A struggling Chester high school may have left local authority control but Cheshire West and Chester Council has been saddled with a bill totalling hundreds of thousands of pounds.
A solution presented itself when Christleton Learning Trust (CLT), a multi-academy trust which runs Christleton High School , was looking for a site for its new studio school which opened its doors last September.
Queen’s Park High joined the CLT after converting to an academy, providing an opportunity to share resources and make back-room savings.
In return, the £4m studio school building is now planned to be built in the middle of the QPHS campus.
QPHS’s financial woes related to low pupil numbers which had fallen below 400.
But the demographics which have adversely affected many secondary schools are turning around. And the school will be needed to serve a huge 1,400-strong housing estate to be built off Wrexham Road.
So CWaC set up a three-year falling rolls fund with a maximum potential allocation of £600,000 although even this sum won’t ‘fully bridge the funding gap’ with a significant amount for the CLT to cover.
Now it has emerged CWaC has also been left to cover a deficit of £223,761 following QPHS’s conversion to an academy.
Councillor Nicole Meardon , cabinet member for children and families, explained: “Queen’s Park High School converted to an academy on 1 April, 2017. The Academy Order was issued further to section 4.1b of the Academies Act 2010 as a school eligible for intervention under which clause the deficit falls to the local authority rather than transferring to the academy.”
She added: “This was different to the original understanding of the local authority but we had to accept that decision given the DfE procedures.”
Ray McHale, secretary of the West Cheshire Trades Union Council, said: “As a campaigner against free schools and academies it is clear to me that the system has always been rigged to support schools that ‘choose’ the Government’s preferred ideological route.
“Those schools have always been rewarded with extra funding, at the expense of the schools that stay with the local authority – whose budgets are reduced to pay for this. By stepping in to ‘take over’ QPHS, Christleton multi-academy trust (MAT) have clearly had costs, but they have benefited by gaining a site for their studio free school – with millions of pounds in capital funding – and the MAT is benefiting from the falling rolls fund.”
Fellow campaigner David Plunkett described what happened as ‘scandalous’. He said: “Our local councillors are powerless to act and have to abide by the rules set by the Government, which favour the expansionist MATs, academies and free schools.”
Tony Lamberton , chief executive of Christleton Learning Trust, responded: “As a trust we have worked very hard with the head and local governors of Queen’s Park High School to raise standards and financial efficiency since they joined the trust.
"At the time of proposed conversion in 2016 the local authority demonstrated the continuing need for the school and thanks to the significant improvements generated, the school has increased in popularity with intake numbers rising across almost all year groups.
“The forum’s figures quoted at the time of conversion showed that academisation reduced the financial burden on other schools as the deficit was already there.
“Academies have been with us since 2002 under both major parties, they are an integral part of our system. Christleton Learning Trust is preoccupied with providing the very best opportunity and outcome for young people of every talent and ability in our area. We continue to work closely with the local authority and schools regardless of their designation. We are all here to serve young people and their community.”
■ Queen’s Park High School is showing signs of improvement academically under the leadership of headteacher Lyndsay Watterson. There were good exam results last summer and an Ofsted report shows the school is heading in the right direction under her strong leadership despite finding the school ‘requires improvement’.