William Eichler 11 July 2018

Whitehall ‘failing’ to learn from high-profile academy failures, MPs say

The Government is ‘failing’ to learn from high-profile academy failures which have been damaging to the education of the children involved, MPs say.

A new report from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) says that the Government’s rush to convert schools to academies has led to a lack of ‘rigorous’ scrutiny when it came to applicants.

In March 2016 the Department for Education announced that all schools should become academies — or be in the process of becoming one — by 2020.

By the end of the 2016/17 financial year, over two thirds of state-funded secondary schools and over a quarter of state-funded primary schools and special schools were academies.

The PAC report acknowledged the Government had made some improvements when it came to examining the financial viability of prospective academies as well as their sponsors’ ability to improve the schools they are taking on.

However, committee chair Meg Hillier MP warned the Government has still not learnt from ‘high-profile failures’.

One such failure was Wakefield City Academies Trust which was accused last year of ‘asset stripping’ after it transferred millions of pounds of the schools’ savings to its own accounts before collapsing.

The Trust then announced it would divest itself of its 21 schools as it could not undertake the ‘rapid improvement our academies need’.

The PAC report also warned the full cost of academisation is unknown.

The one off cost of all the conversions since 2010–11 is £745m. However, the full cost of conversion, including spending by schools and local authorities, is ‘unclear’.

The cost, furthermore, impacts upon local authorities, undermining their ability to fund maintained schools.

‘Costs associated with conversion can reduce funding available to local authorities to support remaining maintained schools,’ said Ms Hillier.

‘Academisation can also undermine councils’ ability to provide school places,’ she added.

‘The interests of pupils should be paramount in education but the increasingly incoherent schools system is putting this principle at risk,’ Ms Hillier continued.

‘Government’s haste in pushing ahead with academisation has come at a cost, with high-profile failures indicating significant weaknesses in its assessment regime.

‘The DfE accepts it should do better and we expect it to demonstrate it understands the reasons for these failures and will act on the lessons. It must strengthen scrutiny of prospective academies and sponsors.’

Responding to the PAC report, Cllr Roy Perry, vice chairman of the Local Government Association’s (LGA) Children and Young People Board, joined the committee in calling on the Government to clarify its policy around academies and said that as part of this Whitehall had to recognise the key role councils can play in school improvement and place-planning.

‘Evidence shows councils are better at turning around failing schools than those converted to a sponsor-led academy,’ he said.

‘It is only by working with councils and giving them the necessary powers, rather than shutting them out, that we can meet the challenges currently facing the education system.’

A Department for Education spokesperson said: ‘As the report acknowledges, we have strengthened the process for converting schools and set out the standards of governance we expect from multi-academy trusts.

‘The number that have failed to meet those standards represents a tiny fraction of the academies sector — a stark contrast to the previous local authority-led system.

‘We always act quickly to tackle underperformance, taking action to support head teachers and build the capability of trusts to drive further improvements in our schools.’

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