COUNCIL bosses have pledged to help “strengthen and sustain” a County Durham school nearly £2million in the red.

Durham County Council’s cabinet discussed the outcome of a review into 0-16 school provision in the county.

The probe was launched in 2017 in response to financial difficulties experienced by some schools as a result of falling admission numbers and funding changes.

Weardale was one of three areas flagged in the review, due to the finances of Wolsingham School – a secondary which faces a deficit balance of £1.7 million in April.

One option to tackle issues in the Weardale area includes creating a federation of schools. This would allow the pooling of resources and shared governance, allowing Wolsingham to pay back debts over a number of years.

A second option includes Wolsingham School becoming part of a multi-academy trust, which would have to be agreed by the Regional Schools Commissioner.

A council report states the school hopes to balance its in-year budget by 2021/22 subject to a planned restructure and assumptions around admission numbers.

At the cabinet meeting at the council’s Spennymoor offices this week, several councillors and parents quizzed education bosses about the school’s future.

And Coun John Shuttleworth, who represents the Weardale division, asked why the the council didn’t take steps earlier to address the deficit.

While schools are allowed to set deficit budgets for three years and for no more than 20 per cent of their budgets up to £750,000, Wolsingham has been allowed to operate outside of these requirements while the review was running.

Cabinet member for Children and Young People’s Services on the council, Coun Olwyn Gunn, said the county was facing issues around falling pupil numbers and “real-term cuts” in school funding.

If the council forced the school to balance its budget earlier, councillors were told, it would have been been “detrimental” to education in the area and forced  job cuts.

Coun Gunn said: “There has simply not been enough pupils on roll to drive funding allocations, which are largely pupil-driven now and which are subject to statutory restrictions on what we can and can’t do to direct funding to individual schools.

“The measures being taken by the school to improve its financial position, including suspending sixth form, are those that the governors and leadership of the school decided they needed to take to help discharge their duties under the scheme of delegation of schools finance and to prevent the financial position from any further deterioration.”

At the meeting, concerns were raised about the reluctance of some schools to join the federation model.

Stanhope parish councillor, Fiona Graham, added the loss of the school would create travel issues for pupils and called for lessons to be learned from the school falling into debt.

Coun Gunn confirmed that an estimated eight schools agreeing to form a federation could provide a “workable solution”. This would depend on the size of financial position of individual schools, with larger primary schools in the area being “key” to this option.

The meeting heard if funding rates had kept pace with inflation since 2009/10, the pot available for schools would be 15% higher -with an extra £46 million for County Durham.

For a secondary school like Wolsingham School, Coun Gunn said, this would equate to £600,000.

She added:“The word closure has been mentioned and it has to be mentioned to be realistic, but we’re clearly not anywhere near that point.

“I’m not focusing on closure because I believe that there are two viable options there and sadly I think it does a disservice to the school, children and the staff to talk up closure.

“The worst aspect to me is the potential to affect the recruitment of children to the Wolsingham school family which will effectively, without a doubt, affect the income of the school.

“And effectively, damage a good school working hard, working with us to strengthen and sustain education for children and young people.

“This council is not the enemy, we do not provide the funding, the government provides the funding and we must, as a council, work within the strict confines of government legislation.

“What we can do and will do, is work with everyone concerned to strengthen and sustain the schools, working together it is possible to strengthen and sustain this good school.”

Wolsingham school was refurbished in 2016 at a cost of £7.4 million and is currently rated ‘good’ by Ofsted.

While there has been an increase in numbers of children going to the school, council bosses were told the current situation is not sustainable.

A deadline of July 31 has been set for schools to decide what option will be taken going forward, with council bosses discussing the next steps in the Autumn.