Schools in Norfolk have paid more than £500,000 in “conversion costs” to their local authority to become academies, Schools Week can reveal.
The charges cover almost the entire estimated cost to the council of legal and financial work during the conversion.
But in other parts of the country schools paid far less, or nothing at all, leading experts to say conversion fees are “excessive” and a lottery.
Since 2013, 116 schools in Norfolk have paid between £3,300 and £17,150 each to the county council to become an academy, according to the response from a Freedom of Information request made by Schools Week.
Norfolk estimates the cost of conversion is £5,000 for legal, HR and other work. Of the estimated £555,000 cost to the council over the past four years, schools contributed £514,562.90 – 93 per cent of the total.
But at least two other councils that also charge schools to convert, Medway and Staffordshire, charge just half the cost and pick up the rest themselves, while Portsmouth charges just under a third.
Other councils do not yet charge at all – although Shropshire is considering a charge from April and East Sussex says the issue is under review.
The Department for Education (DfE) has previously said it does not expect councils to charge schools for conversion and that penalties must be “reasonable”. The government provides schools with a £25,000 grant to cover costs.
The disclosure shows how schools face a postcode lottery of charges when they convert into an academy or open a free school.
Swindon charges schools £5,000 to convert and to establish a free school where the council has to enter into a lease or other legal document. Since 2013 it has fined nine schools a total of £45,000, which a spokesperson said was a “reasonable sum” in light of the £25,000 grant.
Portsmouth, which also requests £5,000 for a school to convert, has charged 17 schools a total of £85,000 since 2013.
The DfE has previously said it does not expect councils to charge schools for conversion and that penalties must be “reasonable”
Medway charges an hourly fee for any legal or survey and lease costs, amounting to about half the council’s costs.
A spokesperson for West Sussex said it charged only if “additional costs” could not be met from its budget which was “rare.”
Meanwhile, Staffordshire introduced a £6,000 “financial contribution” charge in April last year. No school has converted since.
In Norfolk’s case, several schools were charged more than the £5,000 average cost. Heartsease primary academy was billed £17,150 in April 2013, as was Taverham high school in July that year.
A spokesperson for Norfolk said the greater cost was “exceptional” as these were private finance initiative (PFI) schools, and so subject to higher than normal legal fees.
Fakenham academy was charged £8,500 to convert in October 2013 and, last year, Thorpe St Andrew was charged £10,525.
The spokesperson added the fees were “fair and accurate” given the large amount of work required to convert schools that had become “a considerable drain on the finite resource” of the council.
Unions and funding experts have called for consistency across local authorities.
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, urged the government to pay conversion costs from the Treasury rather than use school budgets.
“A lot of conversion costs are going on lawyers and accountants, when that money should be going on education.”
Phillip Reynolds, academies and education manager at accountancy firm Kreston Reeves, said councils needed to be transparent about charges.
“Is the council providing a time sheet of evidence of what work it has put in?”
He said it was “excessive” to ask a school to cover the council’s entire cost of conversion, adding that it should be picked up by the Education Funding Agency.
Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said some councils had “no option” in the face of a £450 million cut to the educational services grant but to charge schools that converted.