Academy schools ‘not accountable enough’

23 Jan 19

Academy schools are not “sufficiently transparent or accountable to parents and local communities”, MPs have said.

Half of all children in English state-funded schools are educated by academy trusts, the Public Accounts Committee noted, in a report out today.

Academies have greater freedoms than local authority-maintained schools and can set staff pay and conditions, determine their own curriculum and are directly responsible for financial as well as educational performance.

But the PAC report said that parents and local people “have to fight to obtain even basic information” about trusts, and they do not explain decisions on how they are spending public money.

PAC chair Meg Hillier said: “When things go wrong in schools, pupils can be badly affected. We have seen the troubling consequences of poor governance and oversight of academy trusts government must raise its game to ensure the failures of the past are not repeated.

“Parents and the wider community are entitled to proper access to transparent information about their local academy schools. They must have confidence that when issues arise, robust measures are in place to deal with them.”

Academies have been criticised in recent years for paying excessive salaries to members of staff.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency had tried to tackle this issue, on the PAC’s advice, the committee noted.

The ESFA wrote to 29 single academies in November 2017 asking for justification of salaries over £150,000.

But, the committee said, the ESFA action alone would not prevent academy staff being paid excessive salaries.

The PAC also noted that Ofsted and ESFA are not able to assess the impact of funding pressures on the quality of education and the outcomes schools achieve.

It recommended the ESFA should require academy trusts, in the academies financial handbook 2019, to make financial information more readily available. The guidance should also require academies to be more transparent about governance and decision-making at all levels.

There are now around 7,500 academy schools in England, educating about 3.8 million pupils and these received direct funding worth £20bn in 2017-18, the PAC pointed out.

Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “The findings reinforce our call for councils to be allowed to step in and oversee failing academy finances, as they do with council-maintained schools that face financial challenges.”

Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat education spokesperson, said: “I’m in no doubt we need far greater oversight and scrutiny of academies and am pleased that this report recommends a number of steps towards this.”

Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The report lays bare the many ways in which parents, staff and local communities are being ignored or side-lined by academy trusts.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “The majority of academies are delivering a great education and – as recognised by the PAC – we are taking robust action in the small minority of cases where they are not meeting the high standards expected.”

The comptroller and auditor general issued the academy sector’s annual accounts with a qualified audit opinion in 2016-17, highlighting weaknesses in its accounts.

Academy schools in England recorded a £6.1bn deficit at the end of August 2017, the academy schools annual report revealed in November last year.

The Education Policy Institute think-tank recently called for schools’ surpluses to be redistributed to help those with weaker finances.

A study by the charity The Sutton Trust, released in December last year, found that academies were failing students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

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