The public spending watchdog said that spending on a range of education projects and schemes had been cut because of the cost of converting schools to academies.
The academy programme, which is funded directly by Whitehall, has been one of the flagships of Michael Gove, the education secretary, who began his tenure at the DfE two years ago by urging “outstanding” schools to become academies. This was contrary to Labour’s policy, which turned failing schools into academies.
The NAO report revealed the government spent £8.3 billion on academies in the two years to April 2012 – £1 billion over budget. As a result, £350 million has been slashed from other education services, including £95 million from the school improvement programme, and with £105 million being taken from contingency reserves.
There will also be £100 million less for encouraging teenagers to stay on at school and college, and a similar amount has been removed from a budget earmarked for improving standards in under-performing schools.
The study also revealed the high earnings of senior figures in the academic movement, and that heads of academies, on average, earn £6,600 more a year than heads in maintained schools.
Furthermore, the number of civil servants seconded to the academies project has more than doubled to 280.
Teaching unions reacted to the report with anger. Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “Michael Gove’s priorities are entirely wrong. It is absurd for the government to justify spending £8.3 billion 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.”
Dr Mary Bousted, leader of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “When money is so tight, this unscheduled spending of taxpayers’ money is appalling.”
Margaret Hodge, the Labour chair of the Commons Public Accounts Committee, also criticised the DfE’s spending on the programme. She said: “Taxpayers have the right to expect a more considered and controlled approach to public spending than the department has so far displayed.”
Since 2010, the number of academies has soared from 210 to 2,309 – a rise of 1,037 per cent. Nearly half of all secondary school and five per cent of primaries are now academies. During the same period, spending on the academies programme has gone up from five per cent of the total schools budget to 15 per cent.
A DfE spokesman said it made “no apology” for the number of schools that were choosing to convert to academy status and “no apology for spending money on a programme that is proven to drive up standards and make long-term school improvements”.
The spokesman added: “We want as many schools as possible to take advantage of the significant benefits that academy status brings, because it means more and more schools run by great heads and teachers, not local authority or Whitehall bureaucrats, and more and more children getting a first-class education.”