Much of the coverage and debate on the Public Accounts Committee report on managing the expansion of the academies’ programme (http://www.parliament.uk/pac) will no doubt focus on the scale of the unbudgeted extra cost. The Committee says that in the two years from April 2010 to March 2012, the Department spent £8.3 billion on academies – of which £1 billion was an additional cost to the Department and not originally budgeted for this purpose. That is some finding. However, the debate should not overlook the second part of the Committee’s report which raises important issues on the oversight of academies and academy trusts.
There are two issues here: financial oversight and scrutiny of educational performance. The Committee makes three telling observations.
First, in 2011/12 over half of academies submitted their self-assessment returns late, and nearly 100 academy trusts failed to file their statutory accounts on time.
Second, the Committee remains sceptical as to whether the DfE has “sufficient systems and resources to oversee the [academies] programme programme as it continues to expand”. The “wider reductions to central resources and headcount which the Department has recently announced” increase the Committee’s concerns on this score.
Third, the Committee is not convinced that there is sufficient clarity about “who is accountable for performance monitoring and intervention in academies, nor how the Department can know whether the system is operating consistently, effectively and with minimum bureaucracy across different localities and academy structures”. The report says that this risk is likely to rise as more schools that are “less high-performing” join the academies programme.
These are telling criticisms and reinforce the need to rethink the scrutiny and oversight of academies – while preserving the principle of school autonomy. However, the Public Accounts Committee’s critique presents a major opportunity not just to tinker with the existing system but to rethink the educational governance landscape more radically. Here are eight reforms that could be made:
- Introduce proper and transparent accreditation of all organisations and schools that want to become academy sponsors. This role is best undertaken at a national level.
- Ensure that the allocation of schools to sponsors is competitive and transparent and examines thoroughly the capacity and due diligence of the proposed sponsors.
- Move the emphasis of the academy conversion programme towards schools converting in groups or in partnership, with multi-academy rather than individual trusts becoming the norm. A strong school should be an integral part of all such trusts to ensure that there is sufficient education DNA in each trust.
- Devolve the holding of funding agreements from the Department of Education to education commissioners appointed on a sub-regional basis. Commissioners to be appointed jointly by local authority lead members in the area and the Secretary of State for Education.
- Make funding agreements real – i.e. like the authorisation of charter schools in the US with powers for commissioners to reassign and terminate agreements when educational and financial performance seriously and persistently falls below acceptable levels.
- Publish data on the financial and education performance of chains in a standard format. The government has made available a huge amount of performance information on an individual school basis. It is possible to aggregate this data to assess the performance of academy chains but it is complex to do and not readily accessible to the public. The data published should include financial as well the educational performance of academy chains.
- Regional commissioners should work with local authorities to challenge the performance of all schools, including academies, that are not making the progress expected. The responsibility for school improvement, however, should continue to rest with school leaders and governors of schools/academy trusts, unless the performance is such (e.g. a school is in an Ofsted category or below the floor targets) that more radical intervention is needed.
- Ofsted to inspect academy chains with five or more schools in their chain – but for those chains found to be operating at an ‘outstanding’ level then Ofsted would cease to inspect the individual schools in the chain unless data showed particular cause for concern in individual schools. Those chains found to be inadequate should be given notice of the possibility of their schools being transferred to an alternative provider.
Radical reforms along these lines will help ensure that children and young people receive the quality of education to which they are entitled and enable the public to judge value for money. Some will argue that the introduction of commissioners represents an unnecessary level of bureaucracy but the reforms should be seen in the context of a major downsizing of the the DfE and its role. High calibre commissioners will also be able to relate the mission and work of schools to the wider sub-regional economic agenda and address the wide variations in the performance of local authorities which local government enthusiasts are prone to overlook. The principle of academy autonomy would be retained but operate within a more accountable framework with an incentive for academy chains to raise their game for all the schools in their chain.