An official evaluation of a flagship £140 million Department for Education school-improvement scheme has found it was not "entirely fit for purpose".
The report into the first round of the Strategic School Improvement Fund, which was announced in November 2016, raises concerns about conflicts of interest, and questions whether the money went where it was most needed.
The fund aims to build a school-improvement system based on networks of schools working together, and to target resources at the schools most in need.
However, the evaluation, published by the DfE today, says: “The findings produced as part of this report cannot support the conclusion that the process for round one was entirely fit for purpose, and so we cannot be sure that resources were targeted at the schools most in need of improving school performance and pupil attainment.”
In a survey of applicants, 54 per cent said the application process was not fit for purpose, with 41 per cent saying it was.
However, the authors say “all the building blocks are in place” to make progress towards meeting the stated aims of the fund.
The authors also raise concerns about transparency and conflicts of interest.
The report says: “Certain practices in certain regions, whilst not necessarily representative of the whole process, do raise important concerns in relation to the fairness and transparency with which funds were allocated as part of round one.
“These include certain applicants being in a better position to succeed as a result of receiving support or resources to prepare applications that other applicants did not know were available or how to access.”
Concerns about conflicts of interest include teaching schools applying for funding when a member of staff who held positions on outside bodies had access to knowledge not available to other teaching schools.
The report also raises concerns about DfE regional offices providing “advice in relation to specific draft applications”, and then assessing the same applications once they have been submitted.
The evaluation says restrictions that were automatically triggered by the announcement of the 2017 snap election “inevitably had a negative impact on the process”.
These meant the DfE was unable to roll out "roadshows" to tell applicants what would make a good application, or use sub-regional boards that were supposed to be a “key element” in developing effective applications.
However, the authors warn against assuming that these restrictions were “solely responsible for most of the limitations identified”.