Academies in financial difficulty as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may be offered help from the government’s cost-cutting advisers.
In a letter to academy trust accounting officers, Education and Skills Funding Agency boss Eileen Milner said government “may be able to assist” schools in trouble by matching them with a school resource management adviser.
Schools Week revealed in 2018 that the Department for Education was to spend millions on an army of cost-cutting consultants.
The programme has been controversial, particularly after we revealed last year that advisers had told schools to limit children’s lunch portions, keep money raised for local charities and replace experienced teachers with support staff.
In her letter, Milner said SRMAs “can provide a range of support in this difficult period, including carrying out the vital day-to-day activities of a school business manager/trust finance director where these staff members are absent, to providing advice on long-term strategies to cope with reduced income associated with site closures”.
“This expert advice is provided by ESFA free of charge. If you require this additional support during this period then please contact us through the enquiry service.”
It comes after the government confirmed that it was halting “all but the most essential data collections” to “help reduce the burden” on schools and councils amid the coronavirus outbreak.
Milner said more about this in her letter, saying that she recognised “the pressure and uncertainty academy trusts are currently facing with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic”.
She confirmed the ESFA would not be considering complaints about schools’ compliance with complaints and exclusions regulations at this time, and had extended its normal deadlines for responding to our safeguarding enquiries.
The government will also not begin any new routine funding audits or financial management and governance reviews covering for “at least” the duration of the school closures.
However, Milner said the deadline for academy trust financial statements and returns would still be December 31, “given trusts will commence this work in late summer to early autumn, which is still several months away”.
“We will continue to monitor the position and will discuss this with our stakeholder groups and external auditors, balancing the practical implications of implementing a change with the benefits of producing timely and robust financial information.”
Milner also told trusts to continue to abide by the requirements in the academies financial handbook.
She said the rules in the handbook had “never been more important” as trusts change their spending patterns and recast budget plans “for a return to normality in school life”.
However, she recognised that trust boards would need need to “adjust some procedures locally” to reflect the “realities” of remote working and absences, hold board meetings by telephone or video and review decision-making processes.
“I hope that trusts will see the Handbook as a key tool to help them manage some of the financial and other risks associated with the new ways of working that we all face, and to lay the groundwork for the preparation of their financial statements.”
Milner said guidance may change given the “rapidly moving situation” faced by schools.
“I do, however, hope that some of the general principles outlined here give you some reassurance of the steps we are taking to help manage the requirements we place upon you; and would ask you to continue to submit further questions via the usual channels.”