The ESFA's conflicting duties raise important questions

Written by: Jon Richards | Published:
Jon Richards, national secretary, education, UNISON

Delivering government policy while also regulating the academies system, the Education Skills and Funding Agency faces an impossible conflict of interests, says Jon Richards

What is to be done with the Education Skills and Funding Agency (ESFA)? Underfunded, understaffed and riddled with conflicts of interest, it has an impossible task. It claims it has three core functions:

  • It is accountable for £58 billion of education funding. It assures that: public funds are properly spent, taxpayers get value for money, and it delivers government policy.
  • It regulates academies, colleges and training providers – intervening to prevent institution failure or the mismanagement of public funds.
  • It delivers major national projects, organisations and key services, such as capital programmes, careers, Apprenticeships, etc.

The ESFA is staffed by decent civil servants working hard to do a decent job in the face of huge cuts. The trouble is the three core functions open it up to conflicting demands and pressures. In particular, we have seen that delivering government policy often triumphs over point two, regulating and intervening with education employers.

And the ESFA’s definition of value for money seems to translate as cutting costs. This reductionist approach is neatly summarised by Lord Agnew, who last term bet headteachers a bottle of champagne that he could find savings in their school. The symbolism of the “champagne” coming on top of the chancellor’s funding for “little extras” sums up an out-of-touch government.

Sadly, over the last few years we have had to report several education bodies to the ESFA. In only one case did we get a satisfactory response (I suspect that this was only because cases we had raised previously had eventually ended up embarrassing the ESFA).

In the majority of the cases, we have had to chase the ESFA. It seems to hide behind confidentiality and seems more interested in protecting government policies, such as on academies, than dealing with our complaints.

Interestingly, UNISON has seen information that suggests the ESFA can take a cursory approach to the monitoring and evaluation of education bodies, even when such a body is supposedly under scrutiny.

More than six months after the Panorama investigation into the Bright Tribe Academy Trust, the ESFA has yet to approach many of the organisations or individuals who may have information or evidence on this failure. How will they learn lessons to prevent the situation happening elsewhere?

What is really concerning us at the moment is how the ESFA deals with academies that are in financial trouble. It is hard for us to get information on, for instance, how bailouts are arrived at, how the payback period is arrived at, or what the ESFA demands and/or the academy trust requires for the additional funding.

This is very important to us because in recent times we have seen that shortly after bailouts are agreed, academy trusts often announce a restructure and redundancies.

Our suspicion is that part of the deal is that the ESFA seeks staff cost-savings and is putting money into education bodies specifically to pay up-front for redundancies – which would be government-sponsored job cuts.

We know that the Department for Education has promised the Treasury that it would deliver £3 billion worth of efficiency savings and we know that a large part of that is accounted for by cuts to support staff posts.

However, for the main part, the DfE is not able to directly influence how cuts are made in schools. So what better way to ensure you meet your targets than by encouraging the ESFA to do your dirty work?

Regulators are vital – they can prevent financial failure, ensure that education bodies are accountable, and that taxpayers get value for money. But when a regulator is conflicted and opaque – and has its independence compromised by its need to deliver government policy – it isn’t much of a regulator at all.

  • Jon Richards is national secretary, education with UNISON.


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