DfE gives £17m to academy trusts to ‘try before you buy’

Money was released to support maintained schools at risk of 'unexpected or imminent failure'

Money was released to support maintained schools at risk of 'unexpected or imminent failure'

29 Apr 2023, 5:00

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Ministers have handed out almost £17 million in little-known grants to entice academy trusts to support schools at risk of “imminent failure”, with bigger MATs most likely to benefit.

Figures obtained by Schools Week show 201 of 242 applications (80 per cent) for the “emergency school improvement fund” were approved between April 2018 and April last year.

A total of £16.6 million was released to support maintained schools at risk of “unexpected or imminent failure”.

David Bagley, the chief executive of DRB Schools and Academies Services, said the emergency grant acted as an “incentive” for trusts to expand. 

“It’s like a try before you buy [for the academy trust]. You have to be quite specific when you’re claiming from it, but it’s there because local authorities can no longer provide that level of support to boost standards and improvement.”

But unlike other handouts that can aid takeovers, these payments are not published in the Department for Education’s academies sector annual report.

The yearly statements only break down the “support for academy trusts in financial difficulty” scheme, in which £21 million was paid out in 2020-21 alone.

Larger trusts benefit most

Analysis of the emergency takeover handouts show larger chains usually benefited most – with successful applicants running 10 schools each on average. 

Jeff Marshall, of academy advisers J&G Marshall, said the “majority [of trusts] won’t even know that this money exists because the DfE doesn’t proactively tell anyone it is available. It’s a little-known one. 

“It doesn’t say in the guidance what imminent failure looks like – what is that? It’s the bigger trusts that usually access this funding because they already have the relationships with the DfE where they say ‘we need £400,000 to take that school on’.”

Bagley said he first became aware of the scheme when it “cropped up” on his LinkedIn feed about five weeks ago. 

Marshall called for the “playing field to be levelled out”.

The DfE said trusts must have support from a local authority or regional director before applying to the emergency fund. 

Eligible schools included those rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted or any that had dropped from ‘outstanding’ to ‘requires improvement’, “where there is strong evidence immediate support is necessary”. 

Chains handed hundreds of thousands

Figures obtained through Freedom of Information requests reveal Outwood Grange was given more than £465,000 to prop up three secondaries that later joined the chain.

It also had the largest single payment in the past two years, receiving almost £270,000 to support Kirkby College in Nottingham last February.  The secondary was absorbed by the 40-school chain seven months later. 

The trust was also given just under £200,000 to help Haydock High School in St Helens and Hindley High School in Wigan, before they opted to join the group at the beginning of 2022.

A spokesperson said it was asked to take on schools in challenging circumstances. They were all in special measures.  

“Quite rightly, the DfE supports some of the legitimate costs involved with such projects,” she said.

“But even we have to find significant sums of money to try and turn around the fortunes of these schools.” 

The DfE also gave £202,000 to Chiltern Way Academy Trust to prop up Northern House School (Wokingham) Special Academy in 2020-21. Northern House later became the chain’s second school.   

Money helped trusts ‘support schools’

Meanwhile, Dixons Academies Trust received more than £300,000 from two separate applications to support Broadgreen International School and Fazakerley High, both in Liverpool, in 2021-22. 

The chain insisted it was asked to support the maintained secondaries by the regional schools commissioner and the local authority. 

“The emergency school improvement money enabled us to support the schools in advance of conversion without diverting or mis-spending funds intended for our existing students in Bradford and Leeds,” a spokesperson said. 

“It was all spent on the schools while they were still authority maintained with their predecessor headteacher, and the connection could have ended once the project ended.” 

The DfE insisted the emergency fund, which has been running since 2017-18, was not intended to aid MAT expansion – “it is for them to support academy-maintained schools facing unexpected or imminent failure”.

Applications “must demonstrate value for money”, while “the day rates for system leaders must be in line with national benchmarks”.

A spokesperson added such grants were published as part of monthly transparency reports of spending of more than £25,000. But it was not possible to work out which payments related to this specific scheme as they were recorded only as “current grants – academy trusts”.

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