The National Audit Office report on academies
revealed the "estimated £1 billion additional cost to the Department (of Education)" of the expansion of the Academy programme from April 2010 to March 2012. Some reports have suggested the extra cost was just £350 million or that this £1 billion wasn't extra income but simply transfer of spending from maintained schools to academies.
At the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) this Monday the Permanent Secretary for Education, Chris Wormald, confirmed that this was not the case. The extra cost of the academies programme over this period was indeed £1 billion, compared to what would have been spent if the schools had remained in the maintained sector. This raises questions about priorities.
The vast majority of schools converting to academy status were already rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted (as this was initially a condition of conversion). If there was £1 billion available, should the bulk of it (£750 million) really have been spent on the schools that were already - with their existing funding - Good or Outstanding?
(Note: @samfr pointed out that £279 million of this £1 billion went on sponsored academies. This leaves £750 million on the general academy conversion programme. The above sentence was edited to reflect this.)
"So you believe that to him that has shall be given."
That was how Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Grimsby, put it. He asked, "Is it ... fair or right that the elite schools—the best performing schools—should be bribed to take academy status by being showered with cash, most of it more than the local authority was spending on education, which was taken from funds meant for underprivileged schools and for improving schools?" (The NAO report reveals that a substantial part of the moneyn came from funds previously intended for "underperforming schools".)
Both Rachel Wolf (of the New Schools Network) and Chris Wormald argued that the academies programme was the government's school improvement programme and argued that the strongly performing schools would help weaker ones. However there is little evidence of that happening so far.
The most surprising element of Chris Wormald's testimony was that, despite an extra £1 billion being spent, academies did not - he claimed - actually receive any extra money. This contradicts the common perception, with PAC Chair Margaret Hodge quoting the Reform survey
which found that 78% responded by claiming that. She also quoted the Christopher Cook analysis for the Financial Times
, that found that academies had been overpaid by £120 million. "I do not recognise those figures" was Wormald's response.
I am not sure which would be a greater indictment of the DfE, that schools were given huge incentives to convert or that £1 billion was spent on academy conversion without any school actually receiving any extra money. (The breakdown of the spend does show substantial parts of the billion went on elements like insurance and "transition costs".)
What would you have spent £1 billion on?
Imagine you were sitting in the DfE two years ago and involved in a brainstorm on how to spend a spare £1 billion. Would you have said "Let's spend it on the Good and Outstanding schools" or would you have looked for alternatives? One possibility would have been more on the pupil premium. Another would be funding partnerships of strong schools with nearby weaker ones.
Personally I would suggest learning from the London Challenge might have been a good idea. This was arguably the most successful school improvement of recent years, with 85% of the capital's schools now rated Good or Outstanding by Ofsted. And the cost? Just £40 million, according to the TES
. Half of the £1 billion would probably have paid for Challenge programmes in every region of the country, and for several years.
Details of the £1 billion
The detailed breakdown of the £1 billion, from para 15, (p9) of the NAO report:
£49 million - central programme administration
£338 million - transition costs (including the £279 million for sponsored academies)
£92 million - academy insurance
£22 million - support for academies deficits
£68 million - reimbursing academy VAT
£29 million - other grants
£21 million - double-funding
£59 million - protecting academies against year-on-year volatility in their income
"A further £350 million was money the department was not able to recover from local authorities to offset against academy funding." This totals to £1.028 billion.