Academies: A very expensive mess

Written by: Kevin Courtney | Published:
Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary, National Education Union
In January 17 it was reported that 50% of academy trusts were overspending. In February 17 it was ...

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The academies programme is an expensive mess and, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the government is burying its head in the sand. It’s time for a radical rethink...

Among the many spurious claims that have been made in favour of converting schools to academy status, is the idea that an academised system means that schools will be subject to less bureaucracy.
Indeed, in May 2010, the Department for Education (DfE) announced that there would be “system-wide reductions in bureaucracy”.

The clear implication all along has been that academies would be more efficient and that there would be less money spent on the bureaucracy of local government, while more would be funnelled directly into teaching and learning.

The reality of the academy programme has been very different. The dreamed-of goal of a leaner, less costly and less bureaucratic system has turned out to be an expensive illusion. Ironically, instead, it has driven the creation of a new top-heavy bureaucracy, characterised by a lack of joined up thinking and ad hoc responses to fundamental flaws.

The latest symptom of this is revealed in a new blog by Warwick Mansell published on the National Education Union website.

It shows the staggering overall amounts which are spent on salaries for the chief executives of multi-academy trusts – organisations which are responsible for far fewer schools than local authorities and do so with no democratic oversight.

Looking at a representative sample of local authorities from before the academies programme, he found that each council area had one children’s services director, paid on average £132,000, who was responsible for schools which typically had 49,000 pupils between them.

In contrast, by 2015/16, the leaders of 127 of the largest MATs were being paid £142,559 on average, even though their organisations were responsible for an average of 6,200 pupils between them.

In his words: “Where once we paid for one local authority children’s services director on £132,000 to lead organisations with nearly 50,000 pupils each, for the same number of pupils in the academies scheme we now have eight multi-academy trust chief executives, each earning £143,000 on average.”

The staggering waste inherent to the academies programme doesn’t end there.

The government’s blinkered approach to school improvement, where the only solution can be more academisation, is creating a fractured and unstable landscape for schools. As problems emerge within academy trusts and as individual academies meet the government’s definitions for requiring intervention, more and more are being “re-brokered” between trusts.

The government is in fact struggling to find enough sponsors for the schools it thinks need to be taken over or “re-brokered”. Despite this, it remains the case that the number of academies being re-brokered is rising every year, hitting 165 in 2016/17.

This represents 2.5 per cent of the total number of open academies, compared to 0.4 per cent in 2013/14. It has been estimated that these transfers could cost the taxpayer around £30 million per year.

As the terrible case of Wakefield Academies Trust shows, where 21 schools will be passed on to new sponsors with no meaningful consultation of the communities involved, the government does not have a handle on the situation.

Yet, it is spending ever-increasing amounts on expanding inefficient bureaucracies to try and manage its own mess.

It was recently revealed that the costs for running the offices of the Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) – appointed positions that were themselves created as an ad hoc response to concerns about a lack of local oversight of academies – has rocketed from £4 million in 2014 when the programme began to £26 million last year.

What’s more, these costs are expected to hit £31.2 million in the current financial year.

The academies programme has delivered an unstable system with a bloated and expensive bureaucracy that is incapable of overcoming its fundamental flaws.

There is a lack of parental involvement, it is expensive, inefficient and undemocratic.

The government is burying its head in the sand if it thinks the current picture is sustainable or good for schools and teachers. 

Further information

Per pupil cost of MAT CEOs is eight times that of LA children’s services directors, Warwick Mansell, November 2017: http://bit.ly/2BnSNB2


Comments
In January 17 it was reported that 50% of academy trusts were overspending.
In February 17 it was reported that 23 trusts breached transparency rules.
During the year there has be a huge number of trusts and 'free' schools involved in a waste of money or financial 'mismanagement'. Just some: Lilac Sky had £0.5 million written off; £136 million spent on closed 'free' schools; £500k debt of Bolton Wanderers 'free' school when it closed (after paying £600k rent to the football club); amongst others Learning Schools and Erudition Schools went into liquidation....... and so much more.
As of today 39 Academy Trusts have open Financial Notices to Improve - 5 have been in place since 2014. A further 18 were issued but now closed.

I think this demonstrates how ineffective the financial oversight of academies/'free' schools is (I haven't even mention UTC waste) and is just one indication of how money is being rerouted from the classroom.

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