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Academy trust defends £40k Teslas for central team staff

A 16-school academy trust has defended the decision to provide six of its central team staff with £40,000 Tesla company cars.

Aspirations Academies Trust has paid around £90,000 over three years for the leased vehicles, putting the issue of MAT benefits back under the spotlight.

A former staff member, who did not want to be named, said “eyebrows were raised by headteachers about central team staff arriving in the cars and whether it was appropriate with so many conversations about money and budgets”.

Despite being commonplace in the private sector, company cars are rare among schools who are “aware of the negative public perception and keen to avoid that”, Sharon O’Ryan, boss of benefits adviser firm Pay in Education, said.

Teslas ‘raised eyebrows’

A freedom of information request showed Aspirations, which runs schools across the south of England, spent £87,000 on company cars between 2021 and 2023.

Last year, the trust used a total of 12 vehicles. But six of them – four Teslas and two Volkswagen Golfs – appear to have been replaced by Tesla Model 3 saloons, with 2022 registrations. New prices for the car range between £39,990 and £49,990.

They have a top speed of 145mph and come equipped with lane departure warning systems, heated seats and ambient interior lighting.

Aspirations’ company car policy states that Teslas are supplied to staff who drive more than 20,000 miles for work, or “employees at specified status levels”.

A trust spokesperson refused to say which staff get Teslas but added that they complete more than 25,000 business miles per annum.

The decision was “based around the significant financial saving versus mileage claims from those employees”, they added, but did not provide the savings figure.

A Google search suggest few trusts have such policies.

The Thinking Schools Academy Trust provides cars to three staff members. Eligibility includes those travelling more than 8,000 miles per year for work, where a car is an “indispensable part of their jobs” or as a “benefit” to the role.

The trust refused to say which cars are used.

Trusts wary of ‘reputational risk’

The policy was introduced after a review “concluded leased cars would be better value than using hire cars for any member of staff expected to claim significant … business mileage”.

Travel between the trust’s schools – covering Plymouth, Portsmouth, Medway and Essex – was “essential” for some senior staff.

Just one of the 10 largest MATs told Schools Week they offered company cars. However, Ormiston Academies Trust said it was a “legacy” policy and the few staff with them will not have their leases renewed.

Bishop Wilkinson Catholic Education Trust, which operates 47 academies across the North-East, plans to approach Nissan about potential sponsorship options for company cars.

But CEO Nick Hurn said he would “have to be convinced” it was “better for the public purse”.

His 20 central team members claim up to 40,000 miles a year in travel costs.

Rob Tarn, who heads up Northern Education Trust, said using company cars “comes up about once a year”.

“There are obvious advantages… it can save on milage claims. But there’s a reputational risk associated with taxpayers’ money being used to fund brand-new vehicles.”

Delta Academies Trust has a Fiat 500, called “Bob”, which staff at one its schools use to go out knocking on doors to boost attendance. It is also one of many trusts signed up to salary sacrifice schemes that allow staff to lease cars, with the costs deducted from their pre-tax wages.

Ormiston now uses this scheme too. Kemnal Academies Trust said it “has not ever had the demand nor felt the need for them”.

Trusts in hot water before

School finance expert Micon Metcalfe believes many leaders will have, in part, decided  against company cars due to worries over how they could be viewed by the Education Skills and Funding Agency.

Micon Metcalfe

Academy rules show that novel and contentious transactions – those that “might cause criticism of the trust by Parliament, the public or the media” – need ESFA approval.  

Metcalfe said that, while providing cars “could be seen as something that’s quite ambitious and attract people into your trust – you have to balance it against the ‘Daily Mail test’.”

A Dispatches investigation into academy expenses in 2016 found the Academy Transformation Trust paid to lease a luxury Jaguar for Ian Cleland, its £180,000-a-year chief executive. The trust said the policy had since stopped.

The following year, Swale Academies Trust scrapped its policy of providing leaders with BMWs after public criticism.

In 2021, the Learning Link Multi-Academy Trust breached funding rules after handing its chief executive “significant” extra benefits without board approval, including a £38,000 car allowance.

Aspirations would not say if the scheme was approved by its trustees. Documents state that only expenditure of more than £50,000 per item needs approval.

Chris Kirk, from education consultancy CJK Associates, said many medium-sized companies now have company cars or an allowance.

He added: “If it’s value for money, then of course it should be considered, but if it’s an extravagant luxury, then it absolutely should not.”

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