While most of Westminster frets about Brexit, education secretary Damian Hinds, and his permanent secretary Jonathan Slater spent this morning facing a grilling from the Commons Education Select Committee.
Here are five things we learnt from their questioning by MPs:
1. MAT transparency
Mr Slater faced a barrage of questions over the financial transparency of multi-academy trusts (MATs).
MP Thelma Walker took aim at what she said was a lack of accountability in collapsed MATs, saying that “right now, it seems that parents are relying on whistleblowers and Freedom of Information battles” to find out the truth.
Mr Slater said when a MAT closes, the surplus goes to the successor trust, citing the £1 million or so transferred to Dunraven when it took over the Durand Academy. If a MAT goes bust leaving debts, he said the government would chase down any improperly spent money.
“If there has been a problem of a trust spending money improperly, we will chase it down,” he said.
He added: “Since the speech [made by Mr Hinds about transparency last summer] we’ve put in place the new regime whereby Ofsted have started carrying out evaluations at the MAT level, evaluating the contributions of each school within the MAT and looking at what the added value is of the MAT.
"We are looking how we can publish more information at MAT level."
DfE accounts released in November showed 185 trusts had deficits totalling £65 million in 2016-17, up more than 10 per cent from the previous year.
2. Related party transactions
Mr Slater also revealed the latest data on the tricky subject of “related party transactions” in MATs.
Pressed by MPs, he said the department had looked into 180 cases in 2016-17 and found 59 “wanting”, worth some £7 million. The previous year, MATS paid out more than £120 million for 3,033 related-party transactions, including 70 worth more than £250,000.
The government is bringing in new rules in April requiring academies to declare all related-party transactions to the ESFA in advance, and seek approval for those that exceed £20,000 either individually or cumulatively.
Related-party transactions are deals between academy trusts and private companies they have links to through personal relationships. Mr Slater said the new standards will be “far away the most rigorous regime anywhere in the world for such things”.
3. Special needs funding
The most heated exchanges were over the vast shortfall in funding for special needs pupils, which is set to top half a billion pounds this year.
MP James Frith said the government’s plans for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) have been a “failure”, pointing out that parents are winning 90 per cent of tribunal cases challenging cuts to LA support.
“You’ve raised the new entitlement [for children with SEND] but then ignored the consequence of parents not getting this support,” he said.
Mr Hinds said Ofsted and the Care Quality Commission are inspecting all local authorities' SEND provision and, of the 42 that have been completed, 34 have been told they need to lay out new plans.
4. Isolation rooms
Mr Hinds was also asked to weigh in on the controversial question of whether schools should use isolation rooms to deal with troublesome students.
The education secretary said he understands the need for such rooms, but cautioned they must be used in a “proportionate and constructive way”. Asked if children should be made to do work if they are missing a lesson, Mr Hinds said it wasn’t for him to decide.
5. Multi-year settlement
Unsurprisingly, MPs also pushed for more clarity on the long-term plan for school funding.
“I want to know what you're going to be doing in putting forward a 10-year plan and being an outspoken advocate of funding in your department to the Treasury, because the Treasury do not get it,” said MP William Wragg.
Mr Hinds did not commit to 10 years but pledged to push for a longer-term plan. "We have to make sure that, in the spending review, we have a multi-year settlement," he said.