Who Will Hold the Academy Chains to Account?

Henry Stewart's picture
 6
Yesterday I gave evidence to the Public Affairs Committee (PAC) at the House of Commons, responding to the National Audit Office report "Managing the expansion of the Academies Programme". One of the questions raised was about how the "Multi-academy trusts" or "Chains" are to be held to account. These are the trusts that have been formed to manage groups of academies. One example is the salaries paid:

"In 2010/11, six senior leaders in multi-academy trusts earned over £200,000. Such roles can extend to oversight of 20 or more academies, and their salaries do not generally appear in routine workforce data." (NAO report p 9)

Let us put that in perspective. A Director of Childrens Services responsible for 300 or 400 schools will earn around £150,000. Yet the heads of chains of just 20 schools are paid, from public funds, over £200,000. In fact there have been reports of two chain heads, at Harris and E-Act, being paid as much as £300,000.

But more disturbing still was the revelation that, for academies in chains, there is no requirement for them to reveal - beyond the audited accounts of the whole trust - how this public money has been spent.  Even the Conservative members of the committee wanted to know why there was no requirement to publish details of  expenditure at the school level. Peter Lauener, Chief Executive of the Education Funding Agency (responsible for monitoring the financial element of academies) explained that the budget for each academy - the total income received - was public knowledge, but there is no requirement to reveal what they do with that money. (In contrast the expenditure of every maintained school, broken down into 35 categories, is published by the DfE here.)

The response infuriated Richard Bacon, Tory MP for South Norfolk: "I do not see what the difficulty is, given that it is taxpayers’ money, in making it all available. What is the downside in that? They must have it anyway for the purposes of their management accounts. It is not like you are asking them for a whole bunch extra. We are just saying, “Why don’t you make them publish it, because it is taxpayers’ money?”"

Peter Lauener responded that "it would be a big imposition". Mr Bacon was incredulous, asking if he was seriously suggesting that an academy with a budget of several million pounds would not have a set of management accounts and would not be able to easily publish it.

"I do not see what the difficulty is, given that it is taxpayers’ money, in making it all available. What is the downside in that? They must have it anyway for the purposes of their management accounts. It is not like you are asking them for a whole bunch extra. We are just saying, “Why don’t you make them publish it, because it is taxpayers’ money?”

Is this a problem? This Conservative MP pointed out the implication: "Goodness knows, if they have got several trusts, they could hide something by taking a little bit from several pots, and the parents would never know at the individual academy level. It is the academy level that the parents care about."

With a maintained school everything that is spent has to be accounted for in those 35 categories and is available for anybody to look at. A chain could, in theory, siphon off 10% of academy income (or even 20% or 30%) and there would seem to be nothing to prevent it and no requirement to reveal that they had done that. If that ends up with chain heads on £400,000 or £500,000, then so be it.

Do we really want an education system with so little accountability for the spending of public money? On this issue, I am with the MPs of the Public Accounts Committee - Labour, Liberal and Conservative - in wondering how we could have got to this point.
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Henry Stewart's picture
Tue, 04/12/2012 - 20:02

Note that the issue here is expenditure in academies in chains. Expenditure for independent academies is now available from here:

http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/performance/academies.html

However for chains (referred to here as Federations) the expenditure is only available for the chain as a whole.

Alan Watkins-Groves's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 06:45

And no-one mentioned the fraud and blatant misuse of public money at the Priory Federation in Lincoln. Public money paying family members for non-jobs, decorating the Headteacher's private apartments in school buildings, training his son to work alone with children despite that son's criminal record, buying vanity artworks, riding stables and chateau?
If one Federation is up to it, the whole lot could be.

Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 08:33

The Priory shambles did crop up at the PAC hearing. Before discovering (thanks to a whistleblower) the Priory's outrageous expenditure (more here: http://bit.ly/SwZCF7) the Education Funding Agency had apparently previously rated its financial management as "Outstanding".

You couldn't make it up....

Richard's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 09:10

A Director of Childrens Services responsible for 300 or 400 schools will earn around £150,000.

And doon't forget Henry that schools are not the only childrens services that director has responsibility for. There's child care services, child safeguarding services, nursery services etc etc

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 09:25

I'm amazed that Conservative MPs should express incredulity about the lack of transparency in expenditure for academies in chains. It was the support of Conservative MPs which resulted in the Academies Bill being rushed through Parliament with the speed usually reserved for terrorism legislation. It was Conservative MPs (and it must be said, some Labour politicians such as Lord Adonis) who have exalted chains as the cure for allegedly failing schools. It was Conservative MPs, supported enthusiastically by sections of the media, who paved the way for the expansion of chains by repeating claims that the UK has plummeted down international league tables. These claims, as we now know, were misleading.

Let's hope that the MPs on the PAC, including the Conservative ones, now hold the Government to account.

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/10/statistics-watchdog-expres...

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2012/11/uk-is-6th-in-international...

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 05/12/2012 - 10:04

Many academies are in chains sponsored by private schools. DfE special advisor, Sam Freedman, outlined the benefits to these schools in 2009:

"...Wellington College and Marlborough, are sponsoring sister academies. While this may seem like a purely altruistic act (or one designed to pass the Charity Commission's new 'public benefit' test) it has considerable benefits to the fee-paying school; offering a potential stream of Sixth Formers and building profile. A number of charities that run multiple schools now operate in both sectors, owning fee-paying schools and operating academies, including: Haberdashers, United Church School Trust, Girls Day School Trust, Woodard, Skinners, Mercers and Drapers."

http://www.attainmagazine.co.uk/politics/changing-control-of-schools/

This sponsorship raises a further question - if expenditure at academy level is not available for academies in chains, then how can the taxpayer know that money intended for state schools isn't being diverted into private ones when the chain runs both independent and state schools?

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