Due diligence must be improved, and 4 other findings from MPs' damning report on academies

A damning report released today by the public accounts committee has slammed the government’s academisation agenda, claiming that it not only sacrificed due diligence in the rush to convert large numbers of schools, but also failed to respond effectively to serious failures in the system.

Here are the MPs’ key findings and recommendations:

1. Due diligence must be improved

Finding: The Department for Education (DfE) has failed to carry out “rigorous due diligence checks and risk assessment” on schools before they convert to academies, resulting in a “succession of high-profile academy failures” that have been “costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education”.

While the DfE has recently strengthened its scrutiny of the financial health of prospective academies, “there is still more to be done”.

Recommendation: The DfE should review academy trust failures to identify lessons learned. The PAC expects the DfE to submit a letter by October 2018 setting out the main reasons for the failures and the department’s proposals to strengthen scrutiny of prospective academies and sponsors, “to ensure that risks are being well managed before and after conversion”.

It must also improve transparency for parents, ensuring that they have access to information and are “built into the accountability system”.

2. More support is needed for SNOWs

Finding: Some schools that are required to or wish to become academies find it difficult to attract potential sponsors or find multi-academy trusts to join. Because academy trust boards have a legal responsibility to keep their trusts solvent, many are unwilling to take on schools that could be a financial or administrative burden.

Recommendation: The PAC requires the DfE to set out a plan by October 2018 detailing how it will support schools that cannot secure a sponsor or join a trust, including small, geographically isolated rural schools.

3. Academy conversion is drawing funds away from LA-maintained schools

Finding: Local authorities (LAs) can incur significant costs when schools become academies, which affects their capacity to support their remaining maintained schools. A survey by the Local Government Association suggested that the average cost to LAs, in terms of staff time and spending on items such as legal fees, has been between £6,400 and £8,400 for each maintained school that becomes an academy. The National Audit Office estimated that the total cost to LAs was approximately £7.8 million in 2016-17, leading them to focus resources on the weakest LA-maintained schools and leave good schools with little support.

Recommendation: The DfE should develop an up-to-date understanding of the costs that LAs incur as part of converting schools to academies, and the extent to which these are accurately reflected in the fees charged to schools. It should then assess whether it needs to be contributing to these costs.

 

4. Academisation obstructs LAs’ ability to plan out school places

Finding: In some areas so many schools have become academies that LAs struggle to fulfil their statutory responsibilities, such as the duty to provide school places. In Bromley, for example, 93 per cent of schools are academies, and across the country over a third of LAs have fewer than 50 maintained schools. LAs have no control over the number of places in academy schools, which can make it hard for them to find appropriate places for looked-after children in particular.

Recommendation: The department should require all academy trusts, as part of their funding agreements, to work with LAs on school place planning and school admissions, including for vulnerable children. The PAC also wants the DfE to outline how this will be monitored.

 

5. Government oversight of schools must be streamlined

Finding: The PAC report concluded that the DfE’s current arrangements for oversight of schools are “fragmented and incoherent”, which has led to “inefficiency” and “confusion”. It said that the large number of “disparate people and organisations” involved in supporting schools’ conversion to academies and overseeing their subsequent performance was “burdensome” for schools and left school leaders feeling “accountable to multiple masters”. The government’s “fragmented systems for sharing information” have also increased the risk of “duplication of effort, error or omission”.

Recommendation: The PAC asked the DfE to explain how the Education and Skills Funding Agency and regional schools commissioners will work together more effectively, as part of its consultation on school accountability in autumn this year. The proposals should identify and address unnecessary burdens on schools and ensure that oversight of schools is made “more coordinated and effective”.