Schools attempting to claim “particularly high” costs through the government’s new Covid workforce fund may have their claims “reviewed”.
The Department for Education has published additional guidance on the new fund, which was unveiled last month and is meant to help schools cover the cost of absences during this half term.
Where costs are particularly high relative to the absent rates reported, we may review these claims to judge whether such costs were incurred reasonably
Its launch followed warnings in Schools Week from headteachers that supply costs are soaring as more and more staff are sent home to self-isolate, with some schools reaching a closure “tipping point”.
Claims under the scheme can be made for hiring supply staff or increasing the hours of part-time staff.
In new guidance set out today, the department says schools should “exercise financial prudence when taking on additional staff” and should “seek the best rates”.
But it adds: “Where costs are particularly high relative to the absent rates reported, we may review these claims to judge whether such costs were incurred reasonably.”
This is on top of already stringent criteria schools must meet in order to access the scheme in the first place.
For example, they must first use up most of their reserves, and then have absences over a certain rate.
For mainstream schools, they must be experiencing a short-term teacher absence rate at or above 20 per cent or a lower long-term teacher absence rate at or above 10 per cent.
The department is also asking schools and academy trusts to pay for cover themselves from their existing budgets before claims can be made in spring 2021.
It adds it will publish detailed guidance about the claims process then.
Schools can only submit one claim overall, but they will need to itemise each period of absence claims.
And while the department won’t be asking for evidence of each item on a claim, “schools should hold a record of what has been covered, in case of individual enquiries”.
“As usual, we reserve the right to audit the expenditure and claw back money if claims have not been made in accordance with the guidance, in order to protect public spending. We will be carrying out assurance checks on a sample of the claims.
“The school must notify DfE immediately through the ESFA enquiry form where it becomes aware of any instance of error, suspected fraud or financial irregularity in the claim.”
Schools that can’t make up-front payments for additional costs “because of cash flow issues” are advised to follow the “normal process for seeking short-term advances to support the cash flow” through either the ESFA for academies or local authority if they are maintained.
The government, while collecting data on teacher absence, has not published figures for this academic year so far – despite doing so during the first national lockdown.
Teacher Tapp figures from last month showed how Yorkshire and the north east were the only regions with teacher absences above 10 per cent.
However, the proportion of teachers off had more than doubled across England since half-term.
To be eligible for the fund, schools have to be open to all pupils on the days in question – except where pupils are not physically in schools because they are complying with clinical or public health advice.
Schools must also have tried alternative options, such as using existing staff resources, be able to certify that the staffing absences are “necessary spend” to remain open to all pupils and that costs are not already covered by an existing insurance policy.
The workforce thresholds for special and alternative provision schools are lower.
These schools must have a total teacher absence rate above 15 per cent on a given day, or a long term rate of 10 per cent.