A government cost-cutter recommended a special school for severely disabled pupils slash £150,000 from its staffing spend just months before it was shut because it was unsafe.
Ofsted found “disturbing” levels of neglect as the “lack of staff leaves pupils at imminent risk of harm”. The school was immediately closed after the inspection in January last year.
We can now reveal the government sent one of its school resource management advisers (SRMA) to work with the Evolve Trust, which ran the school at the time, between October and December 2021.
A draft report seen by Schools Week shows the cost-cutter recommended Harlow reduce its spend on educational support staff by £150,000 – the equivalent of 5.5 full time workers.
The adviser said its “current spend is very high when benchmarked against comparator schools”.
However Warren Carratt, chief executive of the Nexus Multi-Academy Trust, which now runs the school, said it was “woefully over-simplistic to define the school as spending too much money on staffing”.
The SRMA highlighted the school was spending more than all its income on staff.
Departing staff had contributed to “correcting this overspend”, however, and more were expected to leave in the next few months.
But Carratt said that when his trust took over, it found some pupils required additional funding from the council – meaning the school “wasn’t getting the level of funding” needed.
SRMAs also apply the integrated curriculum and financial planning tool to schools they visit, which tests whether schools are overspending based on what is considered an adequate staffing level.
However Carratt said it was “heavily mainstream-focused” and was “never going to provide the necessary lens of scrutiny the trust should have been subjected to”. Special schools have a higher staff-to-pupil ratio than mainstream schools.
A DfE spokesperson said it “does not comment on leaks or speculation.
“However, SRMAs are independent advisers who have significant experience of school or academy trust business management. Feedback shows that school and trust leaders find SRMA’s free help supports their decision-making.”
Officials mull six-month safeguarding review
They said recommendations were “a starting point” for a trust to consider if it was making the best use of resources.
Officials wanted the adviser to check the trust was following the appropriate processes and policies.
Schools Week also obtained the Department for Education’s “lessons learned” review of the case.
This proposed introducing a safeguarding review six months after an academy transfer or conversion where Ofsted had rated safeguarding ‘inadequate’, something officials are now considering.
But the DfE concluded while this and other data sharing changes would have improved the regulation of academies, it “would not have affected the outcome of this case”.
This is despite a separate local safeguarding review earlier this year finding Ofsted should have inspected Harlow three months earlier than it did. Health staff had sounded the alarm 20 times and parents had flagged concerns for months.
The safeguarding review said parents and carers complained in September 2021 that “staffing levels were very poor as more staff left”.
‘Challenges’ for ESFA and regional directors
The DfE review said the first safeguarding complaint over pupil safety was lodged on November 3. This related to staff shortages, “rapid” departures of staff and “pupils consequently left at risk of harm”.
The trust responded to the allegation by stating “the reduced staffing would not impact the health and safety of pupils, as …the school was ‘over-staffed’.”
The Education and Skills Funding Agency “investigated the allegations as far as possible” but the anonymous complaint could not be taken further.
It added that throughout the pandemic, there were “challenges” for regional directors and the ESFA “receiving timely information regarding complaints received” by councils and Ofsted.
The review also revealed how an external review of governance, recommended by the government in July, did not take place.
When asked if the safeguarding changes were still under consideration, the DfE said: “Following an internal review, internal changes to ensure a proportionate, risk-based approach to handling safeguarding cases have been implemented.”
Harlow reopened under Nexus in 2022. Carratt said pupils were “now thriving and the school is going from strength to strength”.
Correction: This article has been amended to state staff-to-pupil ratios for special schools are higher, not lower, than mainstream schools.