The cat is now out of the bag when it comes to the oversight and accountability of multi-academy trusts (MATs). The abject failure of Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) and Bright Tribe Trust, to support and improve the schools in these MATs is now too public, and too pressing, to be swept under the carpet.
Certainly, the failure of these MATs dominated this week’s Education Select Committee hearing, to which Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, Lord Theodore Agnew, parliamentary undersecretary of state for the school system, Vicky Beer, regional schools commissioner for Lancashire and West Yorkshire (whose patch includes Wakefield), and John Edwards, regional schools commissioner for East Midlands and the Humber, appeared as witnesses.
They had a torrid time. The MPs on the committee, from all parties, had fish to fry. Time and time again they returned to the issue of “complacency” in government oversight of MATs.
Using the sorry examples of the WCAT and Bright Tribe failures, the MPs wanted to know:
- Why had it taken so long for the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and regional schools commissioners (RSCs) to act when it had become apparent that these trusts were failing both educationally and financially?
- Whose job was it to forensically examine MATs’ spending to ensure that proper use was being made of public money?
- What parental involvement was there in MAT brokering and re-brokering?
- How were the rights of children and young people with SEND protected?
- What oversight did the RSCs exercise over MAT "off-rolling" to alternative provision of pupils with SEND to improve a MAT’s educational performance?
- How did the government justify the exponential rises in MAT CEO pay when teachers are suffering from pay restraint?
And there was more, much more. On and on the interrogation went for over an hour and a half.
Sir David, in particular, did a valiant job in defending his RSC team, assuring the MPs that there were robust accountability systems in place.
To say that the MPs’ responses were sceptical would be to understate the sense of urgent disquiet and, at times, outrage, at the most egregious examples of MAT failure, and their concern that there might be more examples of appalling MAT behaviour yet to come to light.
Robert Halfon, chair of the Education Select Committee, returned again and again to the question of checks and balances on MATs. How did RSCs deal in a timely way with what he called “rotten apples”?
Lord Theodore Agnew argued, repeatedly, that there were robust systems of accountability in place. The ESFA and the RSCs were, he assured the MPs, “two sides of the same coin” – the ESFA having oversight of the finances of MATs, and the RSCs looking at their educational performance.
But documents I have seen from the June 2016 ESFA report into WCAT fundamentally challenge Lord Agnew’s assertions. This report, written 10 months after WCAT had been named as one of the five "top-performing" MATs by the Department for Education and given half a million pounds of additional funding to take over failing schools in the North of England, concluded that there had been a “serious breakdown in the management, governance and oversight by the Board of trustees at WCAT” and that trustees “have not been kept informed of serious developments within the trust”.
Three newly appointed trustees to the WCAT board had, the ESFA report notes, been removed because they had challenged the appointment without open competition and due diligence, of Mike Ramsay as permanent CEO, on a three-year contract worth £550,000. In the ESFA report’s words: “It appears that trustees were removed as a result of legitimately challenging actions and decisions being proposed.”
Matters of gravity
These are matters of the utmost gravity. Three trustees were sacked for exercising properly their governance duties, attempting to examine an appointment process that was, in the report’s words, “in breach of the Academies Financial Handbook, HMT (HM Treasury) and HMRC (HM Revenue & Customs) guidance.”
In addition, the ESFA report notes that WCAT had no documented strategic plan and that its audit and finance committees had not, at the time of the report, met for over a year.
And yet WCAT was allowed – by the ESFA and by the RSC – to continue in operation for another year, in which time WCAT continued, to the tune of over £700,000, to raid its schools’ accounts?
Which leads me to reiterate the question asked repeatedly by the MPs on the Education Select Committee: just how bad does it have to get before a trust is closed down? How is it that the staff at Bright Tribe’s Whitehaven Academy were driven to write a public statement saying that they were “broken” before action was taken to remove the MAT?
Why was WCAT allowed to continue to operate for over a year after this report, with increasing evidence of the misuse of public money and educational failure? If RSCs and the EFSA are two sides of the same coin, why was there no immediate action by the RSC to recommend that WCAT’s contract be terminated and its schools re-brokered?
These questions will not go away. The truth is that oversight of MATs is confused and inadequate. It is just too easy for MATs to misuse public money and to drift into educational decline. Parents have far too little say in who runs the schools their children attend and find it extraordinarily difficult to raise concerns when things go wrong.
I get the impression, now, of desperate measures being taken to prevent more MAT scandals, all of which are too little and too late. Evidence of the misuse of public money and failure to safeguard educational standards, cheating in admissions and off-rolling of pupils are coming out of the woodwork and will not be suppressed. And it’s a good thing, too.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the National Education Union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU