MPs on the warpath over academy trust accountability

The government should publish “scorecards” for academy trusts and base decisions on whether they are allowed to grow both on educational and financial performance, an influential group of MPs has said.

The parliamentary education committee has warned of a “lack of joined-up accountability in the school system”, particularly over failed trusts like the doomed Wakefield City Academies Trust, and is demanding improvements to the way their performance is assessed by officials and communicated to parents and staff.

In a letter to Lord Agnew, the academies minister, who appeared in front of MPs last month, committee chair Robert Halfon said parents, staff and pupils had been left “in the dark over who is running their schools”, and claimed decisions were being taken “behind closed doors”.

He said parents had “seemed to be the last people to know” about the imminent collapse of WCAT, and pointed out this had happened in other cases.

“The lack of transparency is particularly evident in the relationship between regional schools commissioners, Ofsted and the Education and Skills Funding Agency. We believe that the overlap between these three tiers of accountability is a major cause of confusion,” he said.

Lord Agnew

Halfon said the WCAT case demonstrated this lack of accountability. “Very serious and major concerns” about the trust were known by the DfE and the regional schools commissioners as early as September 2016, but bosses were still able to make “significant and unwarranted transfers of assets” up until the time of the trust’s collapse.

“We believe that a more robust system of oversight could have prevented this,” said Halfon. “We are particularly concerned by the extent to which failing trusts are stripping assets from their schools. It is not clear to us that all schools are benefiting from joining MATs, or that trusts are providing value for money.”

He acknowledged that the government was warming to the idea of Ofsted inspecting trusts, but wants RSCs to begin to publish “scorecards” for chains in the meantime.

These would, he said, combine “financial and performance information in a single location which they transparently use to determine the suitability of a trust taking over a school”.

“These scorecards could complement the growth checks which our predecessor committee was told would be in place for all trusts from 2017,” he went on. “We encourage you to develop a way of communicating the performance of trusts to improve the information publicly available on MATs in a way that is accessible to parents.”

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  1. The EFA must have been aware of financial problems BEFORE September 2016. WCAT accounts for year ending 31 August 2016 show EFA visited WCAT in July and September 2015 and found WCAT had ‘made good progress…in establishing a more robust financial and control framework’ but needed to build on this and ensure full compliance with the Academies Handbook.

    The EFA must have known WCAT didn’t have a robust financial framework before July 2015 – over two years ago – or they wouldn’t have investigated. Neither would EFA had said they still need to ensure full compliance with academy rules. Despite this, the then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan awarded WCAT a share of £10m to ‘promote educational excellence’ in September 2015. And the EFA still allowed WCAT to take on more academies – five joined in 2016.

    • John Connor

      This is the same mindset that contributed to the collapse of Carillion. If we don’t keep pouring good money after bad, it will collapse. And it has anyway, which sort of negates that argument. The whole system is set up to be opaque, so that the public can’t see who is syphoning huge amounts of taxpayers cash into their coffers. The present academies minister and his predecessor both ran academy chains, so that there is a massive conflict of interest. That’s a concept which is alien to this benighted Tory government, along with “due diligence”. Just lining the pockets of donor mates, nothing to see here, move along.

      • And it appears the Government might have breached its own procurement rules when awarding contracts to Carillion post-Sept 2016. Or if it didn’t, then Carillion ignored their contractual obligations regarding payment to subcontractors and the Gov’t didn’t monitor Carillion adequately.

        • Mark Watson

          Completely unsubstantiated allegation.
          Your premise rests on your assumption that the Standard Order Terms and Conditions you’ve found was used/is being used by Carillion on its public sector contracts as opposed to the significant number of private sector contracts it holds.
          It may or may not be, I don’t know, and I haven’t seen anything which shows you do either.
          Please can you provide the evidence to show that these terms and conditions were used by Carillion to contract with its supply chain on public projects procured after 1 September 2016.

          • At the top of the page it says Comment.This is a verbal or written remark expressing an opinion or reaction. This is what Mr.Connor did. I enjoyed it. The website does not ask for forensic substantiated articles with referenced sources. Mr. Connor left a comment as he was invited to.

          • Mark: the linked article raised the question. It may turn out to be unfounded, it may not. But that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be raised.
            I said in the blog I didn’t know whether Carillion’s public contracts contained the 30-day rule. They should have done, of course. So I’ve submitted a FoI request to the Crown Commercial Service to find out. You can follow it by using the link at the bottom.
            Please don’t expect a swift answer. The CCS has 20 working days to respond. And it may be the CCS is the wrong department. It may also refuse the request on grounds of ‘commercial sensitivity’ – this is grounds for refusal under the FoI Act.

          • Mark Watson

            Janet, sorry to be pedantic but your article didn’t “raise the question” it made clear unambiguous statements.
            “The Government and possibly other public sector organisations have fallen down on their duties to draw up public sector contracts properly or, if they did, then they didn’t monitor them adequately.”
            (plus that was in bold !)
            I’ve also asked you on what basis you have suggested that those Carillion standard terms were used on publicly funded projects as opposed to privately funded projects. Given that’s what you’ve already written you presumably don’t need to wait for a FOIA response to explain.

      • Mark Watson

        It’s getting boring pointing this out every time, but nobody with any knowledge of WCAT is making any allegations that money has come out of the Trust into anybody’s pockets.
        And heaven forbid that someone appointed to a role within Government has some practical experience in the area they’re working in.
        If a former teacher was appointed Education Secretary would there be screams of indignation that any decision they made was lining the pockets of their ex-colleagues? Of course not.
        If you’ve got any specific examples where decisions have been made by Government Ministers that have directly resulted in the lining of their mates’ pockets please provide them.

        • It was a sensible reaction and I enjoyed it. Your post demanding he evidence his claim and detail specific examples was less sensible. No posts demand you stop your meticulously researched repostes, which I am sure you and others enjoy. Perhaps leave a little space for different tastes.

        • Mark – it may be ‘boring’ to point it out, but the Public Accounts Committee had concerns about related party transactions within academy trusts in 2014.
          The rules concerning related party transactions have since been tightened up. They must be properly procured and ‘at cost’. But the NAO said deciding whether services were at cost would be difficult.
          There are ways the rules can be circumvented. A Court case revealed one way. I can’t provide a link as I’ve already provided one, but go to LSN and search for Wey Education. Click on ‘How to profit from running an academy under DfE radar’. And then there are the numerous complex arrangements between trustees and other companies which make the money difficult to track.
          The vast majority of academy trusts don’t behave in this way. But concerns about their accountability is shared by the Ed Select Committee as the article makes clear.
          PS I didn’t claim WCAT trustees had lined their own pockets – read my comment at the top of the thread again.

          • Mark Watson

            Janet, just to be clear I didn’t say anything about you making claims about WCAT Trustees – these pages don’t have the clearest formatting, but my comment was in response to John Connor, not you.