Trust CEO, Nick Hurn OBE, reflections on the education sector as we approach the Christmas break

Our Trust is committed to ensuring the 16,000 pupils attending the 47 schools we are responsible for achieve the best outcomes so they can live fully and make a valued contribution to the world.

While welcome, the headline figure of around £1,000 additional funding announced for schools by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in November is long overdue and realistically takes us back to 2010 funding levels. 

Let’s not forget too that there is an unfunded pay rise to cover and we are unsure how high energy costs will rise. In fact, just like households and businesses across the country, we are seeing cost inflation in everything from paper to resources. There are many schools across the UK that are facing a budget deficit. This is not a position anyone wants to see as it can lead to difficult decisions for some schools, which in turn affect pupils. It’s not possible for schools to change government policy – the fact is that we have to mitigate rising costs outside of our control.

What I see is an over-preoccupation with perceived reserves in the system. The fact is that any reserves are not spread evenly, yes, some schools have significant reserves – a figure of around £4.5bn is quoted – but others are really struggling. Schools and Trusts are encouraged to plan for the future, yet when they do this successfully by careful planning, procurement and budgeting they are criticised for having too much money in reserve. This skews the picture and those resources are not spread evenly.

In our trust we make sure that no school is disadvantaged. No school is marginalised: larger schools support the smaller ones who are hampered by limited pupil income, and we offer centralised essential services to our schools, such as estates management, HR, Governance and commercial, so they can focus on educating children.

As an example we are proud to have been able to bring our school meals provision in-house for some schools, but just like everyone we are also seeing huge rises in some food items, some by as much as 63%. We manage these cost pressures for our schools by being very careful about spending and procurement across our Trust. We have managed to source high quality, ethical mainly local suppliers at a good price. This means we can offer school meals to children across our Trust that are of a high quality and affordable for families. 

Another area that really does need government recognition is special education needs (SEND). Missed learning during the pandemic has exposed real weaknesses in some children’s literacy, numeracy and communications skills. The fact remains that local authority resources don’t match the needs of young people when it comes to SEND. What is positive is that the children with very complex and defined needs, who receive an education healthcare plan (EHCP) tend to be well provided for. It’s the children without an EHCP where there is the gap and therefore are cause for concern. These children need a lot of support to catch up and keep up, but they can go unseen. Schools can apply for additional funding from a variety of sources but that places a large admin burden on schools.

We would like to see more trust in schools to do what is right to meet the needs of children. While there is obviously a need to ensure the system is not being abused, the additional admin and conditions on how extra funding for pupils with additional needs is spent can be a real burden and shift precious resources away from child-centred provision.

In my role I think it is important to highlight the challenges facing education, on behalf of the pupils, staff and schools in our care. Despite the pressures, it is rewarding to know that we are raising standards across all schools, learning from one another and making sure all of our schools are rated at least good, which in turn gives every child the best start in life.

As we approach the Christmas holiday, I am looking ahead to what more we can do from 2023 onwards, for our pupils and their families through the brilliant work by our staff within schools and the Trust.

For now, please be assured that your hard work, dedication and resilience over the past year are recognised and, on behalf of our Trust, thank you all for everything you do for our pupils and schools.

I wish you and your loved ones a peaceful Christmas.

Nick Hurn OBE – CEO, Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust

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