Skip to main content

Schools: Academies

Volume 760: debated on Tuesday 3 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what advice they have issued to individual academy schools regarding the £2.5 billion held in their reserves.

My Lords, academies are independent, self-managing organisations. Academies cannot borrow, except in exceptional circumstances, and so can build up reserves in order to accommodate longer-term plans that reflect their success and popularity, such as capital investment to fund maintenance or expanding provision for greater pupil numbers. They also need to hold cash to pay short-term obligations such as salaries.

Comparing net current assets of academies with the closest equivalent measure in local authority maintained schools shows that academies have 51 days’ cash, whereas local authority maintained schools, which can obtain money for capital from their local authorities, have 25 days’—51 days is a prudent buffer.

I thank the Minister for that reply, but does he accept that most parents would be appalled to know that academies are stockpiling public money, averaging nearly £6,000 per school, rather than spending it on their child’s education? Does he not accept that the fact that academies feel the need to have these reserves is simply a damaging consequence of having thousands of individual academies being managed separately—many would say badly—by the Secretary of State?

As I already said, we regard the cash management of academies to be very prudent. We see no reason why efficiently run schools should not be involved in careful financial planning. It may well be that the Labour Party would like to run the school estate like they ran the economy—borrow, borrow, borrow and nearly go bust. We do not think that that is a sensible approach and we do not think that we should penalise successful schools.

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that this works out at an average of £1.2 million per secondary academy and £1.8 million per academy chain school. He will also be aware of the suggestion that we are setting up schools to be run as businesses. Will he tell us, in no uncertain terms, that there never have been and never will be any attempts to run schools as profit-making businesses?

My noble friend will know from his experience over 25 years as a primary head that all schools are facing cost pressures from national insurance and pensions, so any prudent school will have some level of cash reserves. I mentioned capital requirements for academies. The education sector has a lot to learn from the business sector in terms of efficiencies. We have found that when business people and educationalists work well together through the academies programme the effects can be quite dramatic. I cannot make promises for ever, but there are no plans as far as this Government are concerned to bring profit-making to the school system.

My Lords, some academies and other schools have secured private funding which they ring-fence to finance a chaplain, international links or some other good purpose. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister give an assurance that such funds are not to be treated as free reserves? Further, will he encourage academies to secure such funding?

I entirely agree with the right reverend Prelate and I pay tribute to his very good work in the school system in Norfolk. We should welcome such funds into the school system. We should welcome people who bring these funds and give their time freely. It is a development that we should seek to encourage.

My Lords, given the Minister’s statement a moment ago that he does not wish to penalise successful schools, will he look again at the imposition of VAT on sixth-form colleges, which was the subject of a Question that his noble friend answered the other day, to which, frankly, we did not get a satisfactory Answer? For £31 million, which is a tiny part of the amount held in reserves by the academies, the VAT burden could be lifted altogether. Is that not the right thing to do?

The noble Lord is right that this is a difficult issue and it is one that we have been looking at. I assure him that we will continue to look at it.

Is it not enormously sensible for the governors of our academies to hold reserves at the end of a Parliament, when they have no idea what the policy may be in the future? We also have low inflation at this time, and I imagine that a fair number of them are preparing for capital works based on their reserves.

My Lords, would the noble Lord assist those of us who are, perhaps, not as clever as some other Members of this House and do not entirely understand the status of the money that is being held in these reserves? He said that academies are independent institutions and, of course, they are. However, they are publicly funded and the money held in those reserves is therefore, by most ordinary people’s calculation, public money. With reference to the answer he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, could he explain in what way these funds are different from, say, the funds held in a charity? Are they to be used wholly and exclusively for the benefit of the institution? Can he assure the House that nobody else can benefit from them?

I can give that assurance. They are there for the benefit of the institution, which in this case is the school in question.

In the light of the reply he gave to my noble friend, would the Minister be prepared to state that the Government’s policy should be and is that any pupil or student—of any age, whether sixth-former or primary school pupil—is entitled to have an equivalent amount of money spent on their education, unless there is a special allocation because of special needs? Government Ministers lambast local authority maintained schools, including some church schools, for not spending money and yet claim that academies have this right.

The noble Baroness will know that we have had a bit of a postcode lottery in school funding for many decades. This Government have gone quite some way to try and reduce the differentials but we should seek to do more in the future.