1 Oversight of the school system |
1. On the basis of a report by the Comptroller and
Auditor General, we took evidence from the Department for Education
(the Department), the Education Funding Agency (the Agency), and
Ofsted. We also took
evidence from the National Governors Association and the National
Association of Head Teachers. The school system in England currently
educates almost 7 million children aged 4 to 16 years old at an
annual cost of £40 billion, in around 21,500 state-funded
schools. Of these, 17,000 are local authority maintained and 4,500
are academies, directly accountable to the Secretary of State.
The Department's overall objective for the English school system
is for all children to have the opportunity to attend a school
that Ofsted, the independent inspectorate for schools, rates as
'good' or better.
2. The Department is responsible for the overall
performance of schools in England, but shares its oversight responsibilities
with the Agency and 152 local authorities. The Department, the
Agency and local authorities have a range of interventions they
can use to improve performance in underperforming schools. The
main formal interventions are: warning notices (a formal letter
raising concerns about a school's performance); changing a school's
governing body; and appointing a sponsor (in which case a school
becomes a sponsored academy). The Department's policy is to appoint
a sponsor in maintained schools with sustained or serious underperformance.
There are 630 approved sponsors, 460 of which are currently working
with over 1,900 academies.
3. The system is complex, with a mix of school types.
These currently include individually-run academies (some of which
have opened or converted with a sponsor's help, and some without);
schools that are part of academy chains; and local authority maintained
schools, including some church schools.
Meanwhile, the range of bodies overseeing this system has recently
increased. From September this year, the Department's oversight
responsibilities are partly delivered through eight Regional Schools
Commissioners, who are supported by around 50 head teachers.
4. The Department sets the standards that schools
are expected to achieve. It measures school performance on the
basis of exam results at the end of primary school, at age 11,
and at the end of secondary school, at age 16. It also relies
on Ofsted, the independent inspectorate for schools, to assess
school performance, aiming for all schools to be judged 'good'
or 'outstanding'. The
Department depends heavily on exam performance and Ofsted inspections
to identify underperforming schools, but evidence shows that there
are risks to such an approach. The National Association of Head
Teachers told us that there was a risk in relying on exam results
because "if we wait until test data is available to us, many
years of a child's education may have gone by".
When we asked about intervening earlier, before exam results dipped,
the Department admitted that "all the quantitative data we
have about the schools system are lag indicators. We do not have
any leading indicators on which we could take that kind of action".
5. Independent inspections can provide a more holistic
approach and may give early warning of failure, but they occur
only intermittently. In particular, schools that are currently
rated 'good' by Ofsted can go five years without an inspection,
and those rated 'outstanding' are exempt from routine inspection
altogether. This is in spite of the evidence that 'good' and 'outstanding'
schools can deteriorate. Of schools rated 'inadequate', the lowest
category, in 2012/13, 36% had previously been rated 'good' or
'outstanding'. The Chief
Inspector of Schools told us that "not inspecting schools
for a lengthy period of time is not a good idea". Even under
the present arrangements, about 800 schools a year are shown to
decline from 'good' or better to less than 'good'. Ofsted is currently
consulting about introducing shorter, more frequent one-day inspections
for 'good' schools, but there are no plans to change the Government's
policy of not inspecting 'outstanding' schools.'
When we asked the National Association of Head Teachers about
this point, its General Secretary told us, "I would recommend
applying the same principles and process to 'outstanding' schools
] Not all my members in 'outstanding' schools will thank
me for saying that, but I think it would be healthy".
6. In its report the National Audit Office identified
three specific aspects of school performance that are not well
enough measured at present: governance arrangements; financial
management; and safeguarding (how children at school are kept
safe). We asked about
the Department's approach to developing indicators for these measures;
it said that to do so would be difficult.
In particular, the Department did not think it would be possible
to develop leading indicators for safeguarding. The Agency told
us that it was developing a risk-assessment tool to get as much
early warning as it could from the data it collects about academies.
This tool includes a measure on financial management but, based
on the evidence we heard, this does not yet incorporate measures
of value for money or efficiency.
7. We asked the Department a number of questions
about the 'Trojan Horse' affair (which related to allegations
of extremism in Birmingham schools), including about the information
that had been available to oversight bodies to identify problems.
The 'Trojan Horse' inquiry, carried out by Peter Clarke, found
that the allegations had only come to light because of whistleblowers
and said that the Department's reliance on these courageous individuals
was too great. We
have previously reported that the Department relies too heavily
on whistleblowers to identify problems in schools.
A particular issue was that two of the schools at the centre of
the "Trojan Horse" allegations had previously been judged
'outstanding' by Ofsted and, thus, were exempt from routine inspection.
We asked the Department about how it would get more information
about such schools in future. It hoped that Regional School Commissioners
would gain enough intelligence to know what was happening in academy
schools between inspections, but admitted that this would be a
challenge, with only 8 commissioners to look after 4,500 academies.
8. The lack of information about the quality of safeguarding
in academies is made more important by evidence that some local
authorities have not been monitoring academy safeguarding arrangements
in line with expectations. We heard that 13 of the 87 local authorities
(15%) that responded to a National Audit Office survey were not
monitoring safeguarding arrangements in academies, and that 13
said they would not intervene in academies if pupils' safety was
threatened. The National
Audit Office also told us that Local Safeguarding Children Boards,
which are charged with scrutinising schools' safeguarding arrangements,
were expected to work with academies and maintained schools alike,
but that these boards could not direct academies to change their
safeguarding arrangements if they found them wanting.
After our evidence session we wrote to the Department and asked
the Permanent Secretary to write to all local authorities to remind
them of their responsibilities for the safeguarding of all children
9. More generally, the National Audit Office survey
found that local authorities took different approaches to academies.
Over 90% of authorities were monitoring academies' educational
performance, with one third saying they would intervene directly
if they had concerns.
But this goes against the Department's clear statement that local
authorities are to have no role in monitoring academies, beyond
told us that local oversight was "absolutely critical".
The Department has not undertaken a wide-ranging review of local
authority performance to check that authorities have the capacity
to provide adequate oversight. The last time it reviewed local
authorities' plans for school improvement, in 2011, it had concerns
in more than 80% of cases.
10. We asked the witnesses about the Department's
aim for an increasingly autonomous schools system, with reduced
interference from the centre, and what this would mean for school-level
governance. The National Governors Association told us that "because
there is more autonomy, [it] makes the role of governing boards
much more important, and the Government has recognised that".
We asked about the strengths and weaknesses in the current governance
system. The National Governors Association told us that "we
don't know enough about where governance is right across the sector",
but that there is a "bell curve" between very good and
very poor governance.
11. Unlike magistrates, school governors are not
required to undergo any training before they take up their posts.
While being an effective governor in academies and maintained
schools requires many similar skills and attributes, such as knowing
the school and being able to interpret data, the legal duties
of governors in academies are quite different from those in the
maintained sector. The National Governors Association told us
that the Department had introduced risks into the system because
maintained schools could convert to academy status without the
governors in those schools being fully aware of their altered
12. The Department has reviewed the arrangements
for related party transactions in academy schools and chains.
It found 17 instances where such transactions were not properly
notified and managed and is continuing to monitor these arrangements.
1 C&AG's Report, Academies and maintained schools:
Oversight and intervention, Session 2014-15, HC 721, 30 October
C&AG's Report, paras 1-2 Back
C&AG's Report, figure 2, para 1.7 Back
Q 26 Back
Q 56 Back
C&AG's Report paras 1.3,2.2 Back
Q 33 Back
Q 105 Back
Qq 38-39; C&AG's Report, para 2.6 Back
Q 41 Back
Q 26 Back
Q 32; C&AG's Report, para 9 Back
Q 107 Back
Q 110 Back
Q 110 Back
Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising
from the 'Trojan Horse' letter, Peter Clarke, July 2014, HC 576 Back
Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools, p. 87. Back
Public Accounts Committee - Sixty-First Report, Education Funding
Agency and Department for Education 2012-13 financial statements
12 May 2014 Back
Qq 55-59 Back
Q 123 Back
Q119; HM Government, Working Together to Safeguard Children,
March 2013. The guidance states, "Local Safeguarding Children
Boards (LSCBs) do not commission or deliver direct frontline services
] While LSCBs do not have the power to direct other organisations
they do have a role in making clear where improvement is needed.
Each Board partner retains their own existing line of accountability
for safeguarding." (paragraph 3, p. 60). Back
Permanent Secretary's response, 19 December 2014 Back
Q 46; C&AG's Report, para 1.14 Back
Q 66; C&AG's Report, para 1.14 Back
Q 43 Back
Q 46; C&AG's Report, para 4.2,figure 11 Back
Q 1 Back
Qq 1,10 Back
Qq 2-5 Back
Q 126 Back