16.The Department told us that it expected around 1,000 maintained schools to become academies in both 2018–19 and 2019–20. This means that there will continue to be a substantial number of schools overseen by local authorities for the foreseeable future. The Department highlighted that, because most schools have a choice as to whether they become an academy, it could not be confident about what would happen in the future. We heard from the Devon Association of Primary Heads and the Northern Education Trust that, because the policy around converting schools to academies had changed, more clarity about the role of local authorities was needed.
17.The National Governance Association contrasted the Department’s original policy that encouraged schools to become autonomous, stand-alone academies with its current approach of encouraging schools to join a federation or a multi-academy trust. The National Governance Association said that the school system had not adjusted to that change. For example, the national funding formula was about individual schools, but a multi-academy trust with several schools was one organisation. Parents should not, therefore, think that their academy school was always entitled to a certain amount of money, because that was not how the funding system worked. The Association also told us that engagement with parents was a really important issue, commenting that parents are not built into the accountability system enough. It said it was discussing this issue with the Department and had proposed a model where the parents should become the members of the trust.
18.We asked whether there was evidence to suggest that tackling underperforming schools by directing them to become academies was better value for money than providing a rescue package for them inside a local authority. The Department argued that it is difficult to look at a counter-factual to compare academisation with what would have happened if schools had not converted. It told us that seven out of 10 sponsored academies—those that had been struggling before—were now rated as good or outstanding. It also commented that it might well have been possible to achieve that improvement in a different way. The Department said that it could not prove whether converting underperforming schools to academies had been better value for money than leaving them as maintained schools, but made the point that nobody could. It noted that educational standards would not improve simply through the process of conversion, but emphasised that academies were intended to create the governance and collaboration arrangements that were needed to achieve school improvement.
19.Between April 2010 and December 2017, the Department spent an estimated £745 million on the one-off transitional costs of converting schools to academies. Spending in 2016–17 was £81 million. Schools converting without a sponsor receive a flat-rate grant of £25,000 to help them pay for costs including legal fees, new systems, and finance and administration costs. Legal fees typically represent the largest share of these costs. The costs that schools actually incur vary. The Department told us that it believes that the £25,000 grant is not sufficient to cover all costs for the average school, but that it wants to incentivise schools to complete the conversion process as cost-effectively as possible. Academy trusts that sponsor underperforming schools receive much larger conversion grants.
20.The Department does not collect data on the costs that local authorities incur when their maintained schools convert to academies. A survey by the Local Government Association in 2016 indicated that local authorities’ costs vary, but that average spending was between £6,400 and £8,400 for each school. In written evidence, West Sussex County Council said that it estimated that it had cost the council a total of £640,000 to convert schools to academies. The Department said that it was keen for local authorities to minimise their costs, and noted that local authorities could, if they chose, bill schools accordingly. The National Audit Office found that the fees that local authorities were charging ranged from around £2,500 to £20,000 per school. Written evidence from the Catholic Education Service said that one London authority was proposing a charge of £15,000, an amount that would be considered prohibitive for most schools since the £25,000 conversion grant might already be insufficient to cover the costs that schools incurred.
21.Local authorities also retain any accumulated financial deficits of maintained schools that are directed to convert to academies with a sponsor. The Department told us that it wanted to create incentives for local authorities to minimise the number of maintained schools getting into deficit, through good medium and long-term financial management. It did not want the Department to pick up deficits because local authorities had failed to run their schools properly. The National Audit Office estimated, based on averages, that the cost to local authorities of deficits from schools that were directed to convert with a sponsor was approximately £7.8 million in 2016–17.
22.The Department has now withdrawn the general funding rate for local authorities and academies for school support services. This was previously paid through the Education Services Grant and was worth £77 per pupil in 2016–17. The Devon Association of Primary Heads told us that local authorities now had limited capacity to support good schools to improve. Local authorities prioritised the schools most in need, meaning that good schools received less support. In addition, local authorities often used their good schools to support their failing schools. Therefore it was necessary to keep a good mix of schools, in both the academy sector and the maintained sector. Written evidence from London Councils and the National Governance Association also said that local schools becoming academies and the reduction in the Education Services Grant meant that local authorities were now less able to support maintained schools.
23.The proportion of schools that have become academies, and the relative proportion of primary schools and secondary schools that are academies, varies widely across the country. At January 2018, 93% of schools in Bromley were academies, compared with just 6% in Lancashire, Lewisham and North Tyneside. Nine local authorities had no maintained secondary schools and over a third of local authorities had fewer than 50 maintained schools.
24.Regardless of the local mix of academies and maintained schools, local authorities retain critical responsibilities, in particular a statutory responsibility to secure sufficient school places. In written evidence, London Councils told us that councils’ ability to fulfil core responsibilities, such as safeguarding, the Prevent programme, admissions and support for children with special educational needs and disabilities, could be put at risk if an academy did not want to engage with them. Local authorities could not, for example, direct academy schools to expand when they had capacity to do so and there was a need for more school places. The Northern Education Trust said that school place planning was difficult when there were academies and local authority schools; it could work only if there were good relationships. The Department said that three-quarters of multi-academy trusts had formal relationships with their local authorities, and 87% of single academy trusts were working with councils and other trusts.
25.We asked specifically about arrangements for placing looked-after children in areas where all secondary schools are academies. The Department assured us that it expected looked-after children to be the top priority, whether the school concerned was a maintained school or an academy. It noted that the Secretary of State could direct academies to take looked-after children, but accepted that the process of complaining and appealing, starting with academies’ internal procedures, could be too slow.
26.A large number of bodies and individuals are involved in the conversion process and subsequent oversight of academy schools and academy trusts, including the Department, regional schools commissioners, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted, local authorities, education advisers, multi-academy trusts and church dioceses. In May 2018, the Department acknowledged that school leaders can feel accountable to multiple masters, with different demands placed on them. It made a commitment to remove duplication and be clear which body is playing which distinct role, and said that it would work with stakeholders to develop detailed proposals for consultation in autumn 2018.
27.The Department and the Education and Skills Funding Agency use a variety of documents and multiple spreadsheets and databases to store and share information about academies, creating a risk of duplication, error or omission. The Department told us that, in the past, different teams had gone into schools to assess educational performance and financial performance. It said that educational and financial expertise were different but related; it wanted these experts to work together and have one conversation with academy trusts. There was no reason why this should not happen, because ultimately regional schools commissioners and Education and Skills Funding Agency staff were all working for the Department. The Department assured us that officials were working together closely on the ground.
42 Q 129
43 , para 14
44 Q 148
45 Qq 12, 15, 38
46 Q 15
47 Qq 50, 51
48 Qq 101, 103–104, 137
49 Q 134
50 , paras 2.8–2.9, 2.12–2.13
51 Qq 115–116
52 Q 25; , para 2.15
53 , paras 2.11, 2.17. Average spending was £6,400 per primary school converting with a sponsor (£6,900 without), £8,400 per secondary school converting with a sponsor (£7,300 without).
54 West Sussex County Council (), para 6
55 Q 114
56 para 2.18
57 Catholic Education Service (), paras 10, 21
58 , para 2.20
59 Qq 111, 113
60 Q 112; , para 2.20
61 , para 1.23
62 Q 8
63 Q 37
64 London Councils (), para 7; National Governance Association (), para 2.7
65 , paras 1.20, 1.22, Figure 7
66 Q 129
67 London Councils (), para 4
68 Q 30
69 Q 129
70 Q 140
71 Qq 141–142
72 , para 1.9, Figure 4
73 Department for Education, , 4 May 2018
74 , para 2.7
75 Q 99
76 Qq 95–96
Published: 11 July 2018