Ok, blogging again on this site after another break. I’ve been hoping to have the article below published somewhere, but haven’t been successful, so thought I’d just post it on here. Please read on…

The Government is handing privately-sponsored academy trusts funding which could approach £1 million per school to take over the running of struggling former local authority primary and secondary schools.

The Department for Education is making the cash available from this month to support the capital and running costs of local authority schools converting to sponsored academies.

Critics say the move appears to undermine the principle of a “level playing field” for school funding and “looked like a bribe” to sponsors to take on schools as ministers seek to boost the academy chain policy, although the money is paid to the trust set up by a sponsor to run a school or group of schools, rather than the sponsor themselves. The department for education says the cash, which appears to be being disclosed for the first time in detail in relation to individual schools, is going to institutions where standards badly need to be raised and is actually less than has been made available in previous years.

A “note for sponsors on development funding and support for sponsored academies”, on the DfE’s website, spells out the funding to be made available to many newly-opened sponsored academies from April 2013 in order to “help sponsors achieve education transformation in their academy”.

It shows that, in addition to the resources given to conventional state schools, sponsored academies felt by the DfE to be in particular need of support will receive:

–          A “pre-opening grant”, worth £120,000 for primaries or £200,000 for a secondary, helping sponsors to meet legal bills and the payment of “key staff” such as the headteacher before it opens. The DfE says this money can be kept until after opening if unspent.

–          Unspecified additional cash support for “staff restructuring costs”.

–          On opening, £25,000-£50,000 per primary school to pay for extra “resources” costs, such as books and equipment, although there is no stipulation by the DfE on what it is spent on. In secondaries, the figure is £150 per pupil, or £150,000 in a 1,000-pupil comprehensive.

–          A payment of up to £135,000 over two years to primary schools which, when starting up as a sponsored academy, are taking below their full capacity of pupils. In secondaries, a school which opens at less than three quarters capacity would receive an additional £342,000, over three years, a government document shows.

–          A one-off payment of an additional £50,000 for primary schools, and £100,000 for secondaries, to support buildings refurbishment.

Adding up these figures, an academy trust set up by the sponsor of a primary school could receive up to £355,000 over two years, and a 1,000-pupil secondary school £792,000, over a three-year period, not including the unquantified “staff restructuring costs”, in addition to conventional state school funding. The figure for secondary schools could end up higher, too, than the £792,000 if the school were operating at less than 70 per cent capacity.

The DfE has two categories of sponsored academies: “full sponsored” institutions, replacing schools felt to be seriously underperforming, and “fast-track” for those deemed to need less support. Only the former get the full payments, with “fast-track” projects receiving up to £90,000.

Ministers have been facing increasing scrutiny over moves by DfE consultants, known as “brokers”, to push schools which have fared badly in Ofsted inspections towards academy sponsors. There has also been controversy over allegations that some have been offering cash incentives to schools of up to £65,000 to become sponsored academies.  The above figures, however, dwarf this sum.

Peter Downes, a Liberal Democrat councillor from Cambridgeshire who is a former secondary headteacher and has been a persistent critic of academies, said: “This looks to me like a new attempt to bribe schools into going for academy status.”

One of the DfE documents says that “on opening, a start-up grant is paid to full sponsored academies in order to assist them raise standards and transform educational attainment”. Sceptics question whether schools other than sponsored academies are receiving such support.

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Schools will need some money to go through the academy conversion process, but this looks like sweeteners to sponsors to take on these schools.

“What we want is a level playing field in terms of the funding of schools, and this is quite clearly not creating a level playing field. It is significant extra money for some schools compared to others.”

One of the DfE documents says that “on opening, a start-up grant is paid to full sponsored academies in order to assist them raise standards and transform educational attainment”.

The revelations will heighten scrutiny of academy funding within Michael Gove’s education department. Last November, the National Audit Office said the academies programme had added £1 billion in extra costs.

Under the academies system, schools either opt on their own to become an academy or are run as part of a chain of sponsored academies. In the past two years, the number of sponsored academies has more than doubled, to 633, with nearly one in eight of England’s secondary schools now a sponsored academy. An additional 246 sponsored academies are listed by the government as already in preparation to open by 2015.

Kevin Brennan, shadow schools minister, said: “These figures suggest that Michael Gove is more concerned about the number of academy conversions than using taxpayers’ money effectively to raise standards. He appears to be throwing more money at his pet projects whilst failing in his basic duty to provide enough school places.”

John Pugh, Liberal Democrat MP for Southport who led a Parliamentary debate on the “forced academy” policy last month, said: “Parliament  passed the Academies Bill on two assumptions. Firstly that schools would make a free choice and secondly that any choice to stay or remain with the local authority would take place on fair funding playing field.  In fact bullying and sheer bribery is taking place on an industrial scale. Away from the scrutiny and challenge of parliament Michael Gove is pursuing his pet project with autocratic flair, unlimited resources and a blinkered perspective on outcomes. Rarely has a minister been so indulged or seemed so unaccountable.”

A department for education spokeswoman said: “The idea that these are bribes is complete nonsense.

“First, we are entirely transparent about this funding – that is why the details are published on our website for all to see.

“Secondly, this funding is used only to tackle years of failure in the worst primary and secondary schools, often in the most deprived parts of the country.

“We make absolutely no apologies for helping these schools with time-limited costs so that their pupils can finally get a good education – this money pays for better leaders and better teachers.”

The spokeswoman added that “sponsored academy start-up costs have been cut significantly in the last three years”, but did not provide details of how much schools have received in the past.