School oversight and intervention - Public Accounts Committee Contents

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.[1] 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]

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]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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'.[6] 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".[7] 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".[8]

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'.[9] 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.'[10] 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".[11]

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).[12] We asked about the Department's approach to developing indicators for these measures; it said that to do so would be difficult.[13] 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.[14] 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.[15]

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.[16] 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.[17] We have previously reported that the Department relies too heavily on whistleblowers to identify problems in schools.[18] 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.[19]

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.[20] 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.[21] 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 in schools.[22]

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.[23] But this goes against the Department's clear statement that local authorities are to have no role in monitoring academies, beyond safeguarding.[24] Ofsted told us that local oversight was "absolutely critical".[25] 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.[26]

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".[27] 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.[28]

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 duties.[29]

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. [30]

1   C&AG's Report, Academies and maintained schools: Oversight and intervention, Session 2014-15, HC 721, 30 October 2014 Back

2   C&AG's Report, paras 1-2 Back

3   C&AG's Report, figure 2, para 1.7 Back

4   Q 26 Back

5   Q 56 Back

6   C&AG's Report paras 1.3,2.2 Back

7   Q 33 Back

8   Q 105 Back

9   Qq 38-39; C&AG's Report, para 2.6 Back

10   Q 41 Back

11   Q 26 Back

12   Q 32; C&AG's Report, para 9 Back

13   Q 107 Back

14   Q 110 Back

15   Q 110 Back

16   Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools arising from the 'Trojan Horse' letter, Peter Clarke, July 2014, HC 576 Back

17   Report into allegations concerning Birmingham schools, p. 87. Back

18   Public Accounts Committee - Sixty-First Report, Education Funding Agency and Department for Education 2012-13 financial statements 12 May 2014 Back

19   Qq 55-59 Back

20   Q 123 Back

21   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

22   Permanent Secretary's response, 19 December 2014 Back

23   Q 46; C&AG's Report, para 1.14 Back

24   Q 66; C&AG's Report, para 1.14 Back

25   Q 43 Back

26   Q 46; C&AG's Report, para 4.2,figure 11 Back

27   Q 1 Back

28   Qq 1,10 Back

29   Qq 2-5 Back

30   Q 126 Back

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Prepared 30 January 2015