DfE secrecy over £16m turnaround plan for supersize MAT

Academies minister refuses to give MPs details of how one of the largest academy chains in the country is using government money

Adi Bloom

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The Department for Education is refusing to disclose details of its £16 million turnaround plan for one of the largest academy chains in the country. 

The Education and Skills Funding Agency has agreed to provide up to £16.1 million to turn around the failing Academies Enterprise Trust (AET), which is comprised of 60 schools. 

But when MPs asked academies minister Lord Agnew to account for how this money was being spent or when any of it will be repaid, he refused to disclose any details.

Lucy Powell MP, the former shadow education secretary, said: “Why can’t we see that plan? If this was a local authority, this would be completely publicly available. Why isn’t it publicly available? Or available to us as a select committee?”

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Lord Agnew, who appeared in front of the Commons Education Select Committee this morning, said: “Because the policy has always been that you get to carry out the recovery exercise before publishing anything.”

Ms Powell questioned the validity of this response. “What policy? Where’s the transparency in that?

“I think that £16m of agreed funds, that may or may not be drawn down, but quite a lot of it has already been drawn down, should be made available for us as MPs, for local communities, for staff, for trade unions, for others to scrutinise. It’s a huge amount of money to a huge organisation.”

Earlier this year, school standards minister Nick Gibb said that the Education and Skills Funding Agency would provide up to £16.1 million in recoverable and non-recoverable deficit funding, in order to support the turnaround plan for AET, between the academic years 2017-18 and 2020-21. 

The government had so far provided £4.5 million to the 33,000-pupil academy chain. Of this, £1.2 million was non-recoverable deficit funding. And almost £650,000 of the £3.06 million given to cover restructuring costs, including redundancy payments, is also non-recoverable. 

Ms Powell told Lord Agnew: “As you know, a group of schools that were having that problem, run by a local authority, wouldn’t be given that time, would they? It would be forced academies like that [she clicked her fingers]. There would be no turnaround time, no cash injection. 

“Yet here we have this huge multi-academy trust, which shouldn’t have been allowed to grow in the way that it was: these are lessons learnt. Well, these are nice expensive lessons to learn, aren’t they? This looks and sounds like all the lessons we’d have learnt from good local authorities in the past. No shit, Sherlock.”

Dominic Herrington, the national schools commissioner, was addressing MPs alongside Lord Agnew this morning. He said: “All I can say is that we’re holding academies to account, with warning notices, with financial notices to improve. We’ve learnt a lot of lessons. Our teams are really, really on this.

“There will be a repayment plan starting. We will try and do everything we can to limit the amount of money that we will give in this situation, because we want AET to be a strong organisation. We want great education for every child.”

The Department for Education was contacted by Tes, but said that it had nothing to add on the issue.

A spokesperson for AET said: “The turnaround plan was agreed with the Department for Education in spring 2017 and involved the wholesale reform of AET – everything bar the name above the door has changed: from leadership and curriculum support through to finances and governance. As part of the structural reform, the plan involved a number of academies leaving AET to join other trusts. Since then, the financial notice to improve has been lifted, and ministers have given the organisation the green light to grow again. One new primary school joined in September 2018, and we are in discussions with others about joining over the coming year.”


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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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