The government will slash more than £40 million a year in school improvement funding, with a raid on maintained school budgets planned to plug the gap.
The Department for Education confirmed the cuts today despite a consultation revealing strong opposition among respondents, mostly maintained schools and councils.
It says the measures will put maintained schools “on a more even footing” with academies.
The DfE argues multi-academy trusts have to top-slice to cover school improvement work, as they do not receive the same dedicated funding as councils do.
Councils will therefore receive new powers to top-slice local authority-controlled school budgets to seek to cover the shortfall. Authorities voiced fears such top-slicing could meet local resistance, but the DfE said it will “reserve the right to permit de-delegation against the wishes of a schools forum”.
The changes will “enable councils to better adjust over time to the government’s long-term ambition for all schools to become academies within a strong trust”. Some respondents explicitly objected on the grounds the changes may incentivise further academisation.
Current grant funding for maintained school improvement, in place since 2016, was worth £50 million a year in the previous round.
Local authorities were entitled to a minimum of £50,000 each in the last funding round, but most received far more. Lancashire council was paid the most, receiving £1.96 million to cover the year up to April to cover 544 schools.
The government acknowledged “significant concern” in responses to its consultation, but still said it would press on. The next round of grants, which had been forecast at “circa £41 million”, will instead be halved in 2022-23, before being scrapped altogether the following year.
Respondents were asked if they agreed councils’ core improvement work would still be adequately funded. Seven in ten disagreed, with many warning it would put pressure on school budgets, particularly in small, rural schools.
Some said councils would not have sufficient funds to provide support, and it may lead to schools receiving “inadequate support”. Other respondents noted councils still had some responsibilities over academies and provided local intelligence to regional schools commissioners.
The DfE highlighted the extra £1.6 billion in core schools funding announced in the recent spending review. “While we recognise schools’ budgets face other pressures as well, the scale of this increase significantly offsets the pressure that may be felt through the loss of this grant.”
The consultation revealed fears council efforts to plug funding gaps by top-slicing budgets could be blocked by local schools forums. But the DfE said it will “reserve the right to permit de-delegation against the wishes of a schools forum” – provided councils demontrate it is “necessary” for core school improvement work.
Respondents also called for greater clarity on core school improvement activity. The DfE said it would update guidance on schools causing concern.
The changes will make clear such work goes beyond solely exercising formal intervention powers, the grant focuses on maintained schools, and it does not require councils to fund or provide school improvement themselves.
Meanwhile the government recognise “there is a strength of feeling” about academisation. “There was a not insignificant number who objected on the grounds that the proposals may incentivise further academisation.”
The NAHT had previously warned the reforms will be seen as a “thinly veiled attempt” to boost academy conversions.
But it said officials “don’t consider this a reason” councils won’t be able to fund themselves enough for school improvement.
The reforms will be taken through parliament this month and councils will be able to top-slice by April, the DfE said. The two final grant payments will be made by May and November 2022 respectively.