1.Academy trusts do not make enough information available to help parents and local communities understand what is happening in individual academy schools. We heard from witnesses from Whitehaven about the poor state of buildings at their school, that improvement work they believed to be funded had not been done, and that parents had to use freedom of information requests to find out from Bright Tribe Trust what was happening at the school. They also described how little financial information Bright Tribe made available about the school. The accounts information available through Companies House is high-level, covering each academy trust as a whole, and is of little use to parents and local communities in understanding the position of individual academy schools. The Department says that academy trusts must have a scheme of delegation, setting out which decisions are made at school level and which at trust level, and are required to have parent representatives on their governing bodies. However, we heard that Bright Tribe had removed local governance and created a regional governing body for all its schools in the north of England.
Recommendation: The ESFA should include in the Academies Financial Handbook 2019 requirements for academy trusts to make available financial information at school level and to be transparent about governance and decision-making at all levels of the trust.
3.The Department is not adequately meeting the needs of users in presenting financial information about academy trusts. We recommended in March 2018 that the Department should publish more analysis in the academy sector annual report and accounts, including a comparison of the financial performance of academy trusts of different sizes and geographical areas. The Department did include some additional analysis in the latest annual report, but not the breakdowns that we requested. It would also be more transparent and helpful for the user if the Department were to present separate information on certain types of academies, such as university technical colleges. The Department presented analysis in the annual report and accounts on academy trusts’ cumulative deficits which draws attention to how many trusts are in significant financial distress. It should do more to explain the financial sustainability of the academies sector as a whole, for example by presenting analysis of trends in in-year deficits to explain whether and why a growing number of trusts are spending more than their annual income. The Department says that it has thought in a “user-centred way” about how to give parents, councillors and schools performance and financial information for their school to enable them to compare it with others. However, the accounts themselves would better support transparency and accountability if they included more detailed analysis.
Recommendation: The Department should:
5.It is not clear to whom parents can turn when they need to escalate concerns about the running of academy schools and academy trusts. The Department requires academy trusts to have complaints procedures to deal with concerns that have not been addressed, and there is a right of appeal to the Department. However, the Department cannot confirm that appropriate arrangements for complaints are in place in all academy trusts and acknowledges that, in the case of Bright Tribe, they were clearly not applied. Bright Tribe had a complaints policy for Whitehaven school, but no process for complaining about problems with the multi-academy trust, and frequent changes of staff at the trust and school made it difficult for parents to know who to speak to. Parents whose children are in stand-alone schools are more likely to feel that their views are heard than those in multi-academy trusts.
Recommendation: The Department should:
7.Where there have been serious failings at academy trusts the Department has not had an effective regime to sanction the academy trustees and leaders who were responsible. Despite a catastrophic failure of governance, the previous executive headteacher at Durand Academy Trust is apparently entitled to a lump sum payment which, even after a statutory inquiry by the Charity Commission, totals £850,000. This is a shocking reward for failure. The Department has few sanctions at its disposal to penalise those involved in malpractice. It can ban individuals from teaching, as it did in the case of the former headteacher at Perry Beeches Academy Trust. It can also stop individuals from being school governors but admitted that this is very unusual. The ESFA admits that there is nothing to stop people involved in malpractice from acting as trustees or governors elsewhere, for example at a further education college, or from setting up businesses that could trade with the education and training providers that it oversees and regulates. The ESFA and the Charity Commission are investigating whether individuals involved in malpractice could be disqualified from becoming company directors.
Recommendation: The Department should write to us by March 2019 to set out what sanctions it has imposed to date, and explain how it plans to strengthen the sanctions regime to deter, punish and prevent malpractice. In strengthening the sanctions regime, the Department should work with the Charity Commission, Companies House and the Insolvency Service.
9.The ESFA is not sufficiently transparent about the results of inquiries into concerns about the financial management and governance of academy trusts. The ESFA regularly conducts investigations and reviews into academy trusts’ financial management and governance. However, the results of these inquiries are not always made public and, where they are published, there can be lengthy delays. For example, the Department took two years to publish the results of its inquiries into concerns about Wakefield City Academies Trust. The interim Chief Executive of Bright Tribe told us that the ongoing investigations into the trust will be concluded by Christmas 2018 and that the trust or the ESFA will then take any necessary action. However, we were given no assurances that the reports and the actions will be made public in a timely way.
11.Neither Ofsted nor the Education and Skills Funding Agency assesses the impact of funding pressures on the quality of education and the outcomes schools achieve. The Department told the Committee in early 2017 that it would gain assurance, in part from Ofsted inspections, that schools were achieving ‘desirable’ efficiency savings, and that educational outcomes were not being adversely affected by the need to make savings. However, Ofsted is not providing this assurance. In June 2018, HM Chief Inspector told us that responsibility for school funding sits with other parts of government and did not provide us with clear and direct answers about the impact of funding pressures. In her subsequent letter in October 2018, HM Chief Inspector said that, as funding growth has slowed, school leaders have had to make difficult choices and work harder to balance their budgets; however, she reported that inspectors are not seeing an impact on education standards. She noted, however, that the current inspection framework is not designed to capture the effects of curriculum narrowing. We understand that Ofsted and the ESFA have started to seek to join up their work, but the Department still does not understand the impact of funding pressures.
Recommendation: As part of its school inspections, Ofsted should examine and report on whether the quality of education and the outcomes schools achieve are being adversely affected by the need to make savings.
13.Nearly a quarter of schools have still not provided the information that the Department needs to understand fully the extent of asbestos in school buildings and how the risks are being managed. We remain seriously concerned about the Department’s lack of information and assurance about asbestos in school buildings – as we first reported in April 2017. The Department launched its ‘asbestos management assurance’ process on 1 March 2018 to collect data on how asbestos in schools is being managed, and to provide assurance that academy trusts and local authorities are complying with their legal duties. The Department asked schools to respond by 31 May 2018. Due to the poor response rate, it extended the deadline to 25 June 2018 and then extended it again to 27 July 2018. Despite this, only 77% of schools have responded and the Department has extended the deadline yet again, to 15 February 2019, to allow the remaining 23% of schools to respond. The Department says that those schools that do not respond will be picked up in its school condition survey. However, we are not convinced that extending the survey deadline again will result in a much higher response rate, or that the condition survey will provide the level of specific assurance needed about how asbestos is being managed.
Recommendation: In March 2019, the Department should name and shame those schools which did not meet the February 2019 deadline and which have therefore repeatedly failed to respond to its asbestos management survey.
Published: 23 January 2018