The government has been reprimanded by an influential cross-party group of MPs for allowing “a succession of high-profile academy failures” which have “damaged” the education of children in England.
The parliamentary public accounts committee’s report also criticised the lack of transparency and accountability at academy trusts and demanded the government does more to understand the impact of funding pressures and extent of asbestos problems in schools.
The report, which follows the committee’s inquiry into academy accounts and performance, focuses on the “serious failures of governance and oversight” at the doomed Bright Tribe and Durand academy trusts, and found the Department for Education’s oversight of and intervention in such matters needs to be “more rigorous”.
However the government has said it does not accept the “negative characterisation” of academies which are “subject to higher levels of accountability and transparency”.
We have seen the troubling consequences of poor governance and oversight of academy trusts
The committee has made a series of recommendations, ranging from strengthening sanctions against trustees found guilty of malpractice to increasing the amount of financial detail required of trusts in their annual accounts.
“When things go wrong in schools, pupils can be badly affected. We have seen the troubling consequences of poor governance and oversight of academy trusts,” said Meg Hillier, pictured, the Labour MP who chairs the committee.
“Parents and the wider community are entitled to proper access to transparent information about their local academy schools. They must have confidence that, when issues arise, robust measures are in place to deal with them.”
The PAC report found that parents and local people “have to fight to obtain even basic information about their children’s schools”.
For example, at Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria, abandoned by Bright Tribe last year, campaigners were forced to resort to the freedom of information act to find out about governance arrangements and improvement work carried out at the school’s dilapidated site.
Furthermore, academy trusts “do not do enough to communicate and explain decisions that affect the schools they are responsible for and how they are spending public money”, the committee said.
Despite acknowledging recent action by the Education and Skills Funding Agency to tackle excessive executive pay and related-party transactions, the committee criticised the fact that, by the ESFA’s own admission, there is “nothing to stop an individual who had been banned from being a school governor being a governor elsewhere”, for example at an FE college.
Existing academy trust accounts do not show “sufficient detail” about individual schools in each chain, the report warned. For example, details of in-year deficits are not included despite concern from the ESFA about the cumulative effect of such a situation.
The committee also called on Ofsted to do more to monitor the impact of falling funding and a narrowing curriculum on the standard of education and for the DfE to “name and shame” all schools who fail to respond to its asbestos survey.
DfE has ‘poor grasp’ of academies system
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, agreed that questions about the “validity” of the academies programme will continue “while the government demonstrates such a poor grasp of the realities of the system it has created”.
He added that the situation “does no favours for the dedicated leaders of academies, their staff and their pupils, all of whom are working hard, trying to make the best of it in real time whilst the government slowly catches up”.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the union supports “sensible and proportionate” measures to improve the transparency of financial reporting. But he added any any new requirements “must be implemented in a way that does not significantly add to the considerable bureaucratic burden on trusts”.
A spokesperson for the DfE said they “do not accept the PAC’s negative characterisation of academies, in which standards of education have risen for thousands of pupils”.
They added: “Academies are subject to higher levels of accountability and transparency than local authority schools. Academies must publish their annual accounts and this year we added new requirements on related party transactions.
“We have also taken steps to increase accountability by publishing lists of trusts who do not return accounts on time and by challenging trusts who pay high executive salaries.”
A Schools Week investigation last month revealed that some local authority-maintained schools had not been audited by the council in 20 years.