schools facing similar funding pressures.

Education legislation also makes it clear that the expectation lies with the Council to take responsibility for the cost of the redundancy payments for those support staff who have already left plus those teachers who have opted for voluntary redundancy. That money alone could help prevent any further compulsory redundancies and allow FHS to recruit staff to address some of the additional workload that is otherwise going to be forced on to remaining staff.

So JOIN THE LOBBY TOMORROW. Tell Lewisham Council to stop pretending that defending education in one of their schools is 'illegal' and to start carrying out their responsibilities to one of its community schools.

A parent speaks up in support of teachers' action

Friday 17 March 2017

NUT forced to call strike to defend jobs, workload, education at Forest Hill


For immediate distribution - 17 March 2017


Lewisham Council provokes strike action at Forest Hill School

At a time when parents, staff and elected councillors should be working together to oppose the unprecedented threat of £3bn cuts to school budgets nationally, it is with regret that the NUT are having to call on its members at Forest Hill School (FHS) to take strike action in a dispute with Lewisham Council in order to oppose compulsory redundancies and the imposition of additional workload to NUT members at FHS.

London NUT officials had met earlier this week with FHS management and put forward proposals that we hoped would be agreed by the Council in order to avert strike action. We had understood that, before finalising any decision to withdraw or proceed with action, we would receive a response to our proposals by Friday 17 March. Regrettably, instead of hearing any further response, we were informed by the Forest Hill Parents’ Action Group on Thursday 16 March that the Headteacher, Mike Sullivan, had instead already informed parents in a letter that strike action was definitely taking place. Further, he had also cancelled a meeting with a delegation of parents that had asked to meet with him to discuss the proposed restructuring.

Faced with this apparent refusal to negotiate a settlement, the NUT has had no option but to confirm that we are calling on our members at Forest Hill School to take three days of strike action before the Easter holidays. We hope that this firm action can yet persuade the Council to reconsider its position and agree an acceptable solution to the dispute without it dragging on further towards the exam period.

Parents support teachers on the school gates and lobby Lewisham Council

We are pleased that members of the Forest Hill Parents’ Action Group will be protesting outside the school gates in Dacres Road, SE23 2XN, at 9am on the day of strike action and supporting striking teachers in leafleting the local community to explain the threats to education at Forest Hill School and the reasons for the strike.

From 5pm on Wednesday 22 March, Forest Hill Parents’ Action Group and the NUT will also be jointly lobbying the meeting of Lewisham Mayor and Cabinet, to be held at the Town Hall in Catford, to demand the Council intervenes to carry out their responsibilities as employers and to protect education at Forest Hill School.

£1.3 million in staffing cuts will damage education at Forest Hill School

The dispute centres around a demand placed on the school to make £1.3 million in staffing cuts as part of a ‘recovery plan’ agreed with the Council. This comprises of:

  • 19 non-classroom based support staff made redundant (full year saving £350k)
  • A loss of 4 classroom based support roles and the rationalisation of the hours of other posts (£180k)
  • A loss of 15 teaching posts along with the reduction of payments for additional responsibilities for many other teaching posts (£800k)
The NUT believes that the consequences of the staffing losses proposed in this plan would be damaging to education, staffing morale and retention at Forest Hill School.
The job losses have already included a worrying loss of lunchtime supervisors and now threaten teaching posts including the compulsory redundancy of the Teacher supporting pupils with English as an Additional Language. Losing this many posts when pupil numbers are not falling at FHS can only mean cuts to education overall.

At a time when teacher workload is widely recognised as a key contributor to a mounting teacher recruitment and retention crisis, the cuts also impose the halving of the non-contact time that allows teachers to plan, prepare and mark during the working day from the equivalent of 6 out of 25 periods a week to just 3 out of 25.

These damaging cuts are a result of four significant funding pressures:

1) As with a growing number of schools nationally, rising costs and falling income, for example to post-16 funding, have pushed Forest Hill into a budget deficit

2) FHS has been loaned funds by the Council to address this as a ‘licensed deficit’. However, in addition to making cuts to reduce the deficit, this means that the school must also make additional cuts in order to be able to repay the loan.

3) FHS is spending nearly £1 million a year, 10.2% of its budget, on a PFI contract.

4) Lewisham Council is also insisting that the cost of redundancy payments is also taken from the FHS budget despite Section 37 of the 2002 Education Act making clear the expectation is that these costs should be paid by the Council, not FHS.

Lewisham Council can - and should - resolve this dispute

As one immediate step, the Authority should meet the costs of redundancy payments at the school, estimated to be in the region of £450,000 in total. This step alone would allow the school to avoid the deletion of the Teacher providing support for EAL and allow further staffing to be employed to provide additional non-contact time.

Beyond this, there are other steps that the DfE’s statutory guidance confirms that Lewisham Council could take - steps that the NUT understands are being taken by some other Authorities to support schools in financial difficulties. These include:

  • Renegotiating the terms of the loan agreement to reduce the repayments
  • Renegotiating contracts or assisting the school in meeting PFI costs
  • Providing additional finance to meet specific budget areas, e.g. the additional SLT support, special needs or to directly write off some of the debt.
The NUT was hoping that Lewisham Council would take at least some of these steps in order to assist Forest Hill School address its present difficulties. We had hoped the Council would recognise its responsibility to avoid severe damage to staff jobs, pay and conditions and subsequent severe damage to pupils’ education at FHS. We now have no option but to call action to persuade Lewisham Council to think again.

Monday 13 March 2017

Can a school set a deficit budget?

The campaign to oppose school cuts and to demand fair funding for all schools continues to gain momentum. Heads, staff, parents, students and local politicians are all getting involved as the scale of the threat is becoming better understood.

Many schools are already making cuts now. After all, the National Audit Office reported that 59% of maintained secondary schools were spending more than their income in 2014-15. 15% were already actually in deficit with the average deficit as high as £326,000. That was two years ago. The situation in 2016-17 will undoubtedly be even worse.

As I wrote in a previous post, cuts of this magnitude cannot be 'managed', they have to be fought. The NAO report also warns the DfE that they "cannot be assured that these savings will be achieved in practice" and raises concerns about "the risk that schools will make poorly informed decisions that could have detrimental effects on educational outcomes".

However, what can an individual school do when faced with an impossible choice as to what they should cut to balance their budget? Resources? Pay Progression? Non-contact time? Curriculum? Staffing numbers? None of these cuts are acceptable. They will all undermine education. That's why the campaign to win the £3billion that schools need to meet rising costs has to be stepped up. 

But how can a school that is facing immediate difficulties defend its students' education while it waits for the wider funding campaign to succeed? There is a view amongst some local politicians that schools can't be allowed to run a deficit. But that's evidently not true! Firstly, the NAO make clear that many schools are already in deficit and, secondly, because the legislation governing school finances has always allowed for schools to run with a licensed deficit. As explained below, schools in financial difficulties can be given additional support - and many already have been.

Maintained Schools
Section 48 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 places a duty on Local Authorities to "prepare a scheme dealing with such matters connected with the financing of the schools maintained by the authority". The statutory guidance setting out what those schemes should contain has only recently been revised and can be found on

Listed below are some of the points in that document which could be important for schools to know when they are faced with cuts that they simply cannot make. 

In particular, these provisions make clear that Local Authorities can support maintained schools in difficulties. While also facing their own funding pressures, Local Authorities do have reserves that could be used to support schools. The licensed deficit provisions could certainly be used to support schools refusing to make cuts as part of a mass campaign to demand the Government funds schools to meet real costs and real children's needs.

Here are some specific clauses:

2.1.6 Writing off of debts
The scheme may authorise governing bodies to write off debts up to a stipulated level, with brief details of the procedure to be followed for larger debts. (For example, the Lewisham scheme gives the Executive Director for Resources the power to write off debts exceeding £5,000). 

2.12 Central funds and earmarking
The scheme must contain a general provision authorising the authority to make sums available to schools from central funds, in the form of allocations which are additional to and separate from the schools’ budget shares. The scheme should stipulate that such allocations should be subject to conditions setting out the purpose or purposes for which the funds may be used ... Such allocations might, for example, be sums for SEN or other initiatives funded from the central expenditure of an authority’s Schools Budget or other authority budget.  (So an authority could find ways to assist schools in particular difficulties through such earmarked funds).

4.7 Writing off deficits
The scheme should contain a provision which makes it clear that the authority cannot write off the deficit balance of any school. If an authority wishes to give assistance towards elimination of a deficit balance this should be through the allocation of a cash sum, from the authority’s schools budget. (So, while a deficit cannot be entirely written off, they can be partially financed through a cash 'donation' from the authority).

4.9 Licensed deficits
An authority may include in its scheme provision for an arrangement whereby schools are allowed to plan for a deficit budget. Such an arrangement is normally funded by the collective surplus of school balances held by the authority on behalf of schools. ... Under a licensed deficit scheme the only effect on budget and out-turn statements is that in the latter, the balance goes into deficit because expenditure is at a higher level than the budget share, but this deficit reduces to zero by the end of the repayment period because the school has to constrain its expenditure to effect the repayment. No 'payment' to the school is recorded. (While the 'loan' from the licensed deficit has to be repaid over an agreed period of time, this provision could buy time for some schools while the campaign to win extra funds continues). 

Section 9: PFI/PPP
An authority may wish to insert into its scheme other provisions relating to PFI/PPP projects. Amongst other issues these might deal with the reaching of agreements with the governing bodies of schools as to the basis of such charges; and the treatment of monies withheld from contractors due to poor performance. (Some schools are paying a significant proportion of their budget on PFI charges - yet this is one area of expenditure that could be cut without damaging education!)

Annex B: Responsibility for redundancy and early retirement costs
The default position is that premature retirement costs must be charged to the school’s delegated budget, while redundancy costs must be charged to the local authority’s budget. (Some LAs are telling schools that they will have to find funding for redundancy - adding to the cuts to be made).

The points above apply to maintained schools but there is also provision for Academy Trusts to apply to the Education Funding Agency for 'advances of funding'. 

The guidance implies that, as with a licensed deficit scheme, the cash advance will need to be repaid. However, a FOI request revealed by Schools Week in 2015 shows that most of the £12.6 million in emergency funding then agreed since 2011/12 would not need to be paid back.

If the Government found funds to bailout these academies (not to mention banks!), what about all our schools?

Tuesday 7 March 2017

Forest Hill School in deficit - how do we protect education for its students?

A community standing up for its school

Last week's packed public meeting to discuss the deficit crisis facing Forest Hill School (FHS) in Lewisham showed the determination of the local community to defend their school. 

The fact that over 120 people attended at short notice was a credit to both FHS staff, who had worked so hard to publicise the meeting, and to the parents and students who attended in such large numbers to stand up for education at their school.

At the end of the meeting, a group of parents formed the Forest Hill Action Group to organise a campaign. As an immediate step, they have been writing to the school asking for parents to be properly consulted over the cuts proposals.

NUT members, who had already won a legal ballot for industrial action, then met this week to confirm their request for the Union to issue notice for three days of strike action before the end of term, action to be taken if ongoing negotiations fail to produce an acceptable solution.

One of the parents present at the meeting, Phil Beadle, immediately wrote a post on his blog listing the threats facing Forest Hill boys as a result of the proposed cuts, ending with this rallying cry: "I call on parents in Lewisham and wider to do the same as the parents of boys at Forest Hill School are doing: to applaud their children’s teachers’ strike action and to stand alongside them on the picket".

The determination to defend education at FHS is clear - but what's the nature of the crisis - and how can it be solved?

Plans to cut £1.3M in staffing costs will seriously damage education at Forest Hill School

Why is a well-loved school without a falling roll facing a budgetary crisis? It's quite right that parents are asking for answers. Trade unions are entitled to budgetary information as part of legal consultation over redundancies - but some of that information is given to us confidentially. That's why the figures I am using in this blog are from public sources - with links to documents that you can read for yourselves. 

Luckily, some of the key information is in a document presented to Lewisham's Mayor and Cabinet last November
This explains that:
  • The school overspent its budget at the end of 2015/16 financial year by £129k.
  • During the 2015/16 financial year the school operated an in-year deficit of £463k and avoided a larger year end deficit by spending its reserves.
  • The budget recovery plan shows the school in deficit at the end of 2016/17 financial year by £879k.
Although the document does explain that "following national changes, the school has had to face a reduction in the Post 16 funding of £150k", it does not explain further as to why the school has been consistently spending more than its income. The blunt facts are that any reserves have now been spent and FHS is now facing a huge deficit.

It's worth noting that this is not the first time that Forest Hill has had these kind of difficulties. A similar report for a December 2010 Mayor and Cabinet meeting stated that "During the 2009/10 financial year it became apparent that the school budget would significantly overspend. The school had overestimated the income they were likely to receive". So why wasn't the Local Authority paying more attention to FHS finances? After all, the November report states that "The school was audited in February 2016 and had a satisfactory assurance" !

The plans to address this deficit are devastating - even if only hinted at in the November 2016 Report:
  • The recovery plan is built around reducing the teaching complement by reviewing the delivery of curriculum, considering contact time, reviewing management structures.
  • In total the staffing costs within the school will reduce by £1.3m
£1.3M equates, with on-costs, to around 15 teaching posts plus a number of support staff who have already lost their jobs. As the report itself says, "Forest Hill School is not affected by roll numbers since it is virtually full in all year groups". Fewer staff for the same amount of pupils can only mean one thing - worse education. The 'review' of the curriculum and management structures will surely mean cuts to subjects and expecting teachers to carry out extra work previously allocated to now redundant colleagues. 

"Considering contact time" will mean cutting the numbers of non-contact periods that teachers use to mark, plan and prepare lessons to an absolute minimum. Given that teacher workload is recognised as being the main driver of teacher resignations and recruitment problems, this step alone seriously threatens staff morale and stability at Forest Hill School.

The document claims that the "benchmarking data indicates that the teaching costs at Forest Hill are £125 per pupil above the average for similar size schools within Lewisham ... so the reductions in staffing being undertaken are reasonable". However, is national benchmarking (also referred to in the report) a fair comparison given that Inner London salaries are higher than the national average? Even the Lewisham comparisons don't appear to add up since multiplying £125 by the number of pupils at FHS comes to nearer £1.3K than £1.3M!

Who is responsible? 

Parents understandably want to know why the school is in this financial mess. A maintained school is a community asset, not a secret commercial venture, and so small wonder calls from the floor of the public meeting for the school to 'open the books' were applauded. 

At a Sydenham Labour Party public meeting a few weeks before, Councillor Paul Maslin had bluntly made clear that, in his view, school governors and management were to blame. Whether connected or not, there have certainly been recent governance and leadership changes and the new Headteacher, Mike Sullivan, has been left with the unenviable task of dealing with the deficit. 

However, Lewisham Local Authority have a clear responsibility for financial oversight of maintained schools as well as, for example, being responsible for the original negotiations of Forest Hill's expensive PFI contract. They must also shoulder some of the blame and must certainly now take responsibility for finding an educationally acceptable way forward.

Of course, that apparent lack of proper auditing is fundamentally another consequence of government cuts to Local Authorities. As the National Audit Office pointed out back in 2011, "some local authorities are reducing their capacity to monitor and support schools’ financial management, at a time when some schools may need it most". Things will have only got worse since then.

My own view is that putting too much effort into apportioning blame for the causes of the crisis could be wasting energies best used on finding a way out of the mess - and a way out that doesn't make the FHS boys, who definitely weren't to blame, pay the educational price for others' errors. However, answers to the 'why' might certainly help with the 'how'. 

It's also in the school's own interests to be open and transparent. Otherwise, in the absence of a proper explanation, some parents will inevitably suspect that something more untoward has gone on - even though I was at pains at the public meeting to explain that there was no evidence that I was aware of that  anything fraudulent had occurred.

Regrettably, rather than being open, the school has instead been sending out letters that try to deny a crisis even exists! Trying to pretend that 'less is more' will satisfy nobody. Describing the loss of perhaps fifteen teaching posts and a demoralising restructuring of responsibility payments as a way to achieve a 'reconfigured curriculum' and a 'refreshed leadership structure' will only add to staff anger. 'Maintaining the quality of our offer with a declining budget' is something which just cannot be done.

Cuts to a school like Forest Hill will also inevitably have an impact on Equalities. Lewisham's own report from last November points out that schools like Forest Hill "like most in Lewisham, have high proportions of BME pupils and have promoting equality and social mobility as part of their mission to improve children’s lives". The report confirms that the Local Authority has a Public Sector Equality Duty - but what will the Authority be doing to carry out those responsibilities in this case? Where is the Equality Impact Assessment?

Is this about Fair Funding and Government Cuts?

The situation at Forest Hill has arisen before the emerging national crisis over school cuts and the additional new threat that the proposed National Funding Formula could make things particularly difficult for London schools. This hasn't caused the problems at FHS - although it would, of course, make things even worse if major cuts are inflicted on a school that's already in serious financial difficulties.

However, many schools, including FHS, have already been suffering from a declining income in real-terms as budgets have tightened. The National Audit Office have recently pointed out that 60% of secondary schools nationally were already spending more than their income in 2014-15, 15% of them being already in actual deficit. So Forest Hill is far from alone in facing a crisis. 

The link between the Forest Hill campaign and the wider 'Fair Funding for All' campaign is that FHS illustrates all too starkly the threat facing nearly every school if the Government is able to get away with its wider school budget cuts. A successful campaign at Forest Hill can also embolden others to stand firm on the cuts that may face them too.

What about the PFI?

When the school ran up a deficit in 2010, some of the blame was certainly attributed to the high costs of the repayments for the rebuilding of the school under the Private Finance Initiative. While the contractual detail remains unclear, publicly available documents show that the Grouped Schools PFI project that the Forest Hill rebuild belonged to had a capital value of £54M. However, the total costs of the unitary payments over 30 years adds up to over £200M! 

A recent Lewisham Schools Forum paper confirms that Forest Hill School is spending over 10% of its Individual Schools’ Budget on PFI payments. Whether or not this is a primary cause of the budgetary crisis, it surely offers at least a partial solution? Rather than demand that FHS cuts its staff and pupils' education, shouldn't Lewisham Council be demanding that the profiteering PFI firms take a cut in their payments instead? 

So what is the way out of this mess? 

Whatever the cause of this crisis, the real issue is how to solve it. NUT members are clear that cutting staff, increasing workload and worsening the curriculum offer no real solution. Instead, those threats risk destabilising the school, driving away staff and parents alike, and making a bad situation even worse.

The NUT will be demanding that education is protected by maintaining non-contact time to allow staff to properly plan and prepare lessons; that there should be no compulsory redundancies; that any changes to posts and management structures must allow a full curriculum for students and manageable responsibilities for staff in charge of those curriculum areas.

While the NUT hopes that a negotiation at school level can help address some of these issues, a resolution may well also require finding the additional funding needed to protect staff numbers. Here's how that could be done:

a) Extending the licensed deficit
Section 48 of the Schools Standards and Framework Act 1998 specifically allows for Local Authorities to make provision for schools to set a deficit budget. There is nothing 'illegal' about such an arrangement. Lewisham Council have already agreed a deficit budget for Forest Hill School, providing a loan of £879k to cover the school’s budget shortfall in the first year of the recovery plan. The loan is to be paid back over a five year period. This loan could be increased to help reduce the impact of the cuts proposals.

b) Writing off some of the debt

The problem for FHS is that, before such a loan is approved, the Local Authority demands that the school agrees a recovery plan showing how it will be able to pay back the loan over the agreed timescale.

But this puts FHS in an impossible position. The Governing Body faces the same kind of dilemma as the Government of Greece! Not only do they have to reduce costs but they've also got to find additional savings so they can pay back the loan as well. As the school already has almost full pupil rolls, they can't recruit more pupils to boost income. The loan may help temporarily but its terms are still a recipe for severe cuts for years to come. The answer has to be to write off some of the debt.

The provisions for doing this already exist within legislation and Lewisham's own Scheme of Delegation (the same scheme that makes clear the auditing powers that perhaps the Authority should have been operating more stringently).

c) Cutting other costs

The NUT will be asking for full budgetary details to see whether there are other ways to reduce costs that don't damage education in the ways that the school is proposing at present. With PFI payments making up over 10% of the school budget, then that has to be one cost that needs to be looked at. Perhaps the Council or the contractors will have to meet the shortfall instead.

Staff and students shouldn't be paying the price for financial cuts and mismanagement at Forest Hill School. The NUT hopes that, alongside parents, we can build a big enough campaign to make sure that doesn't happen. We hope FHS Governors will put their responsibility for Forest Hill boys and the local community first and join us in opposing these cuts.