Tunbridge Wells could be left out of pocket to the tune of half a million pounds a year if the government succeeds in forcing all schools to become academies.
That was the message to come out of last week’s meeting of the full borough council.
It coincides with a unanimous vote by members of Kent County Council to write to the education secretary, Nicky Morgan, to say the reforms are flawed and should be dropped. The move is part of a growing backlash against the proposals.
The revelation that the borough council will lose out financially came from Cllr Paul Barrington-King, Portfolio Holder for Finance and Governance, in response to a question from Labour Cllr Alain Lewis.
Describing the government’s plans as an ‘ideological raid’ on maintained schools, Cllr Lewis asked: “What would be the financial implications of the schools in the area becoming academies?” Cllr Barrington-King said the largest potential financial impact would be in relation to business rates which currently all schools, with the exception of special schools, are liable to pay.
“However, where a school becomes an academy or is voluntary aided, they can apply for mandatory business rate relief, which reduces the rates liability by 80 per cent,” he added.
He confirmed the council has no local discretion over the amount or eligibility of organisations applying for business rate relief and said that of the 40 schools in the borough, 17 currently receive mandatory relief.
“But if the remaining schools all become academies, this council will be compelled to award annual mandatory business rate relief of £508,000,” he admitted.
He continued: “I have only referred to the 40 state schools. The private schools already benefit from an 80 per cent reduction in business rates by arranging themselves as charities.
“We have already been calling for more local say in the awarding and value of mandatory and charitable relief.
“We feel that such decisions are better taken locally with input from businesses and residents to help shape the right mix of organisations and to be fairer to all local taxpayers.”
Following the meeting Cllr Lewis described the plans as ‘shocking’ and said the funding shortfall will have an impact on wider services.
“I really wonder how the council is going to fund things like the parks or ice rink and other services in the future.
“I think the Conservative members of the council have been betrayed and are seeing that this Conservative government is quite brutal and unfair.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Academies have always been eligible for rates relief and schools – both academies and maintained schools – are funded according to the rates they have to pay.”
WHAT ARE ACADEMY SCHOOLS?
Academies are state-funded schools which operate independent of local authority control, unlike maintained schools, which currently make up the majority of educational establishments in England.
They are classed as self-governing non-profit organisations and may receive additional support from personal or corporate sponsors, either financially or in kind. They can act independently of the national curriculum.
Supporters of academies often point to the vast improvements that previously under-performing maintained schools have seen since converting to academy status. However, opponents have called it ‘privatisation by the back door’ and said many of the good results come about because academies are using their freedom to be selective about the type of pupils they admit.
GROWING BACKLASH SPREADS NATIONWIDE
One of the leading figures in the growing backlash against academies has been Kent County Council Leader Paul Carter, who is also chairman of the County Council’s Network, an organisation which includes 37 mostly Tory local authorities. Cllr Carter has criticised the government for pushing forward the plans with ‘undue haste’, despite himself being the governor of a multi-academy trust.
He has warned the ‘one size fits all’ proposal could reduce educational standards across the county and is particularly concerned about the impact on small primary schools and rural schools who rely most heavily on council resources.
Cllr Carter told the BBC: “My concern is that the change will lead to a poorer education system operating across Kent, and more broadly England, because the value that local authorities generally provide to schools will be removed.
“If you have a school with five teachers, and two or three of those teachers become pregnant at the same time, you need those support networks to support those schools – otherwise their finances will not be sustainable and the school will end up in a spiral of decline.”