Bright Tribe will be ‘held to maximum account’ over Whitehaven Academy – and 5 other things we learned at the Public Accounts Committee

Bright Tribe may have to pay up over its running of Whitehaven Academy and there is no proof that forced academisation offers the best value for money for failing schools.

These were among the topics for discussion at a session of the Public Accounts Committee today on the conversion of schools to academies, featuring evidence from Jonathan Slater, the Department for Education’s permanent secretary, and Andrew McCully, the department’s director general of infrastructure and funding.

Here’s what we learned.

  1. Bright Tribe ‘let down’ pupils and parents at Whitehaven Academy

Addressing the “scandal” of Whitehaven Academy, which she said had been “let to rot” by the Bright Tribe Trust, committee chair Meg Hillier asked Slater what he would say to the parents and children at the school who have suffered a litany of problems including dilapidated buildings.

“Clearly, they have been let down, haven’t they, by management that has not been up to the task,” he replied. “Bright Tribe is rightly withdrawing and we are at the final stages of engagement with the trust that will take over.”

The government is not yet able to say how much turning around the trouble school will cost, but it will “seek to hold to the maximum account possible those people who have not been doing the job properly”.

McCully added that if money given to Bright Tribe trust had not been spent in the way it was intended, then the government can claim it back.

Questions have been raised over the fate of £1 million given to the trust to set up a northern hub after it announced it was withdrawing from all of its northern schools.

  1. There is no proof that forced academisation offers better value for money on improvement

Gareth Snell, a Labour MP, asked if there was any “quantifiable, tangible, collected evidence held by the department” that forcing failing schools to become academies was better value for money than a local authority rescue package.

Slater accepted he could not “prove” it was better value for money, and said “no one could”, but insisted there was “international” evidence that showed giving greater autonomy was the most effective way to improve schools.

Snell warned: “We could have a situation where we are spending vast sums of money to transfer schools over to academy systems without really getting any additional educational output or any improvement into those schools for the money that is being spent.”

  1. The government knows conversion grants aren’t enough

Asked about whether the grants given to schools and local authorities for academy conversion were sufficient, McCully insisted they had always just been a “contribution to the overall costs”.

Slater added: “We aren’t claiming that the £25,000 grant is going to cover all of the costs for the average school. We have done that calculation. The answer is that it isn’t. The more one increases the grants for schools to convert, the more expensive it gets. We want to incentivise schools to do that as cost effectively as they can.”

He also insisted there are “£4 billion worth of surpluses, of which £2 billion are held by local authority maintained schools as opposed to £200 million of deficits”.

  1. ‘Many’ local authorities and regional commissioners work together

Warned about a “spaghetti soup” of organisations involved in school improvement, Slater said that merging different organisations, including local authorities and regional commissioners, would not be effective.

However, he insisted many local authorities have formal agreements to work together with multi-academy trusts, and claimed that all regional schools commissioners see it as an “absolutely fundamental part of their job” that they work alongside local authorities.

  1. More rigorous checks may be done on trustees

Asked why checks are not done on every trustee for every school that becomes an academy, Slater insisted the DfE carries out “rigorous checks on any new trustee coming into the system” but not on governors and headteachers already running a school.

“Nevertheless, the National Audit Office has made a recommendation that we think again about that and so we will,” he said. No timeline was provided for this.

  1. No one knows what the future holds

Asked about whether too much focus had been given to converting good schools to academies, rather than reaching out to struggling ones, Slater insisted that it was an effective way of ensuring help was in place for failing schools.

“Could we have done it another way? Yes,” he said. “Might we at some point in the future if there is a different government do it in a different way? Yes.”

Elsewhere in the session, he accepted that “looking back” the government had focused too much on the “pace of the change” of converting schools to academies but there was not enough “detailed consideration” and a “potential risk was created” by trusts like WCAT taking on too many schools.

“It would be foolish of me to sit in front of you and say there won’t be any more problems. My job is to get on top of them as quickly as possible.”

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  1. Mark Watson

    If the Government really is going to “hold to the maximum account possible those people who have not been doing the job properly” will they include in this the local authority who let the school buildings deteriorate to an unacceptable state before they were taken over by the academy trust?
    (This isn’t in any way excusing Bright Tribe who certainly do have a lot of questions to answer)

    • Sarah

      The government won’t want to draw attention to the state of buildings since it directly provides all the funding which local authorities and academies have available to maintain them and it would have to admit to a multi billion pound backlog nationally exacerbated enormously by the 80% cut to capital allocations from 2010 onwards.

      • Mark Watson

        Oh come on, don’t try and make this a party political point. Labour has been as guilty as the Conservatives because this chronic under investment in the school estate has been happening for decades.
        It’s also a result of local authorities (again of every political hue) mismanaging what resources they have been given and not allocating the appropriate proportion to building maintenance. Again, this has been happening for decades including when funding/capital allocations were at higher levels.

        • In 2008, the then MP, Jamie Reed, put together a plan for a £30m new building at Whitehaven School if it became an academy. This bribe was rejected by the school which presumably didn’t want to become an academy. The new building, therefore, didn’t happen.
          Whitehaven then became one of the schools which should have been renovated under the ‘Building schools for the future’ scheme. This was scrapped in 2010.
          Another plan was put forward around 2012 for a £33m building amalgamating two schools but Bright Tribe pulled out of this when Whitehaven School became an academy. Cash for this building would have come from the following:
          Nuclear partners £17.5m, Copeland Community Fund £5m, Britain’s Energy Coast £7.5m and Cumbria County Council £2.8m.
          Whether the above catalogue of events equals LA neglect is unclear.

          • Mark Watson

            So in 2008, following a lifetime under LA control, it was felt appropriate to suggest spending £30m on a new building.
            Further proposed projects costing similar sums were put forward in 2010 and 2012.
            Kinda makes me think that the LA had let the building get into a state whereby the only option was a massively expensive rebuild. Seems to back up my thinking …

  2. In retrospect, Slater said, the government put too much emphasis on the ‘pace of change’ of academization rather than ‘detailed consideration’ and ‘potential risk’ of trusts growing too quickly.
    It’s not good enough to speak about the benefit of hindsight when there were many voices warning against conversion taking place too quickly and without sufficient checks.
    But the then SoS, Michael Gove, was obsessed with the number of academies. In 2011, he wanted chains to grow at the fastest sustainable rate.