Public accounts chair wants schools to publish clearer financial information online

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.”