DfE must ensure ‘academies can be trusted’

22 Nov 18

The government must ensure academies “can be trusted to manage large amounts of public money”, the spending watchdog has urged.

Since 2010-11 nearly 7,000 maintained schools had been converted to academies at a cost of £745m since 2010-11, the National Audit Office highlighted in its overview of the Department for Education.

“Academy trusts acquire substantial new freedoms and responsibilities that maintained schools do not have, including responsibility for financial as well as educational performance,” the report, published on Tuesday, said.

“It is therefore vital that the department has assurance that academy trusts have capacity and capability to run academy schools well and that they can be trusted to manage large amounts of public money.”

Converting maintained schools to academies has been at the heart of the government’s education policy for some time, the NAO noted.

Spend on academies accounted for 35% of the total spend on schools for 2016-17 (£17bn), it said. About 47% of pupils were now taught at academies, according to the NAO. The watchdog’s overview showed how the DfE had divided up its total £80.3bn expenditure in 2017-18.

The NAO warned: “Both schools and further education providers are facing financial pressures. “Schools need to make efficiency savings to counteract a range of cost pressures including pay rises.” Teachers were awarded a 3.5% pay rise from this September. The report also noted the DfE was not one of the departments given extra funding in March 2018 to “realise the opportunities from EU exit”.

It added: “Concerns have also been raised that, with the growing financial pressures on schools, the department is not doing enough to identify academy trusts that are at risk of getting into financial difficulty.”

The NAO also pointed out the department’s increased spending on administration – running costs including back-office staff, buildings and ICT – between 2015-16 and 2017-18. It spent £485m on administration in 2015-16 compared to £529m in 2017-18, which the NAO said was due to new responsibilities, such as for apprenticeships and skills. The budget for administration was reduced to £478bn for this current financial year.

The DfE has been contacted for comment. 

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