A change that usually results in schools not paying staff for six weeks a year has been held up by the Department for Education as a way for schools to extract "maximum value for money" from their funds.
The move is highlighted in a DfE document setting out ways that academy trusts have saved money after visits by controversial cost-cutting experts, known as School Resource Management Advisers (SRMAs).
One trust moved its entire administration team on to term-time-only contracts – an approach labelled "shocking" by the Unison union, which said staff should not be made to bear the brunt of cuts.
The DfE document contains findings from an evaluation of an initial SRMA pilot, including case studies of four academy trusts that reported positive experiences of the SMRAs, who visited 72 trusts in total.
One of these case studies details how Chapeltown Academy, a free school sixth form in Sheffield, was encouraged to restructure its administration team – and subsequently put them on to term-time only contracts.
The DfE document states: "All members of the administration team are now working term-time only, which has resulted in a reduction to 0.87 of the previous salary spend."
Tes understands such a move would usually mean a school employee would receive six weeks' less pay a year.
Jon Richards, head of education and local government at Unison, said the DfE was wrong to hold up this "shocking" approach as an example to others.
He added: "It's very poor practice to seek to pay staff less and save money off the backs of the lowest paid in the workforce.
"I believe that staff in schools want to be treated equitably. Where teachers are on a full-time contract, support staff should be, too.
"Doing it [cutting their working weeks] to save money, that's a shocking indictment – doing it at the expense of staff."
Chapeltown did not respond when approached by Tes.
The SRMAs have generated significant controversy at a time when many schools are struggling with stretched budgets.
But in a statement accompanying the SRMA evaluation findings, academies minister Lord Agnew said: "As consumers, we are all regularly advised to look at our household bills, such as energy, who we bank with and our internet providers – so it’s only right that we help schools ask the same questions and get the maximum value possible for their money."
According to the evaluation, advisers were able to identify savings worth just over £35 million in the first stage of the pilot.
But less than half of the recommendations were able to be implemented by schools, the document revealed.
The pilot was later extended, and £137 million of potential savings were identified across 357 schools, but it is not yet known how many of the SMRAs' suggestions from this phase were implemented.
In relation to Chapeltown's decision to move staff to term-time-only contracts, a DfE spokesperson said: “We trust schools to manage their budgets in order to invest as much money as possible in the classroom, ensuring that every pound is used to have maximum impact for the education of pupils.
“SRMAs make recommendations on all areas of school spend, including the optimal use of admin and clerical staff, and it is the responsibility of trusts to decide which recommendations to implement."