School stewardship: could do better

13 Dec 13

‘Freedom’ from council control does not mean an abdication of responsibility. Academies and free schools need to improve their approaches to both governance and financial probity

With great power comes great responsibility. This was the advice given to Spiderman, and perhaps should be the message explicitly stamped on the front of the funding agreements for academies and free schools.

I am not tarring all these schools with the same brush. There are many examples of good practice out there, but, as usual, it is the few who create unwelcome headlines.

The academies and free schools agenda has been marketed under the banner of autonomy. However, for some, this has overridden the need to ensure stewardship and value in their use of public money. Some have also viewed academy status as a means of breaking free from what they view as local authority shackles.

This ‘freedom’ is something of a red herring, as it should also be recognised that moving to academy status is not an easy option. Those that have done this well will confirm that although they are no longer bound by local authority regulations, they are subject to a whole new set of sometimes more rigorous statutory constraints.

In addition, those that are part of a group or large trust find themselves with little freedom of choice over administrative operations, as the group imposes a standard and consistent approach in such matters as back-office providers, systems, protocols and policies and across all its affiliated schools.

Free schools have no such history and the uncertainty about their performance in educational and financial terms is highlighted in this week’s National Audit Office report Establishing Free Schools.

For critics of this changing educational landscape, greater freedoms and flexibilities for schools are not the issue, it is ensuring that self-regulation and probity over public monies are amongst the schools’ top priorities.

There have been a number of instances lately where self-regulation and financial probity appear to be absent. This ranges in degree, from absolute disregard for the ‘rules’ to a misunderstanding about roles, responsibilities and what autonomy actually means.

Governors of academies and free schools must abide by the same financial ‘code’ as company directors and charity trustees, and this fact should be made very clear at the outset to any school considering a move to academy status. It should also be noted that this is public money and as such there is a duty to abide by the Treasury’s ‘Managing Money’ principles.

The Academies Financial Handbook and the Accounts Direction do make clear references to these responsibilities, but some schools and bodies will have made the decision to convert, be sponsored or set up without doing their ‘detailed homework’.

Two recent examples of where the power of autonomy has led to less, not greater responsibility are the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby and the King Science Academy in Bradford. As the NAO report notes, whistleblowers had initially highlighted financial management concerns in these schools.

The Department for Education has learned lessons and recognises that as the programme grows, ‘more systematic data analysis will be needed to identify and manage emerging risks’. In general, free schools don’t have a ‘local authority’ history to fall back on in terms of process and protocols, so this group may need greater scrutiny around understanding public sector responsibilities in their ‘use of resources’.

There is plenty of written guidance around, and a commitment from the DfE to strengthen the necessary frameworks, but will this approach be enough, and will it lead to schools recognising and fulfilling their responsibilities around stewardship and governance?

There are a number of potential solutions to instill this culture; We could make all governors and head teachers undergo a written exam on what academy/free school status means. In line with Education Secretary Michael Gove’s new curriculum, this would of course be purely exam based, with no modular elements throughout the course of conversion.

Or we could, as Gove has proposed, have a ‘middle tier’ of regional school boards led by a chancellor to oversee local issues. This would appease many critics who have voiced concerns that the Education Funding Agency cannot possibly oversee the rapidly growing number of these schools.

The Public Accounts Committee was among these voices, when earlier this year it recognised that the trajectory of growth in academies compared to the EFA resources available was creating a widening chasm. The need for a ‘middle tier’ was mooted, with many commenting on the fact that this was exactly what local authorities used to do.

This time, however, the players are different, with head teachers being the ‘board’ rather than local authority officers. This should ensure that curriculum and performance expertise is abundant, but what about financial and governance skills? If this middle tier is to work effectively, it must give equal gravitas to the issues of attainment and governance, the latter including financial management.

The US has a similar system in place, whereby school boards are elected to be leaders and champions for public education in their states and communities. This includes the board employing a superintendent or chief school administrator, who has executive oversight and administrative powers.

These boards are not new – they were established in the 1800s to insulate schools from corrupt city politics. But their effectiveness still appears to be undecided. Supporters point out that it is a very democratic governance structure with strong accountability as parents can take their case directly to the school board.

Critics, though, argue that members of school boards often possess modest skills, are very conflict-prone, and cannot work in partnership with superintendents.

So, going back to Spiderman, academies, free schools and any future school boards should remember that ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.

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