Schools miss out in rush to set up academies, MPs find

Posted on: 2018-07-10 23:15:00

A rush to set up academies is leaving hundreds of schools ignored by inspectors amid mounting costs for the taxpayer, parliament’s spending watchdog has found.

The public accounts committee has concluded that escalating problems in the sector have left civil servants scrambling to change how they examine prospective academies’ financial viability and sponsors’ ability.

In a highly critical report released on Wednesday, MPs said they were worried that the Department for Education has not yet learned the lessons from high-profile academy failures that have been damaging children’s education.

It followed an analysis by the National Audit Office in May that showed more than 1,600 schools had not been inspected for six years or more and, of those, almost 300 had not seen an Ofsted inspector for at least 10 years.

Operators of dozens of academies have declared that they are struggling during this academic year.

Meg Hillier, the chair of the committee, said the government’s haste in pushing ahead with academisation has come at a high cost. 

“The DfE … must strengthen scrutiny of prospective academies and sponsors. Costs associated with conversion can reduce funding available to local authorities to support remaining maintained schools. Academisation can also undermine councils’ ability to provide school places.

“Oversight of the sector has become confusingly complex, which can place unnecessary burdens on schools and risks weakening decisions in the conversion process,” she said.

Converting local authority schools into academies is a central plan of the government’s education policy, with all schools since 2010 allowed to apply for academy status with more freedom over areas such as the curriculum and staff pay.

By January, 6,996 schools had become academies and converting them has cost the DfE £745m since 2010/11.

The report said the department’s policy for converting schools to academies is unclear, adding that the full cost of conversion is also unclear, while the department has not learned lessons from high-profile academy failures.

“The one-off costs to the Department for Education of converting schools to academies have been £745m since 2010-11, but the full cost of conversion, including spending by schools and local authorities, is unclear. We are concerned, however, that the department is failing to give a clear sense of direction for maintained schools, academies, local authorities, pupils and parents,” the report said.

Reacting to the report, Geoff Barton, a former secondary school head teacher who now leads the Association of School and College Leaders, said the government had failed to provide sufficient safeguards and a coherent strategy in overseeing the biggest structural change in the history of the state education system.

“This has resulted not only in high-profile failures but a fragmented system in which oversight, as the PAC points out, is confusingly complex and burdensome, and schools are left in limbo because of a shortage of sponsors in some areas.

“Despite these circumstances, however, there are very many good academies across the country working tirelessly to give their students the very best education possible, and we need to be careful that the discourse about academies doesn’t become corrosive,” he said.

A Department for Education spokesman insisted that academies are raising standards. “Converting to become an academy is a positive choice made by hundreds of schools every year to give great leaders the freedom to focus on what is best for pupils. The number that have failed to meet those standards represents a tiny fraction of the academies sector – a stark contrast to the previous local authority-led system.

“We always act quickly to tackle under-performance, taking action to support head teachers and build the capability of trusts to drive further improvements in our schools.”

Source: The Guardian

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