Academy trusts’ cash stash rises to £3bn despite pandemic pressures

Academy trust reserves have grown.

Academy trusts boosted their reserves and surpluses last year despite the upheaval of Covid, official figures show.

New Department for Education data confirms a 20 per cent jump in the average trust’s reserves, up from £0.96 million a year earlier to £1.15 million. The figures cover the year to the end of last August however, capturing only the first phase of the pandemic.

95.9 per cent of trusts ended the year with a cumulative surplus or balanced books, up from 94 per cent in 2018-19.  The net cumulative surplus across the sector rose to £3.13 billion.

The average surplus balance was £1.22 million, up 16 per cent, while the average deficit balance was £376,000.

Only 112 trusts posted a cumulative deficit, with a total budget shortfall of £41.1 million between them. The figure had stood at £64.4 million a year earlier.

The data also suggests trusts recorded better in-year finances than individual maintained schools. 12.9 per cent of maintained schools had a cumulative deficit, compared to just 4.1 per cent of trusts. Figures were not provided for individual academy schools or wider local authority budgets.

Schools Week analysis in March found some of the largest multi-academy trusts riding out the pandemic, with annual accounts revealing lockdown slashed their utility bills, exam and educational supply costs.

“We only hear about schools that have extra costs, but some actually made savings,” said Julie Cordiner, who runs the School Financial Success advice website, at the time.

Meanwhile the DfE noted “some consolidation” in the sector, with single-academy trusts declining in number and more academies in MATs. Its figures suggest the average number of academies per trust rose from 3.12 to 3.45 in the space of a single year.

The total number of trusts actually declined by 3.8 per cent between 2018-19 and 2019-20, but the number of academies in trusts rose by 6.5 per cent.

Schools Week research last month found a merger was approved every five days over the past year, and all academies would be in MATs by 2027 if the current pace of growth were sustained.

But education leaders and experts say evidence that bigger meant better was limited, and note many schools fear losing their autonomy in larger trusts.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced a new drive to get every school into a MAT in April.

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