Behind closed doors: the secrets about academies

14th July 2017 at 00:00
Public denied access to key information behind decisions affecting local schools

How transparent is the system that decides which schools become academies and who runs them?

The government has said that it publishes a “significant amount of information” online about the eight regional schools commissioners (RSCs) and the headteacher boards (HTB) that advise and challenge them.

But when Tes put this claim to the test, it emerged that only 3 per cent of the documentation relating to commissioners’ decisions had actually been published.

During one cycle of meetings in October and November 2016, just 32 pages of minutes were released online. However, HTB members received 1,016 pages of documents to consider, none of which were made public.

They contain a wealth of information and justifications for key decisions that will affect schools for years to come, but remain hidden from the communities affected. And even when Tes obtained the full set of documents using the Freedom of Information Act, they were heavily censored, with most of the information blacked out in almost a third of the pages.

Avoiding scrutiny

Maurice Frankel, director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, says: “It’s obviously an area where the department does not want great scrutiny.

“It’s probably an area where a lot of things are at stake in terms of demonstrating the success of the policy, so they may not be keen to expose too much of it to scrutiny.”

In making the redactions, the Department for Education relied on rules designed to protect commercial interests and personal information, and avoid “prejudice to the effective conduct of public affairs”.

And even when the government does publish information, such as the register of interests of RSCs and HTB members, it can be almost a year out of date.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Lecturers, describes the published minutes as “skimpy” documents, which feel like a “cursory cut-and-paste” exercise.

They list key decisions made, but the “key discussion points” that provide additional information are often restricted to a handful of one-word bullet points.

The lack of transparency is something that the Commons Education Select Committee raised in a report released last year, which called for the government to publish decision-making frameworks for RSCs, so the public could see what they base their decisions on.

But although the DfE has since published a 12-page Regional Schools Commissioners’ Decision-Making Framework (bit.ly/RSCframe), the HTB minutes do not refer to it to give a rationale for each individual decision, as the MPs had hoped.

‘Trappings of democracy’

Barton says: “What I think parents and communities would ask is, ‘How were these criteria applied to my school?’ and I think [the DfE] would make it easier for themselves if they were much more transparent about how these decisions were made, because this is life-changing for teachers and parents and for communities.”

For Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT heads’ union, there is an irony that “the whole premise” of the HTB system was to give legitimacy to decisions about academies and free schools.

He says that HTBs have the “trappings of democracy”, with four of their members elected by other academy leaders in their region, and are designed to harness the knowledge of local professionals.

“I don’t think we have any reason to fear what the decisions are, but you don’t know – and that’s why transparency is important,” Hobby adds. “People don’t know how this is operating, and I think it creates unnecessary doubt.”

Schools ‘left in the dark’

Gillian Allcroft, deputy chief executive of the National Governance Association, is concerned that those running schools are being left “in the dark about why certain decisions were made”.

“It matters because, at the end of the day, these are public institutions, and it’s public money, and this is about the education of our children,” she says. “People need to know that decisions are being made in a rational and sensible way.

“If you don’t know why a decision has been made, you can’t always be sure about that.”

A DfE spokesman says: “Regional schools commissioners, assisted by their HTBs, play a key role in ensuring education professionals have the freedom to improve schools.

“All decisions made by headteacher boards are subject to rigorous oversight and analysis. A significant amount of information is published online and redactions to the minutes of meetings are made in accordance with government guidelines in order to protect commercially sensitive information.”

 

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