How did school end up swamped by debt?
Considered one of the jewels in Camden’s secondary school service with exam results to back it up
Popular and successful William Ellis faces big challenge to balance the books and clear a debt of £500,000 within two years
A SIMPLE blunder over paying for a new heating system is at the heart of the financial crisis threatening to engulf one of Camden’s most popular secondary schools, insiders have revealed.
Well-placed sources suggested William Ellis School, in plain terms, forgot to pay for new boilers and spent the money that had been put aside for the project.
It is claimed that when the invoice came in, the required funds had been eaten up by a spending spree in other departments and the bill plunged the school into the red.
The prestigious all-boys school has been struggling to balance the books ever since and must now find £500,000 to square the accounts.
It is understood the problems can be traced back over years rather than months, although the discovery of the difficulty was more recent.
Staff and governors at the school in Highgate Road had hoped to keep their own inquiry into the source of the debt under wraps, possibly without the need to tell parents.
But speculation has grown unfettered at the school gates since the New Journal revealed the crisis in a front page exclusive story before Christmas and there have been wild suggestions that everyday costs such as photocopying have been rationed and hints staff have been asked to watch what they spend.
The full results of the school’s investigation are not likely to be made public but insiders are pointing to overlooked bills surrounding the heating system as being a key factor.
“It is not the sole reason William Ellis is in this difficulty but it accounts for a lot of it,” said one. “It is a staggering thing to happen at such a well-run school but everybody is being stoical about it.”
Partly to quash rumours about how the financial constraints might affect the daily running of the school and how the money might be recovered, parents were invited to a special meeting on Thursday where its management were said to be as frank as they thought they could be.
Vernon King, chairman of governors, said yesterday (Wednesday): “Parents were given an opportunity to discuss the repayment plan and wider issues concerning the budget with both governors and the headteacher last week. The governors felt this was a constructive meeting.”
While the school is reluctant to talk to the press about the fine detail of the deficit, the simplicity of the apparent error in the accounts has surprised and, privately at least, annoyed some of the main figures in the Town Hall’s education department. They were said this week to be anxious that any criticism does not fall at their door and have marked a line in the sand by setting a two-year deadline for the school to clear the debt.
That has been regarded as a strict timetable which some teachers are worried could mean the school is forced into its most drastic battle-plan rather than diluting the possible cutbacks over a longer period. A recovery strategy has already been mapped out with support staff being cut and unions are worried that class sizes will increase, possibly by 25 per cent.
While two other secondary schools in Camden are operating on a deficit budget, losses elsewhere are nowhere near £500,000.
At Thursday’s meeting instead of barracking teacher and governors, some parents asked about how they could get involved in any fund-raising events that might help the school.
“There was a real blitz spirit among some of us,” said one. “Our children love the school and we are in it together. It would be one heck of a jumble sale but if we can help – we’d love to.”
Mr King added: “We are now looking forward to working with parents and staff to ensure that they are implemented with the minimum disruption to the life of the schools and its pupils.”
It is an unexpected situation for William Ellis to find itself in as it is more accustomed to positive headlines. The school is considered one of the jewels in Camden’s secondary school service and has the exam results to back it up.
There are never shortages of applications for places and the school has been able to draw on middle class families living close by in Highgate and Hampstead to enrol some of the borough’s brightest pupils. It is often said privately that the school is regarded as the perfect solution for middle class families who are pushy about where their children go to school but are uncomfortable with the principle of using public schools.
Former students include writer Toby Young and film-maker Julien Temple and a host of eminent university professors, while former health secretary Patricia Hewitt braved a ‘double standards’ row when she was alleged to have passed up schools nearer to her Camden Town home to send her son there nine years ago.
Former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell, although never a governor as is often suggested, also sent his children there.
When details of the pinch began leaking out of the school last month, Mr King said: “Like many schools we are carrying forward a deficit and have produced a repayment plan to take the school back into credit in line with our statutory requirement.”
He was expected to meet union members this week about their involvement.
Andrew Baisley, from Camden NUT, said his ranks would call on the council to extend the tight two-year deadline to four or five years so that the pain of any cutbacks and increased class sizes could be spread.
“It is clear that the deficit is the result of the financial mismanagement of a number of projects at the school,” he said.
“However, the good news is that the school’s income and expenditure are not out of line and so the school’s difficulties are short term and do not necessitate permanent cuts in provision. We are deeply concerned that the financial recovery plan envisages clearing the debt in just two years. We believe this will change the education of the students. Among the measures being proposed in the plan are increasing the size of GCSE classes in English, maths and science by 20 per cent and increasing class sizes in the lower school by 25 per cent in all subjects.”
The NUT wants teachers, parents and governors to lobby for more time from the council to put things right.
Mr Baisley added: “The school have said that this won’t have an impact on the teaching and learning. We do not believe that such drastic action will have anything other than a negative effect on teaching and learning.
“We think it is wrong that the students will have to suffer so much. While we believe that those responsible for the situation have to account for their actions, we believe that Camden Council should work with the school to allow them to repay the deficit over a longer period.”
Camden disagrees with the NUT’s claims that the school’s recent budgets were sustainable and insists it had to act.
Camden’s education chief Councillor Andrew Mennear said the Town Hall had no choice but to ask the school to clear the debt.
He said that the council had been working with the school for at least a year already so the deadline was closer to four years than two.