Public accounts committee asks DfE to show its working

An influential group of MPs has publicly questioned the Department for Education’s ability to support schools with financial problems.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the parliamentary public accounts committee, has written to Jonathan Slater, the DfE’s permanent secretary, demanding an update on several government cost-saving initiatives.

Although an additional £1.3 billion of funding will be pumped into schools over the next two years, many still face real-terms cuts as a result of increasing cost pressures.

We remain concerned about the support the department can realistically provide to schools whose budgets cannot stand up to the savings demanded of them

On top of this funding, which is to come from savings from the free school programme and other government initiatives, the DfE has announced a range of other policies to help individual schools save cash.

But Hillier said efforts to save money on free school sites had emerged too late, and questioned government’s progress with other cost-saving initiatives.

Last month, Slater set out the various ways his department planned to help schools with funding pressures during a committee hearing.

Efforts include the creation of new procurement hubs to help schools find back-office savings, but in his evidence, Slater admitted using the hubs was “not yet the norm” for schools.

As a result, MPs “remain concerned” about the support the department and its funding agency can “realistically” give to schools whose budgets “cannot stand up to the savings demanded of them”, according to Hillier.

Slater had also set out plans for the government to hire more financial specialists and offer academy trusts support from “school efficiency advisers”. A method to identify local authority-maintained schools at risk of financial difficulty is also under development.

Hillier is now demanding an update, expressing fears about struggling schools “being picked up and supported”.

She has also asked for more information about the government’s plans to find savings by using more local authority-owned land. This is a “major challenge” in areas with scarce space such as London, where free school sites can sometimes cost in excess of £30 million.

“The department’s plans to reduce the cost of school sites is something that should not have come through at this late stage of the free schools programme and shows a clear lack of thinking at the early stage of the programme,” she said. “We would welcome an update on the department’s work with local authorities to secure future sites.”