As part of a sequence of reports on education, a highly critical report on the conversion of schools to academies has been published by the Commons Public Accounts Committee. These are the main findings.
There has been an insufficiently rigorous approach by the Department for Education to the scrutiny of applicant schools. While the Report acknowledged the Department was now strengthening how it examined prospective academies’ financial viability and the relevant sponsors’ abilities to improve the schools they were are taking on, it concluded these changes had been slow to arrive and are yet to go far enough. The Committee was also concerned by an apparent lack of learning by the Department from a succession of high-profile academy failures. There were more general concerns around a lack of clear Departmental policy in relation to converting schools to academies: highlighting significant regional variation both in terms of the extent to which schools have become academies, and in the quantity and quality of support available to struggling schools.
The Department should review academy trust failures with a view to identifying lessons relating to the scrutiny of both the prospective academies and their sponsors. There is a need for improved transparency for parents and carers, ensuring they have a have better access to information, and that their role is built in to the accountability system. The Report pushed for clarification as to the Department’s stance around parents becoming members of academy trusts.
Additional barriers are faced by smaller rural schools in converting. In particular, their geographical isolation and financial vulnerability has often made them less attractive to multi academy trusts (MATs) who are under their own legal responsibilities and pressures to remain solvent. The Department should publish a plan setting out how it would support small rural schools wanting to become academies: including what a school should do where no sponsor or existing MAT could be found.
The Committee also noted significant problems for local authorities. There are costs to local authorities when schools became academies and no consistent approach in how these costs are being borne. Some authorities were left to absorb the costs, others were charging schools up to £20,000 to cover the staff time and legal fees. Local authorities are required to retain financial deficits relating to schools directed to become academies as a result of an inadequate Ofsted rating. The National Audit Office estimated the cumulative level of this debt to have reached £7.8 million in 2016-17. The Committee suggested the Department should work to develop a better, up-to-date understanding of the costs that local authorities incur as part of converting schools to academies, and the extent to which these are accurately reflected in the fees charged to schools. This information should then be used to assess whether the Department should contribute to the costs that local authorities incur.
Local authorities have difficulties in discharging their duties to provide school places in areas where a high proportion of schools have become academies. Local authorities remain responsible for ensuring there are enough school places available for local children, without having any control over the number of places available in academies. The Report suggested the Department should require all academy trusts to work with local authorities in relation to school place planning, including admissions, with a consideration given in particular to vulnerable groups of children.
Finally, the Report identified a pervasive incoherence in the arrangements governing the oversight of schools, with schools accountable to a large number of disparate people and organisations. The Department’s fragmented approach to information sharing also came in for criticism, with the relationship between the Department and the Education and Skills Funding Agency identified as problematic. These difficulties were resulting in schools duplicating effort and risking error or omission, as well as meaning that decisions about converting schools to academies or matching schools with sponsors were not as soundly based as they could be. The Committee welcomed the announcement in May 2018 that the Department would consult on the accountability system and hoped that as part of that consultation the Department would set out how they, the ESFA, and regional schools commissioners would work together more effectively.