So where did all the money go?
Official government policy involves increasing the number of Academies in England, and introducing Free Schools. As a result the National Audit office has shown that even before accounting for Free Schools the DfE spent £1bn more than the £7.3bn it expected to spend, arranging for the conversions.
In May 2010 there were 203 academies, outside local authority control. Michael Gove then announced plans to allow all schools in England to convert to academy status and by September 2012 some 2,309 schools had converted.
Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office (NAO), said the increase was “a significant achievement – but noted the DfE was not sufficiently prepared for the financial implications of such a rapid expansion, or for the challenge of overseeing and monitoring such a large number of new academies”.
The £1bn excess included £350m paid to local authorities for temporary continued funding of places at non-academy schools, in other words double funding places while academies were being set up.
The report says that to fund the expansion and remain within overall spending limits, the DfE had to find the money from other budgets, including the main schools settlement.
A spokesman for the Department for Education said: “We make no apology for the fact that more schools than even we imagined have opted to convert, and no apology for spending money on a programme that is proven to drive up standards and make long-term school improvements.
“We want as many schools as possible to take advantage of the significant benefits academy status brings because it means more schools run by great heads and teachers, not local authority or Whitehall bureaucrats, and more children getting a first-class education.
“The Department for Education has made significant savings in the last two and a half years and also set aside significant contingencies which have been set against the growth in academies.
“Additionally, the costs of converting academies have already fallen by 53% per academy. We anticipate further changes we are making will radically reduce costs in 2013-14 and beyond.”
Margaret Hodge MP, chairwoman of the Commons public accounts committee, said: “The decision to change fundamentally the nature of the programme away from one solely directed at struggling schools is up to the government, but taxpayers have the right to expect a more considered and controlled approach to public spending than the department has so far displayed.”
Christine Blower, of the National Union of Teachers, said: “It is absurd for the government to justify spending £8.3bn on academy conversions in two years while at the same time warning of a dire economic situation. Meanwhile, many good state schools are told there’s no money as they stand in a state of disrepair with ever-diminishing support services.”