EXCLUSIVE: DfE was right to withhold cost of academies changing hands says ICO

Janet Downs's picture
 15
The Information Commissioner’s Office has supported the Department for Education’s decision not to disclose how much it cost for 23 academies to change hands. The ICO agreed there was a ‘real and significant risk that disclosure would be detrimental to the effective management of the academies system and the DfE’s ability to re-broker failing academies’.

The DfE argued disclosure would undermine its ability to recruit sponsors because the academies in question would ‘often be in the most challenging of circumstances’.

The case for disclosure was strong, said the ICO, but the DfE needed to be able to ‘negotiate effectively’ when brokering academy sponsorship. This was particularly true when previous sponsors had not been successful in driving improvements. Disclosure would ‘have a damaging effect on improvements in underperforming academies and the quality of education provided to pupils’, the ICO said.

But were the 23 academies in ‘very challenging circumstances’? The answer is No. Only nine were judged Inadequate before moving sponsors, ten Required Improvement, three were Good and one was Outstanding. The Outstanding academy, Sidney Stringer Academy, set up its own trust after its sponsor, City College Coventry, was judged Inadequate. The academy now sponsors itself and two other schools previously sponsored by City College.

Eight of the academies were previously run by E-Act which was paused from taking on more academies after Ofsted found the ‘overwhelming proportion of pupils’ weren’t receiving a good education. But two E-Act academies which changed hands were not among this group – Aldborough E-Act Free School and Leeds West Academy had been judged Good. Persuading a sponsor to take over these two couldn’t have been particularly difficult, surely?

Two of the academies weren’t sponsored academies but were converters in multi-academy trusts (MATs). One, Charles Read Academy, needed to find a new MAT when West Grantham Academies Trust planned to close it. The other, Stamford Queen Eleanor, joined CMAT after CfBT decided to ‘allow’ it to transfer to another MAT claiming the academy was ‘geographically isolated’. But two nearby Lincolnshire secondary schools, The Deepings School and Sir John Gleed in Spalding, are still under the CfBT umbrella.

It’s not altogether clear that all 23 transfers needed delicate negotiations.

69 academies have now changed sponsors. This number is set to increase as academy trusts go into liquidation like Prospects has done, academy trusts are paused or sent warning letters and converter academies in MATs are transferred to other MATs. And there’s the looming threat that stand-alone academies judged to be ‘failing’, ‘underperforming’ or ‘coasting’ will be forced to join MATs and lose their alleged autonomy.

The DfE told the ICO there were ‘no set costs or payments’ made when ‘rebrokering’ takes place. These were decided on a ‘case by case basis’ and only provided when there was evidence that such funding was needed ‘according to the context of the school’. This included considering whether funding could be found from an academy’s existing budget. But if an academy spends part of its budget funding transfers, then this is money which could have been spent on educating children.

Whether the money comes from the DfE or from an academy’s budget, it is still taxpayers’ money. And taxpayers have a right to know how much transfers cost. The previous Government pushed academy conversion. The present Government continues to do so against mounting evidence that it isn’t always the best way of improving schools. But it is the most expensive.

The ICO will publish its determination on its website shortly. I shall provide a link when it eventually appears.

CORRECTION 21 June 07.40. The original article said '6% of sponsored academies have, therefore, already changed hands'. This was misleading as the 6% could have included converter academies transferring between MATs and free schools. Nick Gibb said, 'We have in fact changed the sponsors for 69 academies'. This implies he was talking about sponsored academies. It would be unreliable, however, to take his statement at face value so the sentence containing the 6% figure has been removed. I shall send a Freedom of Information request to the DfE to disclose the names of the 46 academies which changed hands after the 23 listed in my first FoI response.

The sentence giving the number of sponsored academies (1112) in August 2014 has also been removed.

UPDATE 21 June 07.59. My FoI request is on its way.
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Comments

A Cooper's picture
Sat, 20/06/2015 - 19:56

Is it worth lobbying our MPs on this?


John Mountford's picture
Sat, 20/06/2015 - 21:56

May I take the liberty of referring you to my response to Roger Titcombe's latest posting?

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/06/why-do-educational-standar...

It is an edited version of the letter sent to my own MP urging him to oppose the Education and Adoption Bill currently passing before the House of Commons. I intend now to append my response to him following this latest piece from Janet. Reading it made me 'see red' at the thought that publicly accountable organisations like the ICO fail to challenge our elected representatives. The failure to do so clearly encourages those in power to believe they are untouchable whilst denying ordinary people the right to demand answers to important questions.

Janet, thank you so much for unearthing yet another toxic tale of incompetence, double-standards and immorality in public office.

John Mountford's picture
Sat, 20/06/2015 - 22:48

Janet, this is a step too far in a country which is looked upon as a modern democracy by most in the global community. It's a long time since I felt so angry and so determined to question the morality of a body charged with championing the rights of ordinary people in the face of lies, deceit and arrogance from those apparently charged with serving the people.

I went to the ICO website to check out their remit. There, it describes itself as,

"The UK’s independent authority set up to uphold information rights in the public interest, promoting openness by public bodies and data privacy for individuals."

So let's explore their remit in relation to this story.

At the heart of this decision is the statement that "The ICO agreed there was a ‘real and significant risk that disclosure would be detrimental to the effective management of the academies system and the DfE’s ability to re-broker failing academies’"

What is the connection between this claim and the reason for refusing the request for release of the information? If I was the person responsible for drafting the ICO response, I would not want to be individually identified with it, for fear of public disapprobation.

What on earth has the decision to refuse to release the information got to do with the statement that "previous sponsors had not been successful in driving improvements."? Let's be clear, this is a request about the amount of money allocated to re-brokering failed academies, pure and simple. Are we to believe that the new sponsors pay for the re-brokering themselves and that therefore by informing others of the costs involved it would confer some sort of disadvantage on the new sponsor? NOT AT ALL.

The truth behind this decision lies in the statement that "disclosure would be detrimental to the effective management of the academies system". In other words, it would expose the whole academies folly to the full light of day. It would reveal the extent of the shocking and disgraceful waste of public money that is being thrown at this project against all attempts to reveal the facts, thus preventing the public from reaching their own decision about whether this is justified expenditure or not. This is fraud and deceit on a grand scale and any claim that the ICO has to being the champion of the people against big bullying government is an enormous pile of the stinky stuff!

Thank you again, Janet. I totally agree with you, 'Whether the money comes from the DfE or from an academy’s budget, it is still taxpayers’ money. And taxpayers have a right to know how much transfers cost.' This is what I will be saying to my MP in the addendum to my letter to him about the ongoing education bill currently before parliament and I would urge ALL our readers to copy and edit my letter to their own MP. It's all part of the same problem of forcing schools to become academies for ideological reasons in the face of escalating cost with little measurable benefit above what can be delivered by local authorities working with school groups and it deserves to be challenged.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 06:58

A Cooper and John - I can appeal against the decision notice to the First-Tier Tribunal (Information Rights). I intend to do so.


A Cooper's picture
Sun, 21/06/2015 - 17:59

I haven't checked on the Companies House site, but I wonder if a look at the outgoing (failed) sponsor's accounts and incoming sponsor's accounts might shed some light on the amounts of money involved. Just an idea.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 09:00

A Cooper - the DfE told ICO that academy accounts would 'include any sums paid to them as part of re-brokering'. However, the DfE admits the info wouldn't be 'in the format requested'. Presumably this means it wouldn't have a label such as 'money received for re-brokering'. The DfE said 'it is not usually possible to determine which payments were specifically made for re-brokerage'.

The decision hasn't yet been published on the ICO website. I will keep checking and provide a link when it appears.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 09:15

The FT reports that Justice Secretary Michael Gove is considering ways to crack down on FoI requests. (See summary here)

The FT says, 'At the moment, citizens can ask for information as long as finding it does not cost more than £600 for a government department, or £450 for another public body.. But the government has suggested either lowering that limit or including extra items in that cost.'

It's suggested that 'thinking time' would be included in costing the time needed to respond to FoI requests. A cynic might say 'thinking time' could expand until it reaches the threshold for payment.

A Cooper's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 09:29

According to audited accounts for E-Act to 31st August 2014 page 25 'amounts due to new sponsors on transfer of academy's' (sic) was £507,000. It's there in black and white.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 10:17

Thanks, A Cooper. This implies the costs for transfer in E-Act's case were borne by E-Act. However, this would have been money given to E-Act from the EFA as you point out in your other comment.
It would be interesting to know if this is the case with other transfers. Was CfBT charged for transferring its converter academy, Stamford Queen Eleanor, to CMAT which had supported an unsuccessful bid to open a secondary free school in Stamford? Taking over Queen Eleanor allowed CMAT to deliver 'the Stamford Free School vision'. CfBT said it was giving up Queen Eleanor because the academy was 'geographically isolated' which is a bit odd considering CfBT has still got two academies near Queen Eleanor (now Stamford Welland Academy).


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 10:22

A Cooper - it would appear, then, the average cost of transferring 8 E-Act academies was about £63,000 each.


A Cooper's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 11:38

Janet, from what I can gather from the E-Act audited accounts the sum of £507,000 was to transfer just two academies. However, I'm no accountant so could be wrong.


A Cooper's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 09:38

The amount above appears to be in addition to the 'transfers of existing academy's out of the trust' (sic) which was £3,348,000. I assume this was money already received from DFE/EFA etc that formed part of the two schools' incomes.


A Cooper's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 11:51

This is rather interesting too:

I confirm that I and the Board are able to identify any material irregular or improper use of funds by E-ACT, or material non-compliance with the terms and conditions of funding under E-ACT's Master Funding Agreement and the Academies Financial Handbook.
I can confirm that any instances of potential material irregularity, impropriety or funding non-compliance discovered to date have been notified to the governing body and the Education Funding Agency. This report was approved by the Trustees on 11 December 2014 and signed on their behalf by

David Moran
Chief Executive Officer and Accounting Officer

(No, there isn't a typo in the first sentence - I've copied the wording exactly as it appears in the accounts).

Nicky4Kids's picture
Mon, 22/06/2015 - 21:40

I am opposed to the Education & Adoption Bill, and the proposal that requires schools to implement English Baccalaureate or lose "Outstanding" Ofsted rating. This government is managing education with threats and sticks, whilst removing the ability of parents and teachers to voice their concerns.

In today's Evening Standard, Cameron is stated to have said, when talking about the troubled families scheme, that measures included "pushing both failing schools and coasting schools in affluent areas that were failing to improve". What is wrong with a state school rated "Good"?

I have started a petition on 38 degrees requesting an equal and level playing field for all schools. Please read it, sign and share it!
https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/education-equaltiy-inclusivity-di...

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 23/06/2015 - 12:46

A Cooper - I interpret this to mean the Board believes it's competent enough to spot improper use of funds or non-compliance with Funding Agreement and Academies Financial Handbook.

The second paragraph raises the question of whether there were any irregularities found. These presumably are with the EFA.

Academy accounts are fiendishly difficult to interpret. Thanks for alerting me to the existence of the 2013/14 accounts for E-Act. I found several references to transfers out but can't make head or tail of it. For example, one figures was £67,928,000 transferred out. This seems huge - would it have included value of land? I've no idea. Another says £1,712,000 is due to E-Act from EFA re transfers. Yet another says £3,612,000 is due to be paid to new sponsors.

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