Council pulls ‘unviable’ support services after academy rise

Changes were in part 'driven by the conversion of maintained schools to academies'

Changes were in part 'driven by the conversion of maintained schools to academies'

A council has pulled several back-office support services for schools after the rising rates of academies contributed to them becoming financially unviable.

West Northamptonshire Council (WNC) will no longer provide schools with payroll, HR advisory and employee lifecycle services from April.

The decision was made in part due to the high levels of academisation and competitive market of the services.

Experts said it is “another sign of the decreasing role of local authorities” in supporting schools.

Council pulls services

Last year Northamptonshire County Council (NCC) split into two unitary councils; WNC and North Northamptonshire Council (NNC).

WNC took on responsibility for schools’ payroll, HR advisory and employee lifecycle for both councils.

But in December a letter sent to schools, and seen by Schools Week, revealed they would no longer be providing the non-statutory services.

Assistive technology admissions

This was down to “financial viability… and the influence of the competitor market on the sustainability of providing the services”.

Agenda notes from a meeting on the decision explain the council was unlikely to achieve its targeted revenue for HR Advisory “due to the low take-up from schools buying the services that are offered, driven by the conversion of maintained schools to academies”.

Maintained schools have the option to use council services or procure privately.

Of the 131 primary and secondary schools in NNC, 72 per cent are academies. While this figure is 60 per cent in WNC.

Across both areas there are 102 maintained schools, just two of which are secondary.

A WNC spokesperson said that “academisation is not a reason in itself” for the council to end its services, but that academy trusts provided these services in house or had existing contracts with other providers.

“We have found that need is increasingly being fulfilled by the market, reducing the need for schools to rely on the council subsidised service,” they added.

Schools Week revealed this week that the government is expected to set an ambition for all schools to become academies by 2030 in its upcoming white paper.

Until 2020, NCC was part of the Local Government Shared Services (LGSS) along with Cambridgeshire County Council and Milton Keynes Council.

At the time services were pulled, WNC’s provision was used by 143 schools in Northamptonshire and 24 in Milton Keynes.

The subsidised service cost the council just over £320,000.

Schools could lose economies of scale

Matthew Clements-Wheeler.
Matthew Clements-Wheeler.

Ian Marrey, the National Education Union’s (NEU) senior regional officer for the East Midlands, said it was “another sign of the decreasing role of local authorities in supporting the family of schools in their area”.

In 2019, Rotherham Council pulled its IT tech support from schools after being undercut by commercial competitors and academy trusts providing their own services.

Marrey added the NEU feared schools “may well be worse off” now they are purchasing services away from the “economies of scale” provided by the council.

WNC confirmed it has provided extensions to a “small number” of schools upon request.

Matthew Clements-Wheeler, former chair of the Institute of School Business Leaders (ISBL), said schools moving away from LA provision “isn’t necessarily a bad thing” and it was possible for schools to save money.

The change was not enough to encourage a school to join an academy.

But he added: “Every single thing that severs thread by thread the relationship between a school and its local authority is something which could potentially lead to that relationship breaking down and that school saying ‘I want to academise’.”

Confederation of School Trusts (CST) chief executive Leora Cruddas said it did not “constitute a system risk” for maintained schools as the services “can be procured elsewhere”.

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