Councils mount legal challenge over academies cuts

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A group of English local authorities are mounting a legal challenge against government budget cuts tied to its academies expansion programme.

The 23 councils argue the way a £148m cut has been calculated for services they no longer provide to academies is against government rules.

They have filed a claim for judicial review against ministers.

The government argues it cannot afford to double fund school services and is expected to fully defend the claim.

It said it was aware of the proposed judicial review and would respond in due course.

'Out of pocket'

One council - Portsmouth - says it is losing half a million pounds this year.

The Department for Education has reduced the money it gives England's local authorities for schools because of plans to expand the number of independent, state-funded academy schools.

Six hundred schools in England - one in six - are now academies, three times more than when the coalition government was elected.

Academies are outside of the local authority support structure, and receive no services - like special educational needs support - from councils.

Instead, they receive their funding directly from the government.

To compensate for this the Department for Education, through the local government settlement, has reduced the grant available to councils for support to schools.

The councils issued the claim for judicial review on Tuesday and are taking issue with the way this reduction has been calculated.

'Properly calculated'

They claim it has been done by deducting the amount it will cost individual academies to run those services themselves, rather than by the amount that councils will save by not providing them.

This, they argue, will leave them out of pocket and is against the government's own guidelines, known as the New Burdens Rules, on such matters.

These rules were brought in by the previous Labour administration and have been adopted by the current coalition government, says Emily Heard of solicitors Bevan Brittan which is representing the councils.

She said: "The authorities... are saying that their grant has been reduced by £148m, and that this reduction is in connection with the services that are being transferred to academies.

"Local authorities argue that this reduction has to be properly calculated with reference to the actual savings that are made by transferring the respective services rather than by the cost to academies who will be providing the services."

Ms Heard, who represented a group of local authorities in a battle with the government over the scrapping of England's school rebuilding scheme, said the papers were being sent to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles.

He has 21 days to contest the claim.

'Ideological obsession'

However, Education Secretary Michael Gove is also named as an interested party to the claim, because the financial settlement is in relation to the academies funding.

Shadow Health Secretary Andy Burnham said Mr Gove stood accused of "yet more shambolic policy-making" and that the councils were right to challenge it.

He added: "His ideological obsession with structural changes to our schools is unfairly leaving councils short-changed.

"Michael Gove has made a complete mess of the education budget. The courts have already had to intervene once on his unfair decisions on capital spending and this further action makes it abundantly clear that councils up and down the country have no confidence in this Secretary of State."

The Local Government Association has already claimed that ministers are reducing council grants by millions of pounds more than they will save by schools converting to academy status.

And although it is not taking the legal case itself it has acted as a co-ordinator for aggrieved councils.

One of the councils taking the action - Portsmouth - has claimed it is losing £500,000 this year and that the city's only academy gets "double the amount of money per child".

The claimants are asking that the High Court hears the claim before the summer holidays.

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