Make schools commissioners independent, demands think-tank

Responsibility for academy brokering and accountability should be taken away from the government and placed with a new independent schools regulator in a bid to tackle potential conflicts of interest and cronyism, a leading think-tank has said.

Reform, in its new report Academy chains unlocked, has called for the national and regional schools commissioners and parts of the Education Funding Agency (EFA), which deal with financial accountability, to form a new body that could then merge with the schools wing of Ofsted – should all schools become academies.

The report also paints a worrying picture of perceptions of trust efficiency inside the chains themselves, with 90 per cent of bosses claiming they need to take on more schools to achieve economies of scale.

Reform’s research found that both the EFA and commissioners had “considerable power” in deciding which trusts should take on academies, but that some chain bosses reported being more “in the loop” than others.

The government has previously faced criticism over close links between its officials and certain academy chains and claims that pressure was applied on some trusts to expand too quickly, leading to financial and performance issues.

Amy Finch, the think-tank’s head of education, told Schools Week that making the commissioners independent of government, in a similar move to changes in NHS England, would avoid the potential for conflicts of interest.

“There is nothing in the current school commissioning framework that prevents unwarranted favouritism of some academy chains over others,” she said. “We know that this was an issue under the coalition government, when chains already known to be struggling were asked to take on more schools.”

Transparency around the way the government links academies with sponsors has been a bone of contention for some time, and although Reform’s report acknowledges recent efforts to make the schools commissioners more transparent, the organisation has questioned whether bodies inside the government can ever be truly impartial.

The research, which included testimony from more than 60 academy trust bosses, found that “some chief executives felt disengaged from the commissioning process, while others considered themselves to be in the loop”.

The report recommended that there be “one, independent body responsible for commissioning academies” which would require a merger of the financial accountability functions of the EFA with the oversight on standards of the schools commissioners.

The responsibility for funding academies should not rest with the independent commissioner, the report said, but remain with an executive agency of the DfE. If all schools become academies, the government “should consider merging the new commissioning body with the schools wing of Ofsted, so that there is one independent regulator of all schools”.

Reform’s survey of academy trust bosses also shows a worrying collective view about the minimum number of schools needed to make chains efficient, which is especially concerning in the context of data that shows that the vast majority of trusts have fewer than 10 schools.

Of those who responded to a question about the number of schools a trust needed on its books in order to begin achieving economies of scale, more than 40 per cent said trusts would need at least 10 schools on their books to reach this point, with 20 per cent claiming they should have 20 or more.

Finch said: “Our research is the first to examine views on how large academy chains need to be before they can reduce unit costs, such as energy and back-office functions.

“Chain chief executives believe it is [on average] around 5,000 pupils, or 10 schools. In addition, 90 per cent of chains responding said they needed to be bigger than they currently are to achieve economies of scale.”

The report also recommends that school funding is given to academy chains rather than individual schools to avoid a reported “power struggle” between chief executives and headteachers.

A government spokesperson claimed all academies were subject to a “strict and transparent system of oversight and accountability” through the commissioners.

“RSCs work hand in hand with local headteachers and are accountable to the national schools commissioner,” she said. “We are confident this system ensures decisions taken are in the best interest of schools and their pupils.”

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    • Exactly. The economies of scale were already present in LAs. The Government encouraged individual (note, individual) schools to become academies and become ‘autonomous’. Now, apparently, this doesn’t achieve economies of scale and these stand-alone academies are now expected to join Multi-Academy Trusts. At the same time, small MATs must hoover up more schools.

  1. If academy trusts are sent all the money, then the academies in the trust will have far less freedom to spend their money than LA-maintained schools have. There is no ‘power struggle’ between LAs and their school. The LA keeps back a small proportion of a school’s budget to pay for legal and administrative services. The rest of the budget is delegated to schools for schools to allocate as they wish.
    This is a powerful reason for schools to resist becoming academies.

    • Mark Watson

      More uninformed generalistic rubbish.
      Some MATs retain a tiny percentage and pass almost all the schools’ money to the individual schools. Some retain a higher percentage than the LA did, but in return provide far more services and support than the LA did. (And yes, there are some ‘bad’ MATs out there that charge too much and don’t provide enough. Just the same as with local authorities. Luckily we can get rid of those MATs, unlike the LAs).
      As an example, check out Schools Week’s interview last week with the CEO of The Harris Federation which quotes: “the central charge to schools is 4.5 per cent, which is less than they paid to local authorities”.

      • It’s true that the level of top slicing varies MAT to MAT and LA to LA. I’m not sure that it’s true in quite the simplistic way you express it that ‘we can get rid of those MATs unlike the LAs’ when you consider that if a school does not like the level of the LA’s topslice it has the choice of becoming an academy, the government is enacting legislation to allow mass conversion from ‘non viable’ LAs and the arrangements for removing MATs appear to be absolutely opaque. Schools may not have much of a choice of which MAT they are allowed to join – it isn’t their decision. And as MATs grow to the level of some LAs then so it seems the level of top slice grows – and this is very much the direction of travel if you look at David Carter’s recommendations. The MATs with small top slices do appear at present to be the very small MATs based on a handful of schools with an Executive Headteacher and a small central function.

        It would be really good if the government could publish information about the level of top slice in each LA and MAT to allow individual governing bodies to do proper due diligence before they take decisions about conversion. This sort of transparency is sorely lacking in the current system.

        • Mark Watson

          Well at least it sounds like you agree that Janet Downs post was another example of gross over-simplification. Some academies in MATs have more of their money to spend than they did under their LA, some less.
          As regards the rest of what you say, I completely agree that more transparency is the way to go. It is unfortunate that it seems the whole programme has too much secrecy involved in it. Two points I’d make on this though: (1) it seems as though secrecy is a hallmark of all government programmes, whether it’s education, health, law and order etc, and no matter whether it’s a Conservative, Labour or Coalition government. (2) Perhaps governments would be more willing to be transparent if people were willing to look at the totality of the information and consider the bigger picture.
          As an example of this, you ask for details of what each MAT takes as a top slice. However, by itself this information is utterly meaningless. What is important is what the top slice is, AND what the individual academy receives in return. If a MAT takes a top slice of 1% that is very low (far lower than an LA would take) – however if that MAT gives nothing back to the academy then that 1% is a total waste of money. Contrast this with a MAT that takes a higher top-slice but in return provides an amazing service to the academy including first-rate support on HR, financial, educational, payroll etc.
          I think it is an absolute imperative that before a school joins a MAT it understands exactly what it will be paying as a top-slice and what it will be receiving in return. If there is not value for money then it should not have to join that MAT. In fact this is what a lot of the ‘good’ MATs do – they have no wish to have unhappy schools in their chains, and one of the first things they do when talking to prospective new joiners is explain the level and return on the top slice.
          My suspicion, and I apologise for being cynical, is that if all of the relevant information is published – i.e. what MATs take as a top slice and what they give in return – there are people out there who will not bother to look at the bigger picture and will simply refer to the MATs with the biggest top-slice and use this to reinforce their belief that MATs are all about taking money out of schools.

          • Some LAs top slice less than 1%. These are the ones which were light touch before the academy programme and where few schools have seen any need to convert. They already delegated the maximum DSG to schools retaining only what was needed to deliver statutory functions.

    • In my experience there HAS been a level of disgruntlement on the part of some schools at the level of the top slice that some LA’s have applied in the past – but then for many a dawning realisation that as part of a MAT they may well be expected to accept an even larger top slice. Such has been the propaganda about autonomy that this issue hasn’t had a proper airing. Governors don’t always understand that the benefit they may get from a smaller top slice could easily be outweighed by the cost of procuring some of the specialist services they need as an academy – particularly the legal responsibilities associated with being a company and charity. In this area the advice for governors is to be thorough in their exploration of the implications of conversion before they jump because it’s a one way trap door and there’s no way back if they get it wrong.

      • Mark Watson

        Completely agree with this. I do support the academies programme, but if a school is doing well I do not agree it should be forced to become an academy against its wishes. If it is considering converting it is essential it understands all the implications, short and long term.
        As per my post above, focusing on the level of top slice is to an extent missing the point. It’s all about what value you get for what you pay, exactly the same as everything else in life.

  2. The paper is based on a survey of just 2% of “executive leaders” of academy chains. However, reading the report, you wouldn’t know that it’s just 2%. You have to do the calculation for yourself. The fact that this is hidden when there is so much detailed analysis in the report of the responses received from that 2% does lead to a strong suspicion that this is a castle built on sand. It has also been overtaken by events.
    It makes many references to details of the White Paper released in March which have subsequently been rescinded, such as the proposal to remove parent governors from academy governance. It does not encompass the proposals in the Green Paper and the new government’s agenda for education. One can’t blame the authors for this but it does take some of the wind out of their sails. All of their proposals will now need to be reviewed and revised in the light of the intended reintroduction of selective education and the downplaying of Nicky Morgan’s priorities.

    As always with Think Tank papers, arguments are often based on unspoken assumptions which deserve to be challenged. This is particularly relevant in relation to their proposals on governance. In a short section entitled “Professionalise the middle tier” it announces that “many chief executives struggle to recruit appropriately skilled local governors”. What this refers to is an unspecified proportion of the 2% of respondents, which cannot be taken as representative of the academy chain sector – but this doesn’t stop the authors from doing just that. They then assert, on the basis of no evidence, that “To address the persistent poor governance skills and time, the Government must make it possible for governors to be paid.” This is an old canard. Every year the National Governors Association consults its members as to whether they should be paid and the answer is always a resounding no. There is no evidence from other sectors that paid governance results in better governance. Evidence to the contrary is plentiful. No consideration is given to the practicalities of this proposal, such as how much they should be paid, where the money would come from or whether all governors should be paid the same. Unless they can answer these questions they really should not be making their proposal.

    Back to the tank, thinkers.

    • Mark Watson

      I’m afraid David you have made the mistake of applying intellectual rigour to your arguments. Unfortunately most of the contributions here start from a pre-ordained personal standpoint, then pick and choose whatever snippets support that opinion, and then present it as unassailable fact.
      The provision of education, and the infrastructure adopted, is a hugely complex subject and one which is all-too often discussed by people without an open mind whose only motive is to push their agenda on others.
      I do think that there are widespread problems finding enough suitably qualified governors, however I agree that simply paying people to do the role isn’t the answer and alternative strategies are needed.