Schools in Northumberland which were trying to become academies but then effectively blocked because of pension concerns have won a victory after the Education Secretary agreed to change Government rules.
The Journal revealed last year that schools breaking free of council control had been hit with rules forcing headteachers to pay excessive fees to have their staff covered by local government pension schemes.
That money was taken directly from the funds used to pay for educational material, forcing heads across the county to think twice and threatening the success of the scheme.
But yesterday Michael Gove intervened, making it clear in a ministerial statement that should any academy close down with pensions liabilities, the Government would step in and cover the losses.
It is thought several Northumberland schools which had been holding back from a move to academy status may now reconsider their options.
The 20% surcharge saw Berwick Academy forced to take an extra £90,000 from money which should have gone on children’s education.
Meadowdale Academy was also handed punishing pensions surcharges, with the Bedlington school losing £66,000 a year – money taken from teaching budgets.
And Haltwhistle Middle School was among those said to have been prevented from converting as a result of the new fees it would face.
Now in a letter to Hexham MP Guy Opperman, Mr Gove has said the Government will underwrite the risk of an academy failing, removing any possible justification for the local authority to impose a surcharge.
Mr Opperman told The Journal: “This truly is an incredible day for our campaign. No other council in the country was trying to hold back their schools in this way, except Northumberland County Council.
“This announcement we have secured blows out of the water any justification they may have had for their financial block on academies.
“I have met with many schools who have told me they would like to consider academy status but simply couldn’t because the county council would penalise them so unfairly.
“I think we may now well see an explosion in academies as schools free themselves from the dead hand of Northumberland County Council.”
Among the first to raise the issue was Anne-Marie Trevelyan, Conservative spokesman for Berwick-upon-Tweed.
The Berwick Academy governor said: “Schools across the county will welcome this news because the pension costs have been a source of major concern for schools wishing to convert as well as those that have already done so.
“This issue was first brought to my attention in 2011 and I am delighted that the Department for Education has listened and now acted to give our schools a better deal.
“This decision by the Education Secretary releases an enormous financial burden and opens the door to other schools wishing to take charge and free themselves of local authority control.”
In his statement Mr Gove warned: “Too many academies are paying significantly higher Local Government Pension Scheme employer contributions than they did as local authority-maintained schools.
“This is having a detrimental impact on academy budgets, reducing the level of funding available for school improvement and in some cases preventing schools from converting to academies.”
The pensions surcharge was first introduced when the council was Liberal Democrat-controlled.
A spokesman for Northumberland County Council said: “We are pleased that the concerns raised by Northumberland County Council have been recognised by the Secretary of State and the requested guarantee has been offered.
“We look forward to viewing details of the guarantee and the proposed consultation to ensure the financial position of the council, and therefore our residents, is fully protected.”