The Department for Education is the most concerning department in Whitehall, the head of an influential Parliamentary spending watchdog has warned.
Meg Hillier, the Labour MP who chairs the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said that the “financial strain” in schools and a “lack of grip over academies” at the DfE presented a “worrying situation”.
In an annual report on the PAC’s work, published today, she also raises concerns about the failure to improve children’s social care, “overstretched” children’s mental health services.
Ms Hillier also warns about Brexit delaying the government's spending review, which teachers are hoping will mean more cash for schools.
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The PAC examines government projects in detail; in the last year, it has scrutinised over 50 projects and programmes.
In the report, Ms Hillier says: “The Department for Education now tops my departments of concern.
“The continuing financial strain in schools, lack of grip over academies and failure to improve children’s social care combine to present a worrying situation.”
With “cash shortages” causing some heads to consider “reducing school hours to save money”, Ms Hillier says the PAC asked the DfE and Ofsted about the impact of funding pressures.
“Ofsted has been unable, or unwilling, to tell us,” she notes.
On academies, Ms Hillier says that the committee found that the DfE’s oversight “needs to improve”. “There has been a succession of high-profile academy failures that have damaged children’s education and been costly for the taxpayer,” she writes.
The PAC found that the DfE’s focus on “converting large numbers of schools to academies quickly” happened “at the expense of rigorous due diligence checks and risk assessment”.
Highlighting the failure of Bright Tribe – an academy chain that was forced to pull out of its schools – Ms Hillier says: “Parents of pupils at the Whitehaven Academy had to put in freedom of information requests to get important information from [Bright Tribe] about what was being done to repair the poor state of the building.
“This lack of transparency is worrying. It is not acceptable that parents and local people are having to fight to get information about their children’s schools.
"The department admitted to us, in October 2018, that children and parents at the Whitehaven Academy had been let down by the most senior levels in the department.”
In her report, Ms Hillier says that children’s social care is “in a poor state” and “increasingly becoming financially unsustainable”.
A section on health and social care also criticises children’s mental health services as “overstretched”, with only three in 10 young people with a mental health condition receiving NHS-funded treatment and “many more encountered unacceptably long waits”.
The report says that departments are “struggling to cope with Brexit preparations” alongside their “existing commitments” and are having to “reprioritise”, with activities “paused, abandoned or scaled back”.
Ms Hillier also warns about delaying the spending review. “If the spending review does not take place, there will need to be a mechanism for setting departmental budgets for next year,” she says.
“Even a rollover from this year’s settlement will be subject to much special pleading by departments. Given the likely impact on policy decisions, it is not clear that the knock-on impact on policy delivery has been considered fully by ministers. There are also day-to-day impacts on a range of organisations and services which rely on central government funding.
“This situation is another example of how Brexit has deprioritised the government’s business as usual.”
The DfE was contacted for comment.