ACADEMIES –AND REGULATION
Need to ensure that autonomous schools are accountable
In January, this year, the Commons Public Accounts committee found that academies, the independent state schools that are central to this Governments education reforms, have improved pupils’ educational achievements and life chances in some of the most deprived communities in the country. Around 17% of state secondary schools are academies and the government has made no secret of the fact that by the time of the next election it would like half of all secondary schools to be academies. This certainly seems possible at the current pace of conversion.A study by Stephen Machin and James Vernoit at the London School of Economics found that academy status tends to raise pupil performance and improves the performance of neighbouring schools. The Government takes some pride in what it sees as the academy success story. But the rapid expansion of the scheme raises other important accountability issues that were picked up by the PAC. Many academies, it found, have inadequate financial controls and governance to assure the proper use of public money. It said that the DfE and YPLA have not been sufficiently rigorous in requiring compliance with guidance. It added that it should be made compulsory for all academies – sponsored and converter – to comply with basic standards of governance and financial management. This should include ‘segregation of key roles and responsibilities, and timely submission of annual accounts.’ It added that ‘as the Programme expands, there are increased risks to value for money and proper use of public money’ so ‘ the Department needs to develop sufficient capacity and adequate arrangements to provide robust accountability and oversight of academies’ use of public funds.’ Until very recently Academies were not subject to the Freedom of Information Act which was an absurd anomaly, given the amount of taxpayers money tied up in these schools.(The SSAT quango which supports Academies is still not subject to the FOIA-work that one out)
What is clear is that while Academies appear to be performing relatively well against educational benchmarks (although some have complained including the Civitas think tank that there has not been full transparency over what exams their pupils sit) the pace and scope of Government reforms leaves it open to criticism that the administrative and regulatory tail is playing catch up. The proposed abolition of the YPLA which has responsibility for Academies may serve to complicate accountability issues. Part of the attraction of setting up these schools is that they are autonomous and because they are freed from local authority control they have less bureaucracy and red tape to contend with, which is seen as a real positive. But some are concerned that the regulatory framework within which these autonomous schools sit is not robust enough. Policymakers have tended to focus on the imperative of freedom of choice rather than the regulatory implications of supply side reforms and in working out how to put in place an enabling environment that safeguards the public interest and minimises the chances of these new schools failing and indeed ensuring that a system is in place to manage failure and its consequences. The Government has recently tightened up the vetting of Free Schools bids which suggests that it has its own concerns. The challenge of course is to strike the right balance between real autonomy and accountability to the Government.
Other countries have introduced supply side reforms, including autonomous state schools and there may be lessons that we can learn from their experiences. CfBT Education Trust has been investigating international practice in the area of school reforms and will be publishing a report this summer. The timing could not be better. Watch this space.