Negotiating with a local education authority

Bruce Greig
September 11, 2020

How a small primary school resolved a funding dispute with their local education authority.

"The bottom line is ... you are not entitled to this funding" - Director, Children's Services, prior to the negotiation

This example involves a small primary school involved in a dispute with their local education authority (LEA) over a specific pot of funding.

The primary school had historically had five class rooms and seven year groups. This is very common in small rural primary schools: classrooms often have mixed-age children in them because there are fewer classrooms than year groups.

A few years earlier, though, the school had accepted an extra class of children who arrived during a bulge year. The LEA provided a modular classroom to accommodate them, taking the number of classrooms up to six. Schools are, broadly speaking, paid by the LEA for each child going to the school. But this extra bulge of children isn’t quite big enough to pay for the extra teacher and teaching assistant which the classroom needs. The extra children are too many to fit in an existing classroom, but the money per child which the school receives for the extra children isn’t enough to cover the costs of a whole extra teacher and teaching assistant.

So the LEA has a special pot of money to deal with situations like this. As well as providing the actual physical classroom, they top up the school’s funding, as if they had a whole extra class of 20 children, providing enough funds to pay for the teacher and teaching assistant. In the first year this happens, there are 14 children in the bulge, so the LEA tops up the school’s funding by 6 pupils.

As the years pass, though, some children leave and others join, and the bulge drops down to just 8 children after a few years. The school has mixed age classes anyway, so these children could easily be accommodated across other classes. The school doesn’t need to have a whole extra classroom any more.

When the children are in Year 4, about to enter Year 5, the LEA unexpectedly baulks at topping up the bulge year group by 12 children and insists at the start of a new financial year (April) that the school close the extra classroom that September and just accommodate the children across other classes. The LEA’s position is that the Governing Body should have realised that it was no longer necessary to devote a whole classroom to this bulge cohort and planned accordingly

The LEA relies on a written policy which explains how this top-up mechanism is supposed to work and insists that the extra money is not due to the school under the policy and that it will not be paid. Indeed, they go further and say that it should not have been paid the previous year and the fact that it was paid was an error on their part.

This presents the Governing Body with a serious problem. They can’t easily make staff redundant that quickly, but without funding from the LEA they will just not have enough money to pay all the staff.

My advice to the Governing Body was as follows:

  • Accept that the LEA’s position is completely reasonable. What they describe is completely sensible and is indeed how the policy should work. The children can be accommodated without the extra classroom and the money would be better spent in another school.

  • But the LEA’s position is not actually consistent with what the policy says. The policy is poorly worded and doesn’t quite deal with the situation that this school finds itself in. The policy, as it is written, suggests that the money is due to the school. Even though that might not be the intention of the policy, that seems to me the clearest interpretation of what it actually says. So the school could reasonably insist on the money and would have a good crack at winning if they took the LEA to a judicial review or a tribunal or whatever the formal process to resolve these disputes would be.

  • Point out that the LEA are themselves contracted to provide the school with “strategic financial planning advice”. That’s a service the school actually pays the LEA to provide (they could source that advice from a private-sector advisor, but they have chosen to purchase it from the LEA). The LEA’s financial advisor has happily helped the school prepare a budget assuming this extra money comes in.

  • Point out that it will be very disruptive for the school to try and make involuntary redundancies within one school term, and that’s not a situation of the school’s making.

  • Accept that the money won’t be due in future years and that, if paid this year, the school will quickly move to reduce the number of classrooms for two years hence.

This approach was all about coming across as completely crystal clear and reasonable. Everyone’s a grown up. No-one is throwing their toys out of the cot and whining. We understand the situation is difficult. But it is not of the school’s making and it is unfair to expect the school to bear the consequences.

Do local authority bureaucrats care that the situation is difficult and unfair? Yes, they do. They performed a 100% U-turn, paid the money out on the clear understanding it would not be paid again the following year. The school operated that year as they had planned to, and had plenty of time to implement a reduction in classes without any involuntary redundancies.

Discourage confrontation. Be thoughtful. Think win-win.