ESFA reviews academy investigation policy (as cases stack up)

The government has withdrawn its academy trust publication policy, pending review

The government has withdrawn its academy trust publication policy, pending review

10 Nov 2023, 12:00

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The Education and Skills Funding Agency has committed to keep publishing investigations into academy trusts, despite the policy being reviewed as several reports gather dust.

The government last published an academy trust investigation in November last year.

But a freedom of information request to the Department for Education shows 11 trusts are “subject to ongoing investigation activity by the ESFA”.

Major investigations into three scandal-hit academy chains – Bright Tribe, Lilac Sky and SchoolsCompany that were stripped of their schools between 2016 and 2019 – still haven’t been published. 

It has now emerged the government has withdrawn its academy trust publication policy, pending a review.

The most recent copy of the publishing policy said the government made a commitment to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to release “investigation reports into academy trusts within two months of completing its work”. 

It will aim to publish the documents “as soon as possible” following their completion, with officials “taking account of any representations made by the institution or individuals”. 

Trusts and identifiable individuals who are criticised in the report, but who have moved on, are given “10 working days’ notice of the publication date”. 

‘Important accountability mechanism’

Dame Meg Hillier, the chair of the PAC, said she would read “the ESFA’s updated investigation policy with great interest”, given the promises previously made. 

When asked at what stage each of the ongoing 11 investigations was at, the ESFA said in the FOI that the cases were listed as “live until such point as they are closed”. 

Meg Hillier comments on the academy update

There was “no formal classification of investigation stage”. It also noted that it was “very difficult to predict when reports will be published when investigations are ongoing”. 

Officials stressed no documents “are published until all investigation, enforcement, and regulatory actions have been completed”. 

Education professor Anne West of the London School of Economics described the reports as a “crucially important accountability mechanism”.  

“Without such reports there is a real risk that there will be no lessons learned with more taxpayers’ money being lost.” 

Staff rehired after severance payments

Schools Week previously revealed Bright Tribe, Lilac Sky and SchoolsCompany all faced a review over payments to companies linked to them or their founders. The cases fuelled wider controversy over academisation. 

Bright Tribe allegedly claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds for incomplete works, while Schools Week revealed claims of safeguarding breaches and unsafe premises at SchoolsCompany sites.  

Problems at Lilac Sky – which shut in 2017 – included staff being rehired the day after receiving large severance payments. 

Accounts, published in the summer, for SchoolsCompany stated that the trust’s “intention” was for it to be wound up “as soon as this becomes feasible”, but “this is pending while…[it] attempts to recover public funds”.  

Former trustees are being pursued through the high court in an attempt to recover up to £2.8 million of “lost public funds”.

Papers for Bright Tribe said it “is in the process of finalising outstanding matters in relation to the previous operation of the trust before closing the trust down”.  

In its notice online, the ESFA said it would update its investigation policy shortly. 

Patchy council transparency

However, councils are also patchy on transparency. For instance, Lambeth Council in south London has refused to publish its investigation into former superhead Sir Craig Tunstall, first launched in 2017.

Councils now have to publish more financial information about their schools after Lord Agnew, the former academies minister, moved to bring them more in line with requirements on academies.

The DfE said the review would not consider changing the publication policy. Instead it will make the policy “more transparent and up to date”. The new policy could be published next week.

However it did not “comment on ongoing investigations”, but stressed that “each case is dealt with robustly and as swiftly as possible, although the length of each…can vary” depending on its complexity.  

The department also insisted current policy applied until it was updated.  

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