The collapse of the construction company Carillion has brought into public gaze the question of how public services should be financed and delivered. Education is certainly not immune from these questions. Hard on the heels of Carillion’s collapse is a National Audit Office (NAO) report on the Public Finance Initiative (PFI), which contracts private companies to build public facilities, such as schools and hospitals, in return for regular payments over decades – in some cases up to 30 years (bit.ly/PFI12Report).
PFI was attractive to the politicians because it kept the costs incurred in building new schools and hospitals, new roads and other public infrastructure off of the government’s balance book.
What was not factored into successive governments’ equations, was the cost of PFI projects, which the NAO now concludes, are extremely expensive. Schools, for example, cost 40 per cent more when built under PFI contracts than those financed by government borrowing. This eye-watering figure does not include the charges made by PFI companies to maintain schools. These can be horrendous – £2,000 being charged to install, and maintain, a sink; £8,000 to fit and maintain a window blind are just two examples – there are many more (bit.ly/8KBlind).
The whole question of how education is delivered is now a political hot potato. I wrote recently (bit.ly/MATScandals) about the intense pressure put on Sir David Carter, the National Schools Commissioner, and Lord Agnew, academies minister, during an evidence session of the Education Select Committee. That torrid session has now been followed up by a letter from Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Committee, to Lord Agnew.
Mr Halfon pulls no punches when he writes that recent cases of MAT failure, such as the collapse of the Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT), show the lack of joined-up accountability in the school system. He writes: “It became clear during our recent hearing that very serious and major concerns about the viability of WCAT were known by the DfE and RSCs in September 2016” and yet, for a year after this date, WCAT was allowed to take millions of pounds from individual school reserves to prop up its central funds – something the MPs refer to as asset stripping.
The MPs on the Select Committee come, then, to a fundamental conclusion. A more robust system of oversight could have prevented the WCAT and Bright Tribe educational and financial failures. It is not clear, they write “that all schools are benefitting from joining MATs, or that trusts are providing value for money”.
There could scarcely be a more fundamental and serious challenge to the government about the transparency and proper use of public money by academies.
But members of the Education Select Committee are not interested, only, in following the money. They are extremely concerned, also, about oversight of the educational standards achieved by MATs and the confusing, and overlapping, accountability mechanisms operated by Ofsted, the Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) and the Education, Skills and Funding Agency (ESFA), which provides the funding to, and financial oversight of, academies and free schools. The MPs on the committee concluded that “the overlap between these three tiers of accountability is a major cause of confusion”.
In this confused system, those who most need to know are left in the dark. In what is, perhaps, the most damning indictment of the fracturing and privatisation of schools begun by Michael Gove – and followed by every Secretary of State since – the committee concludes: “it seems to us that parents, staff and students are in the dark over who is running their schools and that decisions are being taken behind closed doors”.
Quite where this critique leaves Michael Gove’s vision of a parent and teacher-led school system is anyone’s guess. Into the mix, we can add the excessive levels of MAT-CEO pay, at a time when teachers and school support staff labour under 10 years of austerity pay caps.
It is clear, now, that the government has run out of road in its oft-repeated declaration that it is exercising sufficient oversight over the education system. It is not. It does not have the structures to do so. The oversight and accountability structures that were in place – and generally worked – were deliberately undermined and bypassed as a direct result of the mass academisation of schools.
Ministers must be clear. Until they get a grip on the financial and educational accountability of MATs and free schools, ministers will encounter further scandals which will tarnish the MAT brand and raise further questions about their competence, and undermine Michael Gove’s grand MAT design.
Mary Bousted is joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union. She tweets @MaryBoustedNEU