Academy reserves surge to £3.9 billion after Covid savings

The average academy trust saw their reserves jump 29%, boosted by unlikely Covid windfalls

The average academy trust saw their reserves jump 29%, boosted by unlikely Covid windfalls

19 Apr 2022, 11:00

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Academy trust coffers swelled by more than a quarter last year, with the sector’s total financial reserves surging to nearly £4 billion.

Schools Week has previously revealed how partial school closures, exam cancellations and other scrapped activities saved trusts significant sums amid the pandemic.

New grants also helped offset Covid’s extra costs and better-off trusts tapped donors. However some of the rise could be attributed to delayed construction projects leaving funds unspent, as well as increased academisation and trust growth.

Data published today by the Department for Education shows 97.4 per cent of trusts reported having surplus cash or breaking even in their most recent accounts.

The average trust had £1.48 million in reserves, up by more than a quarter from £1.15 million in 2019-20. There have been calls for the government to investigate trust reserves, amid concerns over funds intended for current pupils going unspent even before Covid.

The latest document shows the average trust’s reserves amounted to 12.9 per cent of their income in the year to 31 August 2021, up from 11.4 per cent the previous year.

The net £3.94 billion combined reserves trusts enjoyed marked a sharp improvement on the £3.13 billion recorded in 2019-20, which included only the initial phase of the pandemic.

Meanwhile 70 trusts reported deficits, with a combined black hole of £22.4 million – but this was down from £42.1 million a year earlier.

Part of the growth in reserves could also reflect academies’ growth, with a 3.9 per cent jump in academy numbers during the year. Trust numbers fell by 2.4 per cent, as the average trust grew in size from managing 3.5 schools to 3.7.

Data for maintained schools published in December showed a similar picture, with Covid fuelling an unlikely turnaround in their finances.

DfE figures showed the biggest annual decline in schools in deficit since records began in 2003, dropping from 12 per cent of schools to 8.4 per cent.

It remains significantly higher than the 2.6 per cent of academy trusts in deficit. Trusts and councils use different financial years however, with maintained school figures covering the year to 31 March 2021 rather than to 31 August.

The average maintained school’s revenue balance jumped from £110,690 in 2019-20 to £160,490 this year.

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, acknowledged at the time schools had made savings, but called them “one-off” and said budgets remained “challenging”.

NEU analysis of the same data showed school income remained lower than 2015-16 levels, and spending on special schools continued to fall. It also noted significant regional divides in deficit levels, and said cuts to per-pupil income were highest in deprived areas.

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