Public accounts chair wants schools to publish clearer financial information online

The public accounts committee, chaired by Meg Hillier, has urged the government to take faster action on Covid catch-up

Schools should have to publish more financial information about themselves on their websites to make it easier for parents to hold them to account, the chair of a powerful parliamentary committee has said.

Labour MP Meg Hillier, the chair of the public accounts committee, highlights education as one of six “departments of concern” in her annual report, along with health, justice, HMRC, defence and the Home Office.

She told Schools Week that parents need access to clearer information to hold schools to account over executive pay, and help them to identify when academy trusts are in hot water.

I think it’s important people can understand straightforward facts about a school

Hillier proposes that academy and LA-maintained school websites should have to carry basic financial information, such as details of executive pay and a “basic budget” for what is spent on each area, alongside details of who is in charge, from governors right up to members who control academy trusts.

“I think it’s important people can understand straightforward facts about a school. If people knew what we spend on teachers – at least 75 per cent of a school’s budget – they will see where the challenges are,” she said.

The difficulty, she says, is that academy trust accounts, which they are required by law to publish once a year, contain limited information, and many people don’t know how to read them.

She maintains this would be relatively easy for schools, and that it’s “not beyond the wit of a body somewhere” to create software that schools can use to generate reports for their websites.

Trustees must re-evaluate executive pay

Hillier warned that the academies sector is starting to “drift towards these telephone number salaries”, the likes of which have caused uproar in the universities sector.

“I’m not actually against heads being paid £150,000 for doing a good job,” she told Schools Week. “The point is they’ve got to explain it, and justify it.”

She is critical of the government, which despite running all academies, “has only just written around about pay”. Officials have now sent several letters to academy trusts with executives on large salaries, asking them for justification.

She said the government must do more to “stop it before it gets endemic”.

“The government has been late to this. It gave schools all these freedoms but didn’t stop to think that this ‘gilded staircase’ approach that we’ve seen in other sectors would happen.”

Trustees should “not be frightened to re-evaluate pay” and reduce it “if they feel they are out of kilter with the sector and the sector is out of kilter with reality”.

She wants academy trusts to adopt a similar approach to one used in some sectors of local government, where pay for a role is reduced when someone leaves and it is re-advertised.

Since bringing up the issue of executive pay in numerous PAC hearings, she has heard from trusts who agree with the concerns about largesse when it comes to top salaries and don’t want to be part of the problem.

“They’re embarrassed,” she said. “I really think this is about trustees and governors and parents being able to check it out locally.”

Increase transparency to stop trusts failing

Greater transparency over academy finances is especially important in the context of the collapse of the Wakefield City Academies Trust and problems with the Bright Tribe Trust’s involvement in Whitehaven Academy and other northern schools.

“Bright Tribe should’ve been caught sooner,” said Hillier, who added that many problems with Whitehaven stemmed from the fact it was so remote.

“There was a shocking lack of activity when they took Whitehaven on. Anyone could have walked around and said there was no progress. I think the challenge here is how removed the parents and pupils were from the rest of the trust.”

She suspects ministers are “ruing the day” they gave “quite so much freedom” to academy trusts.

“When things were going wrong, what was the incentive to fix them? One of the problems is you gave these freedoms, but people aren’t always going to do a good job. There’s no easy way around it in the academies model.”

Hillier expressed frustration about how individual academy budgets were managed at WCAT, which announced last September that it was walking away from all of its schools.

“What makes me mad about WCAT is some schools went in with a surplus and others with a deficit and it all ended up in one pot,” she said. “They should have to publish more information.”

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  1. Mark Watson

    Greater transparency is a good thing, and should be encouraged.
    However what is actually important about what Meg Hillier has said is that she thinks Local Authority schools should be transparent.
    I agree that academy accounts are often not that clear, and take some getting used to, but the point is that it there is already a degree of transparency there. You can find out what the CEO of any academy trust is paid. You can see the number of people paid over a set figure, and what bands they fall in.
    As things stand there is no such detail I can find out about an LA school. How many people in LA schools are paid over £100k, over £150k, and where are they? Who knows.
    Craig Tunstell, a primary headteacher, was paid a salary of £330,000 by Lambeth Council. How many other similar examples are there?

    • Mark – it’s true that academy trusts have to produce accounts which show number of staff paid over a certain amount. It’s also true that this info isn’t easily available for LA schools.
      But if you look at School Performance Tables and search for an LA school, you’ll find per-pupil expenditure under Workforce and Finance. This is broken down under headings such as Teaching Staff, ICT and catering.
      If you search for an academy, you’ll be given the average salary under ‘Workforce’. There’s also a link to academy trust accounts but they’re for 2013/14. Rather out-of-date.
      However, if you’ve still got the will to live, you can check out Schools Financial Benchmarking Service linked on the tables for both academies and non-academies.

      • Mark Watson

        The fact that the DfE website links you to accounts from 2013/14 is not the fault of academies. Accounts for 2016/17 are freely available online to anyone who wants to look at them.
        You also seem to be coming at this, understandably, from the position of someone who wants to review and understand the bigger picture. This is a ‘journalistic’ approach and of course has its place.
        But the real issue here is public accountability to the parents and the local communities, who are interested in what it happening at THEIR school.
        Two major questions:
        1. Is my school spending more than they’re receiving?
        2. What are the senior people being paid?
        Both questions that can be answered for academies, and as far as I know ones that can’t be answered for LA schools …

  2. Martin Matthews

    MAT CEO pay is already in the public domain – its published in their companies house accounts. More importantly MATS do not have to declare who the CEO is on their website or GIAS – that would be a start.