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
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
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
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