West Sussex County Council is considering setting aside £1million to support counselling services in the county’s schools.
At a meeting of the full council on Friday (February 17), Councillor Jeremy Hunt, cabinet member for finance, said the proposal was to make the money available from next September for any school’s who needed help.
Mr Hunt said: “Schools are coming under severe funding pressure and it’s come to our notice recently that the existing excellent counselling services provided by most schools is an area that is under threat.
“This service is an invaluable asset in the continuing work to support children, especially in the field of mental health where we’re doing such excellent work.”
Councillor Michael Jones (Lab, Southgate and Crawley Central) said he “somewhat welcomed” Mr Hunt’s announcement, but voiced concerns that pressures on school counselling services would see pupil exclusions going up “drastically” within the next two to three years.
The Worth Less? campaign’s ongoing battle for more money for West Sussex schools has long been making headlines. The county’s schools are currently given £40m less per year than the average-funded school and £200m less than some London boroughs.
While £79 per pupil more will be received via the National Funding Formula, which will come into effect in 2018, the money will be vastly overshadowed by increasing costs, which headteachers said would see them even worse off.
Those costs include the introduction of the government’s apprenticeship levy, which requires all employers with a pay bill of over £3m per year to fund apprenticeship training – whether they take on an apprentice or not. For West Sussex schools that levy was expected to be £1.7m.
The county council, though, has stepped up and allocated more than £800,000 to help ease the pressure.
Council leader Louise Goldsmith told the meeting the council “cannot ignore the serious issues around school funding in the county”.
Responding to Mr Hunt’s £1m announcement, she added: “In our ongoing dialogues with the headteachers, we know they will be making some really difficult decisions in the near future. It is because of that we are earmarking a sum of money incase needed to ensure that we minimise any impact on our children’s emotional wellbeing.”
Those difficult decisions included reductions to the curriculum, staff losses and even cutting the school week from five days to four.
The latter was described as “a nightmare scenario” by Jules White, head of Tanbridge House School, and “the last thing that any school would want to do”.
The Worth Less? campaign has seen headteachers petition Downing Street and take on presenter Piers Morgan in his own studio.
Their latest venture – an 80-minute meeting with schools minister Nick Gibb which included an appeal for emergency funding of £200 per pupil – was recently featured on BBC1’s The One Show. On their way to Westminster extremely early on a dull and drizzly morning, they explained their concerns to reporter Kevin Duala.
Grahame Robson, of Manor Green College, which caters for children with special educational needs, said: “We have already got down to a base level of funding. I can only provide at the moment a skeleton service.”
Mark McCadden, head of Birdham Primary, agreed adding: “We’ve done our efficiencies, we’ve cut our costs, we’re down to the bare bones.”
While the appeal for emergency funding was not successful, Mr White said: “We were all pleased with The One Show report. Crucially, it explained to a wider group of parents/careers the awful situation that schools are facing and the cuts to vital pastoral care and teaching provision that we are being forced to make.”
He added: “We are still waiting for an adequate reason why emerged funding is not forthcoming and will continue to press for answers via the Department for Education and local political leaders.”
Urging parents to get involved with the campaign, he said: “Our campaign is gathering momentum and we will not stop until an improved short and longer term outlook is secured”
Labour councillors suggested a “financial lifeline” for schools during Friday’s full council meeting. A proposed amendment to the budget was tabled, asking for £1.3m to be set aside for emergency education funding.
Michael Jones told the meeting: “Many of our schools now have little or no reserves. Even if they do have some, in many cases if something unexpected happens, like the boiler goes, they are going to be in dire straits.
“In the past year, of the 224 schools the county council are responsible for, 29 had to apply to West Sussex County Council to access a fund for schools in financial difficulty.
“Many more schools this year are reporting that their own financial reserves have now been almost entirely exhausted, indicating next year could see a significant number heading for deficits.”
The meeting ran out of time before the amendment could be debated and it was deferred to the next full council meeting, which will be held on March 24.
Speaking before the meeting, though, Mrs Goldsmith said: “This is desperate situation, however the shortfall runs at £40m and, in the very harsh financial landscape that we now live in, we simply do not have the available funds to plug even 10 per cent of this funding gap.”
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