PAC calls for ‘increased grip’ on academy spending

22 Apr 13
Oversight of academy schools could be jeopardised by planned job cuts at the Department for Education, MPs have warned today.

By Richard Johnstone | 23 April 2013

Oversight of academy schools could be jeopardised by planned job cuts at the Department for Education, MPs have warned today.

School pupils

In a report on the government’s academy programme, the Public Accounts Committee concluded that a big increase in the number of academies meant the department was having to ‘play catch-up’ on its oversight work. Academy numbers have increased from 203 to 2,309 since May 2010. The schools are free from local authority control and the DfE carries out checks on spending.

The PAC also noted that DfE’s academy funding system is ‘complex and inefficient' and has led to additional costs. Between April 2010 and March 2012, a total of £8.3bn was spent on the programme, around £1bn more than budgeted for, the Managing the expansion of the academies programme report said.

In order to give both Parliament and the public confidence that the academies programme is being properly run, both the DfE and its Education Funding Agency must now ‘increase their grip’ on spending, the MPs concluded.

However, PAC chair Margaret Hodge said it was unclear that the department would be able to do this as it implements a plan to cut its running costs by half, including reducing staff numbers by around 1,000 posts.

‘These signs make proper monitoring of the programme vital. We are sceptical that the department is up to the job as cuts are made to its staff and those of its agencies,’ Hodge added.

Ministers also need to ensure that ‘robust mechanisms’ are in place to identify academic or financial failure in academies, the report stated. For example, the department has yet to establish effective school-level financial accountability for academies operating within chains.

Hodge said it is the department’s responsibility ‘to make sure that the public money being spent on the academies programme constitutes value for money’.

She added: ‘The number of academies has rapidly increased, resulting in a considerable growth in costs. Inefficient funding systems and poor cost control have driven up the cost of the programme.

‘The funding system for academies has not operated effectively alongside the local authority system and has made it hard for the department to prove that academies are not receiving more money than they should. The department must publish detailed data showing school-level expenditure, including costs per pupil, so that proper comparisons can be made with the data for maintained schools.’

Responding to the report, a DfE spokesman said the committee had ignored ‘the overwhelming successes of the academy programme’.

He added: ‘It fails to acknowledge the significant progress we have made in improving our systems and processes. And it does not reflect the positive view of academies’ financial health – something set out in the National Audit Office report on which the PAC’s findings were based.’

The additional spending was a result of the success of the programme, and was ‘not an overspend’, the department’s response stated.

The spokesman added: ‘We make no apology for the fact that so many schools have opted to convert, and no apology for spending money on a programme that is proven to drive up standards and make long-term school improvements.’


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