The Department for Education (DfE) must take further steps to prevent conflicts of interest in the governance of academy trusts and be more “open and transparent” about academy accountability.
The recommendation has come from MPs on the Education Select Committee after their inquiry into the academies and free schools programme.
The report, which was published this week, says that the DfE should be “less defensive” about its implementation of the academies programme, and should produce “clearer and deeper” information about the performance of academies, chains and sponsors.
At the same time, the DfE should also be more transparent over how decisions are taken regarding the setting up of new free schools, MPs say.
There are now 4,344 academies open in England, including more than half of all secondary schools. However, the report says that it is still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped to raise standards.
Chairman of the committee, Graham Stuart MP, said: “Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children. It is clear though that academisation has led to greater competition, challenging many maintained schools to improve and incentivising local authorities to develop speedier and more effective interventions in underperforming schools.”
The report raises concerns about the oversight of sponsors and chains, and calls on the DfE to set out the “process and criteria by which sponsors are authorised and matched with schools”. It states: “The DfE should be more open and transparent about the accountability and monitoring system for chains.”
MPs also want the DfE to publish a protocol for “dealing with the failure of large chains and for how individual schools will be treated when a chain can no longer run them”.
The report recommends that the progress and results of each multi-academy trust – those with three or more schools – be published on a chain-by-chain basis. Mr Stuart added: “The DfE should be less defensive and more open about its implementation of the academies programme, producing a range of clearer and deeper information about the performance of academy schools, chains and sponsors.
“While some chains have clearly raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes creating huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools.”
The report comes days after education secretary Nicky Morgan allowed Ofsted to begin the inspection of academy chains – although it will not be allowed to make judgements about effectiveness.
One of the main recommendations in the report is that Ofsted be granted powers to inspect chains in exactly the same way as local authorities, which would mean being able to make judgements.
A spokeswoman for the committee said that the MPs would be watching this development “closely” to ensure that academy chains are cooperative and to judge whether Ofsted does need the “fuller powers” they recommend.
Elsewhere, MPs also want more to be done to prevent conflicts of interest, pointing to a number of cases that have already come to light (see previous SecEd coverage at http://bit.ly/1ztqAox).
The report states: “Conflicts of interests in trusts are a real issue, as shown by the cases which have come to light so far, and they are magnified in the public eye by the latent potential for the misuse, apparent or actual, of public money.
“We recommend that the DfE takes further steps to strengthen the regulations for governance in academy trusts and that the Education Funding Agency revises its guidance on at-cost transactions to make expectations of academies clearer.”
With regards to free schools, the report calls on the DfE to be clearer about the decision-making process behind the programme, including how the competition for free school funding is decided and the relative weight it gives to each of innovation, basic need, deprivation and parental demand.
It should also publish “the number and type of applications it receives, from whom and the criteria it uses to make decisions on applications”.
Mr Stuart added: “The DfE needs to be far more transparent about how and where it decides to fund a new free school. The DfE should also generally avoid opening free schools in areas which have both spare places and an overwhelming majority of good or outstanding schools.”
Commenting on the report, education secretary Nicky Morgan said:
“Delivering the best schools and skills so that our young people can fulfil their potential and succeed in life is a vital part of our long-term economic plan for Britain, and free schools and academies are central to realising this ambition.
“This report recognises our plan is delivering what parents want – more chance than ever to send their child to a good local school.
“As a result of our plan, we have a million more pupils in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010, 100,000 more 6 year-olds able to read thanks to our focus on phonics, and an increase of 60% in the proportion of pupils studying core academic subjects at GCSE.
“Academies and free schools have played a vital role in this transformation by promoting new ideas and approaches, and helping to drive up standards in other local schools as a result.
“They have also created greater choice and are more accountable to parents and communities who have a much greater opportunity to hold them to account than has been the case with schools in the past. The interests of parents, pupils and communities are at the heart of the programme. With the academies and free schools programme they can be confident that we are on their side.”
The full report is available at http://bit.ly/1BrCnSY
Photo: MA Education