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.