The Academies Act 2010 granted academy trusts exempt charity status, making them exempt from registration with and primary regulation by the Charity Commission, from 1 August 2011. The definition of an exempt charity is one that is ‘ not regulated by and cannot register with, the Charity Commission.’ So, they have this status because they are regulated by some other body. The Secretary of State for Education is now the principal regulator of academies and oversees their compliance with both charity and education law. But the education secretary has handed over the role of funding distribution and compliance for academies to the Education Funding Agency, which is an executive agency of the DFE. The Academy Trust signs an agreement (The Funding Agreement) with the Secretary of State , and so is accountable to the Secretary of State, not the local authority.Indeed independence from local authority control and bureaucracy has been regarded as one of the attractions of academy status.
But what happens if an academy, autonomous from the LA, is under performing or failing? This is an area where local authorities in the past have played an important role, (some, of course, more effectual than others), in spotting early potential problems.
Elizabeth Truss MP, the junior education minister, made it clear recently in a Commons question that ‘ it is not the role of local authorities (LAs) to intervene in underperforming academies. Academies are autonomous from LAs and their performance is a matter for the Department through the Office of the Schools Commissioner. If a local authority (LA) has concerns about an individual academy, we expect the LA to raise these concerns with the Academy Trust in first instance. If the LA feels that the Academy Trust is failing to take sufficient action concerns can be raised with Ofsted or the Secretary of State.’
Two questions then arise-if LAs no longer have the powers or budget to oversee academies, how are they, within an autonomous school system , supposed to spot potential problems with schools? And who, apart from Ofsted, is there to fill this accountability gap?
The difficulty in giving a straight answer to both these questions explains why the debate continues on whether or not some form of intermediate tier is required between the SOS and schools, as part of the ‘intelligent’ accountability framework.
Sir Michael Wilshaw , the Chief Inspector,told the Education Select Committee on 13 February that local authorities should be able to “identify under performance in academies “They have a powerful part to play in local authority schools, those schools they control, and those outside their direct control,” Sir Michael said.“They identify under-performance in academies. They should be writing to the chair of governors and the sponsor of that academy and contacting the academy division at the department.”He also said that he wanted Ofsted to inspect academy chains and is in talks with the Secretary of State on this issue.