January 5, 2017 at 08:09AM

Small schools whose budgets are already under severe pressure could be pushed beyond breaking point by the introduction of the new apprenticeship levy, school and local government leaders are warning.

The levy, to be introduced in April, requires all businesses – including schools – with a wage bill over £3m a year, to contribute 0.5% of their wage bill to fund new apprenticeships.

But whereas academy or faith schools – who employ their own staff – will be exempt from the levy if their wage bill is under the £3m threshold, small schools with similar wage bills that are run by local authorities will have to pay the levy because staff are employed by the authority and therefore contribute to the overall wage bill of the council.

The Local Government Association (LGA), which represents 370 councils in England and Wales, argues that all schools with a wage bill of less than £3m should be exempt from paying the levy and says council-maintained schools are being “dealt an unfair hand” compared with academies.

“It is discriminatory for small council-maintained schools not to be exempted from the apprenticeship levy in the same way that small academies and faith schools will be,” said Richard Watts, chair of the LGA’s children and young people board.

“They will be forced to find additional money to pay the levy, while an academy or faith school with an identical wage bill can invest that money in making sure their pupils get an excellent education.”

The LGA estimates that the disparity will affect up to 2.8m pupils at 9,000 council-maintained schools with wage bills under £3m. Watts called on the government to level the playing field for schools, adding: “It is no secret that many schools are struggling with their funding, yet once again, council-maintained schools are being dealt a poor hand compared to academies.”

In response, apprenticeship and skills minister Robert Halfon said the apprenticeship levy would boost economic productivity, increasing the country’s skills base and give millions a step up the ladder of opportunity.

“In the majority of cases, local authorities will be responsible for paying the levy in the community schools they maintain, rather than the schools themselves. We expect these schools to have full access to funding for apprenticeship training and will support all employers, including schools and local authorities, in using levy funds to invest in quality apprenticeships.”

The growing crisis in school budgets is likely to produce a string of headlines in the coming year with reports from schools around the country of class sizes going up, teacher and support staff jobs being lost, and curriculum choices narrowing.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, said the new apprenticeship levy could push some school budgets beyond breaking point. Figures released by the National Audit Office at the end of last year revealed that schools in England are facing cuts of £3bn, resulting in an 8% real-terms cut in funding per pupil by 2019/20.

Civil servants expect schools will need to make efficiency savings of £1.3bn through better purchasing and save another £1.7bn by using staff more efficiently. In the meantime many are having to meet increased national insurance and pension contributions. “The new apprenticeship levy is yet another example of a government policy negatively impacting school budgets and, potentially, standards,” said Hobby.

“When the national funding formula was announced the government promised that no school would lose more than 1.5% of its budget, as this would be so drastic a reduction.

“But the apprenticeship levy will mean that council-maintained schools of any size will lose a further 0.5% of their staff budget – and this on top of the 8% real-terms cut in funding schools are already faced with,” he said.

The NAHT called for small council-maintained schools to be treated in the same way as small academies and free schools. Hobby said: “It is not fair for some pupils to suffer purely because of the structure of their school and the way it receives its funding.

“We further call for the government to recognise new training and apprenticeship schemes that schools can access, using the dedicated apprenticeship funding gathered by the levy. Currently small schools are faced with paying into a fund they may not be able to benefit from.”

from Education | The Guardian http://ift.tt/2hWoMhB