The chair of the powerful public accounts committee has published her annual report, including criticisms of the Department for Education’s approach to making savings and scrutinising the academies sector.
Labour MP Meg Hillier has concerns about lack of funding, poor oversight at multi-academy trusts and the government’s struggle to get a grip on the teacher retention crisis.
Here are seven things we learned.
1. The DfE is “unrealistic” about the savings it can achieve
Hillier said the DfE is “on a par” with the Department for Health and Social Care “in terms of strains on funding and doubts over its long-term sustainability”. She warned the government is “unrealistic in its saving expectations” and has “little in the way of contingency planning” if the planned cuts “threaten the quality of education and pupil performance”.
She warned some schools were facing year-on-year “efficiency savings”, expected to rise to £3 billion by 2019-20, despite an announcement after the general election that more money would be given to schools. The DfE expects £1.3 billion of the cuts to come from better procurement and £1.7 billion from “more efficient use of staff”.
2. Pupils are directly affected by lack of funding
Hillier warned many schools are considering reducing school hours to save money, with a recent study by the National Association of Head Teachers reporting that one in 20 are already running on shorter hours.
She raised concerns over schools reducing the curriculum offered by ditching subjects like religious education, foreign languages and creative subjects, and highlighted the fact schools are setting up Amazon wishlists to ask parents to pay for basic resources.
“These worrying trends are impacting on pupils directly and the Department shows no sign yet of offering schools a solution,” she said. “We are deeply concerned about the long-term impacts these ‘make-do’ measures will have on pupils, particularly those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds.”
3. The DfE has “failed to get a grip” on teacher retention and working hours
The committee has heard from headteachers that “talented and capable” staff were leaving the profession because long working hours were causing “too much strain on their family life and their mental health”. In February 2017, classroom teachers worked an average of 54.4 hours a week, which has taken “a toll” on staff and had a “detrimental effect” on the quality of teaching.
4. There is not enough accountability in the sector
Hillier warned of “a number of concerns” about governance arrangements and the transparency of decision-making, particularly mentioning related-party transactions and paying school funds to trustees for services.
“There have been accusations that some payments are unnecessarily high for the work provided,” she said. “It is also not clear how well the system is being policed.”
She also criticised the government for taking too long to crack down on related party transactions, and said new measures seemed to be “an afterthought and should have been in place from the start”.
5. There is a ‘gilded staircase’ of public sector pay
Hiller described a “worrying trend in pay escalation” as a “gilded staircase where pay keeps going up because the senior people in the sector convince themselves they are worth more”. She highlighted a lack of oversight of the high pay enjoyed by some academy heads.
“It is particularly galling, when many schools are losing staff, that some individuals are being paid well beyond what most people would consider to be reasonable.”
6. The DfE does not know how to deal with asbestos
The committee has repeated concerns about the management of school buildings and the DfE has “acknowledged that it has limited information about the scale of the problem”. She was “appalled” to hear about the “prevalence of asbestos in schools” and said the DfE “has no idea of either the true scope of the problem or how best to manage the problem when discovered”.
She specifically mentioned the “appalling” situation at Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria, which was taken over by Bright Tribe Trust with the expectation that pupil outcomes and the condition of buildings would be improved. The school has since gone into special measures, and the state of the building has been referred to the Health and Safety Executive. She said the trust is “not willing” to disclose information to parents about the “prevalence of asbestos in the building”.
“Asbestos is a ticking time-bomb which will need central government support to tackle,” she added. “The risk of asbestos poisoning of pupils and staff should not be a reality in 2018.”
7. Many new free schools are “not suitable”
Hillier warned many new free schools are in “inappropriate buildings which are costly to buy and maintain and not suitable for the long-term education of pupils”. This included schools with no playgrounds or in temporary sites and facing “complications” in securing a permanent home.