SCHOOLS have been saddled with crippling debts after unwittingly signing up to expensive leases for equipment.

The Guardian understands at least five schools in Waltham Forest have liabilities totalling more than £1million for standard office equipment, such as photocopiers, printers and laptops.

Companies are said to have targeted schools after the government gave them more control over their budgets.

But a lack of expertise has left schools across the country vulnerable to deals with high hidden costs.

In some cases schools have been duped by unscrupulous companies into hiring equipment at what appears to be a cheap subsidised rate.

This enables the companies to use these contracts to secure large bank loans.

The companies are then liquidated, leaving the school responsible for paying off the loans.

Waltham Forest Council has confirmed it is is now negotiating with the banks involved in an effort to get the debts cancelled or reduced.

Thomas Gamuel Primary School in Colchester Road, Walthamstow, is believed to have been left with seven-figure liabilities after agreeing a number of lease agreements, incuding a deal for CCTV in 2010.

Clydesdale Bank, which was the bank involved in the contract, has since agreed to cancel the lease.

Edinburgh Primary School in Queens Road, Walthamstow, hired equipment worth up to £60,000, but was left liable for nearly double that amount.

Willow Brook Primary School in Church Road, Leyton, Jenny Hammond Primary School in Worsley Road, Leytonstone, and William Morris School in Folly Lane, Walthamstow, are also believed to have been saddled with large debts.

The BBC's Panorama programme recently featured the problem, claiming 169 schools were affected nationwide.

And Steve White, National Union of Teachers representative in Waltham Forest, fears the move to create financially independent academies could see the issue becoming even more widespread.

He said: "It is totally immoral to take money out of tight school budgets like this. It will take teachers out of classrooms and have an effect on children's education.

"It's alarming with the rising number of academies that the problem could grow far worse - they would have total control over budgets and no local authority would be able to bail them out."

The schools involved declined to speak to the Guardian.

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