Two in five academy trusts plan to shun the government’s flagship National Tutoring Programme this year as confidence in finances plummets amid soaring costs, a survey suggests.
The Confederation of School Trusts annual survey of leaders found just 58 per cent expected to use some or all of their government-subsidised tutoring provision this year, down from 75 per cent last year.
It comes after the Department for Education subsidy was slashed, leaving schools and trusts to find half of the money themselves.
“The main difference is that now trusts do not expect to be able to match the funding, with rule changes meaning trusts are now expected to fund a larger proportion of costs themselves,” CST warned.
Overall, the survey pointed to a “significant reduction in financial confidence for the sector”.
In last year’s survey, 77 per cent of CEOs said they were very or quite confident about the financial sustainability of their trust. This year 46 per cent said the same.
Just twelve per cent said they were very confident, and 43 per cent reported feeling quite confident.
The number of CEOs saying they were not very confident rose from 3 per cent last year to 15 per cent, and a further 4 per cent said they were not confident “at all”.
Trusts ‘stepping in to fill the gaps’
CST chief executive Leora Cruddas warned the “long-term impacts of the pandemic, the shock of high inflation on energy and wage costs, and concerns about the school estate means too many school trusts are now worrying about the basics”.
“They are often stepping in to fill the gaps left by over-stretched council and NHS services, even as they find their own budgets under intense pressure.”
Asked about the biggest risks to financial sustainability, 40 per cent cited teaching staff costs, 36 per cent general inflation, 31 per cent difficulty planning ahead, 31 per cent energy costs and 29 per cent SEND.
Budgetary constraints were also the main cited barrier to achieving CEOs’ overall priorities, with 79 per cent saying this needed addressing.
Recruitment and retention was cited by 54 per cent and workload issues by 32 per cent. Twenty-four per cent also flagged concerns about engagement with the Department for Education.
But Cruddas said trusts were also “making their own weather”.
“They are pressing ahead with professional development to help their staff do better, and regularly reaching out beyond their organisations to work with the wider sector and the community. There is still a joyous and wonderful spirit in our schools and trusts.”
The survey results also show how the state of school buildings was a concern even before the RAAC crisis unfolded in August, which was after the survey was conducted.
At the time, more than half of trusts said they had one or more school building past their economic life or at risk of failure. Seventy-nine per cent said they had “at least some” buildings with “serious defects or that are not operating adequately”.
One in five trusts ‘unsure’ about growth
Around two-thirds of CEOs expected their trusts to grow over the next academic year, but 22 per cent were unsure about growth.
Some “felt they did not meet – or did not understand – the criteria required by their Department for Education regional director, even when they had schools willing to join”.
Others cited “perceived changes in the political landscape”.
One said: “We are seeking growth through [local authority] schools, but the lack of political drive towards academisation has slowed down this pipeline.”
Another reported that “schools are interested in joining but there are still plenty of myths to bust, plus the £25,000 conversion grant no longer seems to cover the cost of conversion, especially of church schools”.
Concerns over recruitment
Asked what would pose the biggest challenges this year, recruitment “emerged as the foremost concern”. More than three quarters of leaders said they expected it to be challenging.
Leaders were “more confident in their ability to retain staff and improve staff wellbeing, highlighted as a priority by the majority of trusts”.
Fifty-eight per cent of CEOs indicated they offered flexible working benefits to teachers and staff, while 15 per cent offered them for support staff alone.
But 26 per cent said they did not offer any form of flexible working.
Academies are allowed to deviate from national pay and conditions for their staff.
However, despite this “long-standing freedom”, CST found just 2 per cent of CEOs reported that they did not follow the national arrangements for either teachers or support staff.
‘Concerns’ over CEOs as governance leads
The report also warned that trusts are struggling to recruit local governors. Seventy-seven CEOs reported open vacancies for their local tier of governance, compared to 53 per cent who reported vacancies at trust board level.
The survey also found that four in 10 trusts did not have a dedicated governance professional.
Just over a fifth of trusts reported that their chief executive was the lead on governance, and this “raises some concerns”.
“To be effective, governance requires a strong degree of independence and separation between the executive and non-executive.
“To do otherwise compromises true accountability in governance. Trusts should also check their articles of association, as most explicitly prohibit the CEO from also serving as the governance professional.”