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As another year has drawn to a close, it provides an opportunity to pause and reflect on what has been a year of little change in the academies and education sector. But as ever, little change doesn’t mean less cause for complaint from the sector, particularly when it is aimed at the government.

Funding

School funding continued to make the headlines mainly due to the lack of change and continued austerity. The Spring Budget saw a commitment to the National Funding Formula (NFF), with Justine Greening later launching NFF with a commitment that no school will lose out.

However, little news in both the Spring and Autumn Budgets continued to rile those in the sector with over 20 governing bodies in West Sussex threatening to strike in response.

Schools continued to weather the storm amid increasing employment costs alongside flat-funding. Many struggled to balance budgets, more often than not drawing upon their reserves from previous years.

Leadership

Lord Nash stepped down as Department for Education minister and was replaced by Lord Theodore Agnew who will take over responsibility for school governance. It is unlikely we will see little impact from him until the latest version of the Governance Handbook is released.

Eileen Milner was appointed as the new chief executive of the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and has already sought to make her mark, asking Academy Trusts to explain why executive leaders are receiving salaries in excess of £150,000 as well as announcing an academy trust “naughty list” for next year. It would appear she will prove a much tougher cookie than her predecessor, Peter Lauener.

Brexit and Government

Are we much further on in the process than we were 12 months ago? Well yes, a little, but there remains continued uncertainty heading into 2018. The sector is still completely unaware how leaving the European Union will impact upon schools and in particular, the teaching shortage. This is proving to be a problem as schools continue to look outside the UK for teachers.

A snap election saw the Conservatives go from a majority to a propped up minority. This in turn saw the reintroduction of grammar schools and forced academisation shelved.

Financial mismanagement

Unfortunately the collapse of Wakefield City Academies Trust made the headlines for academies for all the wrong reasons - the minority once again impacting upon the reputation of the majority. This raised more questions regarding the level of oversight in the sector from ministers.

Apprentices

The government’s Apprenticeship Levy initiative started in April with academy trusts operating a payroll of more than £3m contributing. Many had complained the system is clumsy and not user-friendly. This has led to the vast majority seeing the levy as an additional “tax” payroll burden.

What will happen in 2018?

By now everyone should know that GDPR will arrive in May. Many schools have not yet acted upon this and time is running out to ensure your school is going to be fully compliant in May. If you haven’t yet acted on this then I urge you do so.

Brexit will draw nearer and hopefully the impact on recruiting teachers outside the UK will become clearer as teacher retention and recruitment continues to be challenge.

We recently saw the SNP announce independent schools in Scotland will have to pay business rates by 2020. This will increase the pressure on independent schools in England and the Government may well see this as a good way to generate additional income.

Governors will continue to be highly valued throughout the sector. They give up their valuable time to the sector and do a fantastic job. We’re also seeing more and more skilled governors join the sector which is fantastic to see, lets just hope the bureaucracy of the sector doesn’t prove to be too much of a drain on them.

September will see the release of the ESFA’s “naughty list” of academy trusts who file their financial returns late. This transparency should help the sector and encourage trusts to be more organised, although this will be a minority as approximately 95% of trusts already tend to file on time.

Pupil numbers will increase in certain areas as the country’s population continues to swell, this should help boost school’s coffers but teachers will be needed for more students. Of course, this also brings with it significant infrastructure issues, particularly in the South East – with more roads, schools and hospitals at the top of the wanted list.

Finally, with the full extent of the NFF unclear, trusts continue to remain in uncertainty when it comes to budgeting. Many are continuing to try and balance their books but are fearful of losing staff before realising they can keep them on once the NFF impact is known. I expect 2018 to be another tough year financially for academy trusts and schools with hopefully some respite coming in 2019.

Collaboration is the key. Schools up and down the country are carrying out some fantastic work and we’re seeing the benefits of this with the new generations of students coming through. The sector needs to stick together and work together, as this will make everyone stronger and more resilient. In words of Jack Johnson “it’s always better when we’re together”.

We are hosting a series of Academies and Education Workshops in Kent and Sussex focussed on Trustee and Governor Responsibilities - learn more and book your place here.

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