MPs have accused the Department for Education for failing to learn lessons from high-profile academy failures and not applying sufficient scrutiny in the “rush” to convert schools to academies.
In a new report the cross-party Public Accounts Committee noted that DfE has strengthened the way it risk assesses the financial health of trusts and sponsors taking on new academies, but said the changes do not go far enough.
The report warned that the academisation policy is unclear and increasingly fragmented.
But a DfE spokesperson defended the policy, stating that just a “tiny fraction” of the sector have failed to meet the governance standards expected of academy trusts.
The academies programme should be compared to the “entrenched failure in large parts of the local authority-run school system that existed in 2010”, the department said.
Since 2010 almost 7,000 schools have been converted to academies. Some 65% of schools taken out of local authority control have seen their Ofsted rating improve to “good” or “outstanding”, according to departmental figures.
But the committee found that the checks carried out by DfE before schools convert to academies have failed to prevent costly and high-profile failures. In 2016-17, the department had to “re-broker” – find new sponsors for – 2.5% of failing academies.
However, the department said this figure is misleading when taken in isolation, as the majority of these “re-brokered” academies were single schools joining multi-academy trusts voluntarily.
The PAC also said that attempts to convert large numbers of schools into academies quickly have been “at the expense of rigorous due diligence checks and risk assessment”. It said DfE has strengthened its scrutiny of the financial health of prospective academies, but called for it to review past academy trust failures to identify further lessons for scrutiny arrangements.
The MPs also raised concerns about smaller, underperforming schools in rural areas. Schools rated “inadequate” by Ofsted must by law convert to academies, but some find it difficult to attract sponsors or join multi-academy trusts because they are seen as financially unsustainable. DfE should set out a plan detailing how it will support these schools, they said.
Other problems identified in the report include the costs incurred by local authorities when schools become academies, which can affect their capacity to support maintained schools; that local authorities’ statutory duty to provide enough school places is undermined in areas with lots of academies, as they have no control over the number of places in academy schools; and that the department’s oversight arrangements are fragmented, inefficient, and confusing and sometimes burdensome for schools.
The one-off costs to DfE for academy conversions have been £745m since 2010-11, but full costs including money spent by schools and local authorities are unclear.
Meg Hillier, Labour MP and chair of the committee, described the schools system as “increasingly incoherent”.
“Government’s haste in pushing ahead with academisation has come at a cost, with high-profile failures indicating significant weaknesses in its assessment regime,” she said. “The DfE accepts it should do better and we expect it to demonstrate it understands the reasons for these failures and will act on the lessons. It must strengthen scrutiny of prospective academies and sponsors.”
Outlining some of the failures addressed in the report, Hillier added that government must meet these challenges and be far clearer about direction of travel in future.
A DfE spokesperson said: “Academies are raising standards, with almost 516,000 children studying in good or outstanding sponsored academies that were typically previously underperforming schools.
“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 – any suggestion that the majority are forced to convert is misleading.”
They pointed out that the report acknowledges that DfE has strengthened its processes for academy conversions and set out standards of governance it expects from multi-academy trusts.
They added: “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 underperformance, taking action to support headteachers and build the capability of trusts to drive further improvements in our schools.”