Scandalous revelations over academies and free schools

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The MPs’ report into the academies and free schools programme was damning and action must be taken, says Christine Blower.

A report by the Education Select Committee, Academies and Free Schools, has concluded what the NUT has been saying all along – that academy status does not result in raised standards, that schools work best in collaboration with others not in isolation, that sponsors and proposers of academies and free schools have not been properly vetted before being allowed to run taxpayer-funded schools, and that the whole system lacks transparency, oversight and is open to fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

The report is utterly damning. What it portrays is an education system in total disarray with little or no accountability or coherence. It has always been clear to the NUT that the creation of academies and free schools was about creating a market in education, not about school improvement.

The report states: “Evidence to the committee’s inquiry suggests that the pressure to expand the academies programme rapidly, and the associated need to identify an increasing number of sponsors, has led to inadequate vetting by the DfE of potential sponsors prior to authorisation.” This is a scandalous revelation. 

The committee’s conclusion that the system for approving free schools lacks transparency and that their intake and impact on neighbouring schools should be assessed and monitored has been obvious from the start.

The report also questions the lack of openness regarding the process and criteria by which academy sponsors are authorised and matched with schools and that this information should be clearly set out and be in the public domain. It is astounding that the government has been allowed to get away with this unprofessional approach. It is hardly surprising given the lack of overall scrutiny that so many problems within academies and free schools have arisen.

Academy chains’ and free schools’ performance as we know varies enormously with, according to the Sutton Trust, a majority of chains failing to provide standards of education on a par with maintained schools. It is to be hoped that the report’s recommendation that the Department for Education monitors and publishes data relating to their performance and publishes the results broken down by school and trust is heeded. Education secretary Nicky Morgan’s letter to academy chains last week did not go far enough since while chains will be inspected, they will not receive an Ofsted judgement under her proposals.

We welcome the recommendation that all chains should publish in their annual accounts the remuneration of senior leaders within bands. However, in the interests of transparency we also want each individual school within a trust to publish its accounts (currently accounts are published at trust level).

The fact that academies and free schools have been allowed to be so secretive speaks volumes. There should be no question that public money be accounted for and inconceivable that a government should not insist on such. Furthermore, so-called “related party transactions” in which trust directors can win contracts for other companies they are involved with must be outlawed immediately. No-one running a state school should be allowed to make money from so doing.

Where the NUT differs with the report’s conclusions is over the future role of local authorities. We are clear that the role of democratic oversight of state-funded schools is better exercised by local authorities, rather than by an expanded role for regional school commissioners. Local authorities are directly accountable to voters and can provide local mechanisms for parents who are dissatisfied with aspects of their child’s schooling and provide appropriate school improvement support at local level. They are best placed to encourage school collaboration and to secure sufficient pupil places.

Whichever government comes into office after the next General Election should stop throwing taxpayers’ money at this failed experiment and return all state funded schools back to the oversight of local authorities.

  • Christine Blower is general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Visit www.teachers.org.uk


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