The investigation of a multi-academy trust (MAT) for payments to directors, the use of an unofficial Ofsted report to justify an academy transfer and the “issues” caused by a minister encouraging the rapid expansion of an academy chain.
These are all aspects of the running of today’s state school system that the Department for Education would have preferred that you did not know about.
They have emerged through previously censored information from papers considered by the East of England and north-east London headteacher board (HTB) as it advised the regional schools commissioner in autumn 2015.
The documents, which are not routinely published, were originally released in heavily redacted form last year under the Freedom of Information Act.
But following an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Office, the DfE has now revealed what many of the previously blacked-out sections said.
They point to a wealth of information that is of interest to communities across England but routinely withheld.
The DfE cited a number of reasons for its original redactions to the HTB papers, including withholding personal information about individuals, information that would make it harder for the headteacher board to work effectively and information that it considered commercially sensitive.
But Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, says: “These decisions that headteacher boards make and the information on which they make these decisions are about the use of public money, and publicly funded schools.
“Rather than try to cover up as much as possible, the assumption should be that they give as much information as possible about the evidence, rather than try to conceal it.”
Parliamentarians have echoed her concerns.
“This raises serious questions about whether they have deliberately tried to hide information from the public, including the parents whose children’s education is at stake,” says Labour’s shadow education secretary, Angela Rayner.
“We need full transparency now and that is what we will be pushing for in Parliament.”
Her Liberal Democrat opposite number, Layla Moran, describes the censorship as “a flagrant misuse of the Freedom of Information Act to cover up information that should be in the public domain”.
A Department for Education Spokesperson says: “Where information is withheld under the FOI Act an explanation of the exemption cited is provided. Following an appeal this case was reviewed and the sensitivity of the information in scope was reassessed.”
What the papers reveal
* The Department for Education attempted to suppress the fact that the Elliot Foundation Academy Trust, which it wanted to take over Millfield Primary in Cambridgeshire, had been under Education Funding Agency (EFA)investigation for payments it made to its directors. A newly uncensored section says: “Elliot accepts that mistakes were made in 2012-13 and has made all the changes required.” Chief executive Hugh Greenway says that, following a “risk review” by the EFA, “we conducted a full external governance review and implemented its recommendations in full, and were entirely exonerated as a result” (see bit.ly/SecretsPt1).
*The government tried to hide the fact that “quick growth and capacity” had become an “issue” at an academy trust where a schools minister had encouraged rapid expansion only two years previously. Newly unredacted documents about proposals for the Diocese of Ely Multi-Academy Trust (Demat) to sponsor St Christopher’s Primary in Red Lodge, Suffolk, reveal that Demat’s “rapid expansion was encouraged by Lord Nash…at a meeting in 2013”. The document then identifies the trust’s “quick growth and capacity” as an “issue” when deciding whether it should take on another school (see bit.ly/SecretsPt2).
* The DfE tried to hide the fact that an unofficial Ofsted inspection that was not designed to hold schools to account was used to justify transferring an academy to a new sponsor. Previously censored parts of a section outlining the rationale for Acle Academy in Norfolk to join the Wensum Trust refer to an Ofsted visit in 2015, which was part of a programme of pilot inspections as it prepared to make changes to its inspection framework. The document says the school would have required special measures, but that what it describes as a “private” report “is not on the Ofsted website and is not formally recognised as a judgement” (see bit.ly/SecretsPt3).
*A diocese refused to let its schools become academies unless they joined its own academy trust. The HTB papers said the Diocese of Norwich “will no longer allow its schools to convert as stand-alone trusts or in separate multi-academy trusts”.
* An Ofsted inspection that put a special school in special measures was triggered by “letters of complaint” from some of its teachers to the DfE and the inspectorate. Trinity School, based on three sites in Cambridgeshire, was judged “requires improvement” following an inspection in October 2013, but after the second inspection in September 2014 the HTB supported its academisation as part of the west London-based TBAP Trust.
* A primary school with 43 pupils that went into special measures was only saved from closure because the council could not find alternative places for all its pupils. The HTB papers say Norfolk County Council “carefully considered” closing St Andrew’s Primary in North Pickenham, near Swaffham, but rejected the option “since it would not be possible to place all the children in other local schools”.
* Plans for five pupil referral units in Suffolk to form a multi-academy trust “never materialised” despite having been approved in April 2013. This information was originally redacted from a document setting out the rationale for two of them, Parkside PRU and Westbridge PRU, to form their own academy trust. There is no explanation of why the original proposal did not go ahead.
* The Wensum Trust only agreed to sponsor Acle Academy if the DfE gave an assurance it would not have to take on the school’s deficit. Gerard Batty, chief executive of the Wensum Trust, says there was some “very firm speaking” with the DfE, but it eventually it agreed to its request. He adds that he “can’t understand” why this was originally redacted from the HTB papers.
* A dispute over a PFI contract caused a primary academy to delay taking on other schools, despite it being approved as a sponsor. The dispute was between Heartsease Primary School in Norwich, and Norfolk County Council.
* A church school had to join a different diocese’s academy trust because the one associated with its own diocese did “not currently have the capacity to take on more weak schools”. St Christopher’s Primary in Red Lodge, Suffolk, joined Demat, rather than that of the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich. Peter Maxwell, chair of Demat, says that he had not heard of any other examples of this happening, but adds that St Christopher’s was close to the border of the two dioceses.
Commissioner pledges more transparency
The senior civil servant who oversees the academy system has pledged to increase the transparency of the boards that make crucial decisions about schools across England.
National schools commissioner Sir David Carter was responding to persistent criticisms about the lack of openness about the eight headteacher boards (HTBs), which advise regional schools commissioners, but meet in private and do not publish the reasons for their decisions.
“I do recognise this is something that people are concerned about,” he says.
Elections for new members of the HTBs open today and a number of candidates have raised concerns about the transparency of the system in their election statements.
Stephen Dunster, of the Stour Valley Academy Trust, who is standing in the West Midlands region, wrote: “If elected, my commitment would be to support the HTB to build trust and transparency into all of the board’s operations and decisions.”
Carter acknowledges the number of candidates making similar comments, saying: “I know we can do more, and I want to do more, and I want to make that a priority as we go through the next round of headteacher board appointments and the elections.”
He suggests a possible way forward could be along the lines suggested by Robert Hill, an education consultant and former Downing Street adviser to Tony Blair.
Last month, he told Tes that HTBs could follow the model of local councils, which are legally obliged to publish as much information as possible in committee reports, with sensitive material in an unpublished second section.
“That might be a means by which we move closer to where we want to be,” Carter says.
However, the commissioner says his biggest concern is about transparency for the academy trusts, which he describes as “the direct recipients of RSC decision-making”. He says the feedback from HTBs about why they defer some decisions, or rejects some proposals, gives the trusts “the opportunity to decide whether they can come back and address those issues, or whether it’s absolutely right they leave it and move on”.
He adds: “So I think the transparency, in terms of the people affected, I am as confident as I can be that we have got that right.
“Of course, you could give me examples where somebody could tell you it’s not true, but my observation is that I’ve seen that working really effectively.”
Pressed about transparency for communities and parents about decisions affecting their schools, he puts the onus on schools and academy trusts themselves.
“If the decision is about taking account of wider community opinion before the RSC makes an informed decision about what that school needs to have in terms of its support, I think there’s a role there for the school and the trust to have that conversation with parents,” he says.
He adds that the system is getting “stronger and better” at making sure that trusts understand their role of telling the community why they are the best fit for the school.
When the headteacher board papers were originally released, the Department for Education relied on a number of exemptions set out in the Freedom of Information Act to justify withholding some information.
These included personal details of individuals, information whose released could make it harder for officials to give full and frank advice, and commercially sensitive information.
However, an analysis of information that was originally redacted reveals that some surprising pieces of information were originally blacked out.
They included information that was in the already in the public domain, such as the name of the chair of Acle Academy Trust, Dr Roger Timms.
Also censored was information about the geographical location of St Andrew’s Primary in Norfolk, which the uncensored documents reveal “is close to the three small CE schools in the Nar Valley Federation which are also recommended for Dneat [Diocese of Norwich Education and Academies Trust] sponsorship”.
Oddly, the DfE also blacked out the fact that “no issues” arose from a review of Dneat’s financial accounts.