Officials from Michael Gove's department are offering £65,000 "bribes" to convince reluctant headteachers to convert their schools to academies.
The sweeteners are being offered to schools which drop their opposition to academy status – sparking claims that taxpayers' money is being spent on "buying off" critics of the Education Secretary's pet project.
Teaching leaders described the incentives as "questionable" and "disturbing" at a time when overall education budgets are being cut.
The Independent understands £40,000 in payments have been offered to 32 schools in Lancashire alone, with similar sums offered to schools in other parts of the country. Some schools have also been offered £25,000 towards legal fees. In a letter to Mr Gove's department obtained by this newspaper, Tony Roberts, from the NAHT headteachers' union, criticises two "brokers" – officials from the Department for Education (DfE) tasked with converting state schools to academics – for offering payments to win over a reluctant group of state schools in Lancashire.
The DfE did not deny that incentives were being deployed, but said the additional cash was for "improvements" to be made in schools where it was necessary.
The sanctioned use of cash to persuade state school to make the switch to academies will be another embarrassment for Mr Gove.
The news has emerged after a leaked memo last week revealed the Education Secretary, pictured, is considering the outright privatisation of academies and free schools, enabling them to abandon their charitable status and become profit-making.
The rate of academy conversions is also deemed to be at a critical stage, with more progress urged before the next general election in 2015.
Previously, schools converting to academies have been told they would be spared the impact of budget cuts, but the offering of one-off payment appears to represent a stepping up of Mr Gove's drive to roll out the programme.
Out of 484 primary schools in Lancashire, only four have opted for academy status. Although half the country's 3,000 secondary schools are now academies – up from just around 200 at the time of the last election – Mr Gove is facing increasing resistance, especially from primary schools, to make the switch to academy status.
Only 6 per cent of state primaries have become academies.
In the letter to the DfE, Mr Roberts writes that "Lancashire schools do not wish to change their status, or even if they did, they do not need someone leaning on them to do so."
He added, "In these times of financial stringency, the money that your brokers seem to have at their disposal would be better used to help schools maintain their core services."
Teachers' unions claim the cash incentives are part of a sanctioned drive by Mr Gove to ensure academy numbers continue to rise.
Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, reacted furiously to the exposé of the brokers' bribery.
She told The Independent: "Across the country primary schools are being bullied into accepting academy status and when the bullying proves insufficient grounds to 'persuade' them, they are being offered financial inducements instead." Ms Blower said huge amounts of taxpayers' money was being spent by Mr Gove's department on "engineering" academy conversions.
She said the practice contrasted with schools elsewhere which were struggling to improve crumbling buildings or to employ sufficient numbers of qualified teachers to assist special needs education.
"Mr Gove is not the secretary of state for free schools and academies, but all schools."
The brokers were called in to the group of Lancashire schools, according the local council, after the performance of the county's schools was described as "failing" by Mr Gove.
The Education Secretary made similar comments that were directed at state schools in North Yorkshire, Staffordshire and East Sussex.
Helen Denton, Lancashire's executive director for children and young people, recently wrote to Mr Gove that his criticism of "middle-of-the road" performance was misplaced. She refuted the charges of "failing" schools and quoted official statistics on above-national-average ratings.
Ms Denton also told headteachers that they had no legal requirement "to meet DfE officials to discuss academies or any other issues if the governors of the school are not minded to."
Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT, said his members in the region and throughout England had been "incredibly suspicious" of the motives of the academy brokers.
"My feeling is that if you do not want to opt for academy status, that is a good enough answer in itself."
A spokeswoman for the DfE said: "It is utter nonsense that there is anything underhand about this funding. Schools which are becoming academies are entitled to grants and legal fees to support the improvements needed. Details are available on our website."
Money matters: Letter of complaint
This is a letter from a NAHT official in Lancashire to Gail Banks, the line manager of DfE academy about complaining about "brokers" operating in the county:
Dear Gail Banks,
Yesterday I received a report from a member of a Lancashire Schools' cluster where... one of your brokers, offered £40,000 to each school in the cluster if they formed an academy trust.
Today, I received another report from a Diocesan meeting where he offered the same £40,000 per school to became an academy plus £25,000 on top for the legal fees on changing ownership of the land/buildings...
The fact that Lancashire has currently only four primary schools out of 484 who opted voluntarily for academy status... surely proves that Lancashire schools do not wish to change their status, or even if they did they do not need someone leaning on them [offer- ing them financial incentives] to do so.
Lancashire NAHT Branch Secretary