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Five ways the DfE can make academies work

The government needs to take action to bring together an 'incoherent' school system, says Public Accounts Committee

PAC recommendations on academies

The government needs to take action to bring together an 'incoherent' school system, says Public Accounts Committee

A new public spending watchdog report into the academies programme has called for the government to take action to improve an "incoherent schools" system.

Here are five recommendations from the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) report published today:

1. Learn lessons from academy failures

The committee warns that the checks that the Department for Education carries out before schools convert to academies have not prevented “a succession of high-profile academy failures that have been costly to the taxpayer and damaging to children’s education”.

It highlights Wakefield City Academies Trust, Bright Tribe and Durand as examples of this.

The report says that the DfE recognises that in the past it has focused on converting large numbers of schools quickly.

The PAC says this has been at the expense of rigorous due diligence checks and risk assessment. It recommends that the department reviews academy trust failures and writes to the committee setting out why the failure happened and how it plans to strengthen its processes.

2.  Form a plan to support schools that can’t find a MAT

The report warns that some schools that are required to, or want to, become academies find it difficult to attract potential sponsors or find multi-academy trusts to join. 

The PAC says that some small rural primary schools are unattractive to multi-academy trusts because they are financially vulnerable or geographically isolated. Academy trust boards have a legal responsibility to keep their trusts solvent, meaning that they may be not willing to take on schools that appear financially unsustainable, it says.

It also warns that there is regional variation in the availability of academy sponsors, with particular shortages in the North of England. The PAC says the DfE needs a plan to support schools to become academies, to help overcome barriers faced by small schools and provide options for schools that cannot secure a sponsor.

3. Understand the cost of academisation to local councils

The report highlights how local authorities can incur significant costs when schools become academies, which affects councils' capacity to support remaining maintained schools. 

The Local Government Association estimated that each academy conversion costs between £6,400 and £8,400 in staff time and legal fees. And the National Audit Office estimates that the total cost of school deficits that local councils incurred when schools became academies in 2016-17 was around £7.8m. However the DfE does not collect data on the costs to LAs.

The PAC recommends that it should do this and consider whether it should contribute to the cost of academisation for local councils.

4. Trusts must work with councils on places planning

MPs found that local councils' ability to fulfil their statutory duties to provide school places is undermined in areas where a high proportion of schools have become academies.

There are nine local authorities that have no maintained secondary schools, and more than a third of authorities have fewer than 50 maintained schools.

The report warns that authorities have a duty to ensure enough places exist but no control over the number of academy places. This can be a particular challenge for securing places for looked-after children.

The PAC says the answer is for all academy trusts to be required to work with councils on places  planning as part of their funding agreement.

5. Bring together a ‘fragmented and incoherent’ system

The PAC suggests the current oversight of schools is inefficient for government and confusing for schools.

The report says: “A large number of disparate people and organisations – including the Department, regional schools commissioners, the Education and Skills Funding Agency, Ofsted, local authorities, education advisers, multi-academy trusts and church dioceses – are involved in supporting schools’ conversion to become academies and overseeing their subsequent educational and financial performance.

"It is clear that, from schools’ perspective, the oversight system is confused and can be burdensome.”

It calls on the government, as part of its consultation on school accountability being launched later this year, to identify and address unnecessary burdens on schools, and to ensure that oversight of schools is made "more coordinated and effective".

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