Perry Beeches expected to lose academies but questions about oversight, transparency and responsibility remain
It is expected all Perry Beeches’ academies will be transferred to another multi-academy trust (MAT) writes The Guardian. The West Midlands Academies Trust is the most likely MAT to take over the academies which were being ‘rebrokered’ – the process whereby academies are transferred from one academy trust to another. The costs of such transfers can be between £0 and nearly half-a-million per academy as a Local Schools Network investigation revealed.
Perry Beeches’ PR agency gave the Guardian a comment from Liam Nolan, Perry Beeches’ head and Accounting Officer, that rebrokering would be done by ‘the directors of the academy trust’. It’s unclear which academy trust he is referring to, Perry Beeches or West Midlands. Nolan said he wouldn’t be involved because he was ‘an employee’. But he is not just an ‘employee’ of Perry Beeches: he is a trust director. He has announced his intention of stepping down but has not done so yet. He cannot duck responsibility for the actions of Perry Beeches Academies Trust by claiming he’s just a ‘head’ or an ‘employee’.
The Guardian cited a ‘Whitehall source’ who said action taken by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) at Perry Beeches ‘shows the academy system is working, with the EFA identifying issues and regional schools commissioners intervening and rebrokering effectively, as part of a robust system of oversight.’ This is nonsense. It was not the EFA who identified issues at Perry Beeches but a whistleblower.
It’s not, of course, the first time the alleged ‘robust system of oversight’ has failed and where action was taken only after allegations were received by the EFA: Cuckoo Hall, Barnfield, Sawtry, Durand, Bilingual Primary School Brighton, Kings Science Academy.
A critical National Audit Office report into Durand said EFA oversight of related-party transactions was ‘initially desk-based and light-touch’. The EFA had tightened up its rules by requiring purchases from related parties to be ‘at cost’ and declared in annual accounts but the NAO noted this didn't satisfy the the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). PAC remained concerned that related party transactions were ‘always open to accusations of conflicts of interest, even when on a ‘no profit basis’. Margaret Hodge, the then PAC chair, wanted them banned. The NAO also remained concerned: ‘The measurement of ‘cost’ or ‘no profit’ is subjective and will be difficult to evidence and audit.’
Far from being robust, the EFA oversight appears to rely too much on whistleblowers. The ‘no cost’ requirement for related-party transactions is insufficient to prevent fraud. Neither does the oversight consider whether academy trusts spend their money wisely. It will make no judgement about whether thousands of pounds spent on a desk for the principal, on hospitality or on marketing/PR is a good use of taxpayers’ money.
The Government wants all schools in England to become academies. But serious questions remain about how the EFA can effectively monitor the annual accounts of academy trusts. Parents and taxpayers are right to be concerned about what the Economist calls the ‘Starbucksification’ of England’s schools.