MPs criticise lack of school oversight

30/01/2015

An influential cross-party committee of MPs has criticised the Department for Education (DfE) for not having a proper strategy in place for overseeing the schools system, and has called for a skills audit of school governors. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is appointed by the House of Commons to examine accounts laid before Parliament.

The Rt. Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the (PAC), today said: “The Department for Education has focused on increasing schools’ autonomy but it has done so without a proper strategy for overseeing the system.”  Ms Hodge said the DfE’s “light touch approach” means problems in some schools can go undetected until serious damage has been done.

The report into school oversight and intervention found that there was confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the Department for Education (DfE), the Education Funding Agency, local authorities and academy sponsors and recommends that oversight bodies work together to identify problems and intervene earlier in time to challenge and support schools.

The report also says that the DfE does not know enough about the number and quality of school governors and recommends that it “carries out a skills audit of school governors and ensure that all schools provide appropriate training for all governors and trustees.” In future, the Department should: “regularly assure itself that the capability and capacity of governors are fit for purpose.”

The PAC reported:  “The National Governors Association estimates there are around 350,000 governors in England, but the Department does not have any record of the number, skills and capacity of governors or trustees, even though it relies on them to understand and challenge school performance. The failure of the Department and the local authority to identify problems with governors at Birmingham schools that were part of the ‘Trojan Horse’ inquiry highlights one risk of not knowing enough about governors. We have also previously reported on problems with financial management and unmanaged conflicts of interest in schools, and these continue to cause us concern.” 

Emma Knights, Chief Executive of the National Governors’ Association, gave evidence to the committee, and said: “Today’s report exposes serious flaws in the oversight of England’s schools.  The National Governors’ Association fully supports the recommendation for all agencies involved with school oversight to work together to solve the problems that exist in the system.  I hope this report gives the DfE the impetus and direction it needs to get it right for the years ahead.

“As every governor or trustee knows – there must be a clear long-term strategy in place that is understood by all those who will be implementing it. The DfE has failed to communicate its strategy to local authorities, parents, teachers and governors, causing confusion and – as palpably demonstrated by the events in Birmingham – sheer disruption, which lets pupils down.

“The National Governors’ Association is very pleased the Committee has highlighted the need for training for governors; we have long campaigned for mandatory training for school governors and trustees. It is ridiculous that someone can start governing without realising exactly what it is they have volunteered to do. Being part of an academy governing board is a very responsible role, safeguarding both pupils’ future and public money.  There needs to be more investment in getting this right.”

The report makes several other recommendations to the DfE including that the Department should: 

·  Develop a system which gives an indication of risks, before problems occur, to fill the gaps in its information on governance, efficiency and safeguarding, and then incorporate them into its expectations of how oversight bodies identify underperformance.

·  Clarify its own role, and the roles of Regional Schools Commissioners, local authorities and the Agency and specify how they will work together to share information and identify failure at an earlier stage.

·  Set clear and explicit expectations for Regional Schools Commissioners to ensure that they make effective use of local authorities’ relationships with and local knowledge about schools and academies in their areas

·  Clarify local authorities’ safeguarding responsibilities towards schools in a single document, including whether or not local authorities have the power to direct academies to change their safeguarding arrangements.

·  Improve the recording of their decisions to identify and intervene in underperforming schools to ensure consistency in the approach to the schools.

·  Obtain independent judgements of the capacity of sponsors that run more than one academy, and should use this to determine which sponsors are able to grow and when it should intervene with particular sponsors.

Click here to read the Public Accounts Committee report in full. 

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