Clear view of education provision ‘hard with high rate of academy conversions’

26 Feb 18

Local authorities are struggling to take a holistic view of education provision in their areas because of the high proportion of secondary schools that have converted to academies, according to government auditors.

Almost three quarters (72%) of secondary schools are now academies, leaving local authorities largely responsible for primary and specialist schools, the National Audit Office said in a report published on 21 February.

The NAO also highlighted stark variations in the concentration of academy schools across England. Some boroughs have very high numbers of academies. For instance, in Bromley 93% of schools are academies.

In other parts of the country, academies are much more scarce. In Lancashire, Lewisham and North Tyneside just 6% of schools are academies.

Current Department for Education policy requires maintained schools rated “inadequate” to convert to academies, which they need to do with the help of a sponsor and within nine months.

But the auditors found it was taking the DfE longer than intended to convert many of these schools within the timeframe.

Sponsors for some of the most challenging schools have also been difficult to find, especially those in rural areas, the NAO said.

Although DfE grants are available to encourage sponsors, the watchdog found no evidence that the department had assessed how effective this money was.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, said: “It is unclear how feasible it will be for the department to continue converting large numbers of schools to academies.

“There is extensive variation across the country, leaving many local authorities with responsibility largely for primary schools.

“To cut through this complexity, the department needs to set out its vision and clarify how it sees academies, maintained schools and local authorities working together to create a coherent and effective school system for children across all parts of the country.”

The DfE has introduced a more stringent process for converting schools to academies, including closer financial scrutiny of schools and sponsors.

Despite this, the department could go further, the auditors said, particularly with regard to financial risk and assurance to determine that trustees and academy leaders could be trusted to manage public money.

Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, said: “Given the serious shortcomings in the way some academies have been managed, I am concerned that the NAO says the department isn’t checking all academy leaders are fit and proper persons.”

She added that the school system was “increasingly incoherent”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the NAO had highlighted a critical issue.

“Struggling schools are being left in limbo because the government insists that they have to be academised but cannot then find an academy sponsor for them.

“We call on ministers to rethink their approach to schools which are deemed to be underperforming.”

  • Vivienne Russell

    Vivienne Russell is managing editor of Public Finance magazine and publicfinance.co.uk

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