School oversight and intervention - Public Accounts Committee Contents

Conclusions and Recommendations

1.  There are significant gaps in the Department's knowledge of performance in individual schools. The Department's narrow set of indicators means that it has not spotted important failures until too late and is over-reliant on whistleblowers. The Department focuses on educational performance but schools can change very quickly. Ofsted does not currently inspect 'good' schools for up to five years and 'outstanding' schools are exempt from routine inspection. Both Ofsted and the National Association of Head Teachers consider more regular inspections of 'good' and 'outstanding' schools are necessary to ensure high standards. Also schools can have safeguarding or governance and financial management issues while still performing well in terms of educational attainment. In such circumstances, the Department is reliant on whistleblowers to contact them, as happened recently in Birmingham, where two of the schools at the centre of the allegations had been rated 'outstanding' and were therefore exempt from routine inspection. The Agency has developed a risk analysis tool, which has some indicators of financial performance, but on the basis of what we heard, no indicators of efficiency or value for money, and neither the Department nor the Agency have any 'leading' indicators of safeguarding issues. (A 'leading' indicator gives an indication of risks before problems occur, as opposed to a 'lag' indicator of performance in the past.)

Recommendation: The Department should develop leading indicators to fill the gaps in its information on governance, efficiency and safeguarding, and then incorporate them into its expectations of how oversight bodies identify underperformance.

2.  Weak oversight arrangements can mask problems in some schools, which then go undetected until serious damage has been done. The Department has increased the autonomy of schools and oversight bodies. It has done so without an overall strategy, leading to confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the Department, the Agency, local authorities and academy sponsors, and allowing schools to fall through gaps in the system. Without a consistent understanding of the roles of existing and new oversight bodies, school failure can go unnoticed. Of the schools rated 'inadequate' in 2012/13, 36% had previously been rated 'good' or 'outstanding'; oversight bodies need to work together to identify and intervene earlier in time to challenge and support schools. In September 2014 the Department introduced eight Regional Schools Commissioners, a welcome recognition of the need to provide more local intelligence and oversight for the growing number of academies. However, with 4,500 academies it is hard to believe that the Commissioners will have enough local knowledge on their own. There is also a risk that introducing commissioners will increase confusion about roles, especially where local authorities are already working constructively with academies.

Recommendation: The Department needs to clarify its own role, and the roles of Regional Schools Commissioners, local authorities and the Agency and specificy how they will work together to share information and identify failure at an earlier stage. In addition the Department should set clear and explicit expectations for Regional Schools Commissioners to ensure that they make effective use of local authorities' relationships with and local knowledge about schools and academies in their areas. In the next 18 months, the Department should evaluate the effectiveness of the Regional Schools Commissioners, and how constructively they are working with local authorities. The Department should also explicitly set out the set up and running costs of Regional School Commissioners so that value can be assessed.

3.  Lack of clarity in the Department's guidance has contributed to a situation where some local authorities do not understand their safeguarding duties towards pupils in academies. Under the Children's Act 1989, local authorities are responsible for monitoring safeguarding arrangements in all schools; these responsibilities include academies set up in recent years. However, out of the 87 local authorities surveyed by the National Audit Office, 13 said they did not monitor academies' safeguarding arrangements, and 13 said they would not intervene directly in an academy if pupil safety was threatened. We were surprised to hear that the Department had done nothing to address this potentially serious gap in oversight since becoming aware of it during the NAO's work. After our evidence session we wrote to the Permanent Secretary requesting that he write immediately to all local authorities to confirm and clarify their duties in relation to safeguarding in academies. It is likely that some local authorities, in the context of wider messages about the academies' autonomy, felt that safeguarding in academies was no longer their responsibility.

Recommendation: The Department should clarify local authorities' safeguarding responsibilities towards schools in a single document, including whether or not local authorities have the power to direct academies to change their safeguarding arrangements.

4.  The Department lacks information about the number and quality of school governors. In an increasingly autonomous school system that relies on self-improvement, the Department relies on schools having good governors and strong leadership. The structure of governance varies depending on school type, but regardless of this, all governors must be aware of their responsibilities and be able to provide sufficient support and challenge. The National Governors Association estimates there are around 350,000 governors in England, but the Department does not have any record of the number, skills and capacity of governors or trustees, even though it relies on them to understand and challenge school performance. The failure of the Department and the local authority to identify problems with governors at Birmingham schools that were part of the 'Trojan Horse' inquiry highlights one risk of not knowing enough about governors. We have also previously reported on problems with financial management and unmanaged conflicts of interest in schools, and these continue to cause us concern.

Recommendation: The Department should carry out a skills audit of school governors and ensure that all schools provide appropriate training for all governors and trustees. The Department should regularly assure itself that the capability and capacity of governors are fit for purpose.

5.  Oversight bodies have not formally intervened in some schools that have been identified as underperforming. In September 2013, 179 open academies met the Department's criteria for formal intervention, based on its own definition of failure (exam results and Ofsted rating). It should have intervened formally in all cases, but it only sent a warning notice to 15. The Agency also maintains a list of academies of national concern over financial management or governance issues. It has issued financial notices to improve to 4 of these academies, as a result of fraud allegations or financial irregularity; but there are another 7 which have been on the list for suspected fraud but have not received a financial notice to improve. Both the Department and the Agency acknowledge that their records are not good enough to explain why they have intervened in some academies and not others.

Recommendation: The Department and the Agency should improve the recording of their decisions to identify and intervene in underperforming schools to ensure consistency in the approach to the schools. The Department must ensure that, as a minimum, all schools eligible for intervention are identified.

6.  The Department does not know enough about which formal interventions are most effective to tackle failure under which circumstances. Of schools inspected by Ofsted in 2012/13, 48% (62 out of 129) of those which had received some kind of formal intervention improved at their next inspection. The remainder stayed the same or deteriorated, with the apparent impact of different interventions varying significantly. Meanwhile, 59% (2,181 out of 3,696) of schools that received no formal intervention also improved. The Department has not done enough to evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions and so does not know which are the most cost-effective. It recognises that it needs to do more.

Recommendation: The Department should commission a full evaluation of the cost-effectiveness of all formal interventions in schools.

7.  There are no independent assessments of the effectiveness of academy sponsors and the Department has taken an optimistic view of sponsor capacity for too long. The Department's main intervention for failing maintained schools is to match them with a sponsor and turn the school into a sponsored academy. Often the failing school will become part of a chain of academies run by one sponsor with a central management function. In its keenness to expand the academies programme and increase the number of sponsored academies, it has allowed some chains to grow too quickly without the necessary capacity and capability. It has currently 'paused' the growth of 18 sponsors because of concerns about their performance; these sponsors are currently educating almost 100,000 children. However, it has no independent source of information about the effectiveness of academy sponsors and the Department is over-reliant on whistleblowers. Ofsted is able to focus inspections on a number of academies within a chain and give an assessment about how well the chain supports those academies but, unlike in local authorities, it is unable to inspect the central management function of a sponsor (which is the primary mechanism for delivering improvement in a failing school). Unlike the powers Ofsted has to inspect local authorities, there is no statutory framework setting out the basis for what the inspectors are assessing when they look at the operation of an academy chain, and Ofsted awards no overall judgement or rating of academy sponsors.   

Recommendation: The Department should obtain independent judgements of the capacity of sponsors that run more than one academy, and should use this to determine which sponsors are able to grow and when it should intervene with particular sponsors.

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Prepared 30 January 2015