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This week, the Public Accounts Committee took evidence as part of their inquiry into the value for money delivered on converting schools to academies following a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) which said that by January 2018 “the Department had converted nearly 7,000 maintained schools to academies, at an estimated cost of £745 million since 2010-11”. The report found that most of these academies had been performing well as maintained schools and that it has taken longer than planned to convert underperforming schools to academies. Emma Knights, chief executive of the National Governance Association, gave evidence alongside Les Walton, chair of the Northern Education Trust and Paul Walker, CEO of a primary multi academy trust (MAT) in Devon and chair of Devon Association of Primary Heads.
On the benefits of converting schools into academies, Walton outlined that in his view the MAT model was the best model of governance for achieving collaboration, as academies within a MAT can seek to rationalise and clarify their arrangements to create consistency across the group. Walker said that the biggest disincentive for a MAT to take on a school was if the school was in financial deficit but that several factors could act to prevent conversion such as failure to align the ethos of the schools, its vision for the future, resistance to changes to governance arrangements and loss of autonomy.
Knights said that the government’s original policy of granting autonomy to schools has since morphed into the creation of institutions and questioned whether the Department for Education (DfE) has caught up on the significance of these changes. On the topic of due diligence and financial risk, Knights said that it would be “irresponsible of a board of trustees to take on a school that was not financially sustainable” as keeping the trust solvent was a key legal duty of the trustee board. She said in many of the cases when things have gone wrong it is because growth has been pushed too fast, and asked if there should be proper case-reviews into the reasons behind the collapse of MATs so that lessons can be learned and shared across the sector.
Walker called for better relationships across the system and more dialogue between MATs, local authorities, Ofsted and Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) on school improvement. Walton supported the view that advisers with skills and expertise in finance, strategy and due diligence should be deployed to look at how best to help struggling schools. Knights suggested that the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and RSCs offices should be merged as finance and educational standards are inextricably linked and this would help to share knowledge and effective practice within the department.
The second half of the evidence session saw questions put to officials from the DfE, permanent secretary Jonathan Slater and director general for school infrastructure and funding, Andrew McCully. The committee probed officials on the fallout from high-profile academy collapses in Whitehaven and Wakefield and asked: who is held accountable and who picks up the cost when a trust fails? Officials admitted that parents had “been let down” but insisted that oversight was improving. McCully said that “the system as a whole is learning” and said that he “agrees with the previous speaker Emma Knights about the need to continue to learn and understand to improve what we understand by effective governance”.
Other key issues raised in the session included MAT executive pay, the length of time taken to find an academy sponsor when a maintained school receives an inadequate Ofsted rating, the rationale behind the “spaghetti soup of organisations” charged with oversight of the system, and the value for money provided by the academy programme when the bulk of the spend has focused on converting good schools. Slater said that whilst it’s difficult to make a causal link between schools becoming academies and improved outcomes, 500,000 more children were now in good or outstanding schools. McCully said that there was “no magic bullet” for school improvement but that “quality sustained leadership” is an important factor and that the academy model “creates the governance needed for effective school improvement and collaboration”.
You can watch the full evidence session of the PAC inquiry here. NGA has also submitted written evidence to the inquiry which is available here. The inquiry into converting schools into academies is ongoing and the PAC will publish a full report and recommendations in due course.