Academies and free schools have “freedoms” which are not available to LA schools. That’s the mantra but what do these “freedoms” mean in practice?
Financial freedom* has led to:
1 Funding being used for purposes it was not intended for (Kings Science Academy).
2 Finance intended for education being held back to pay for providing a swimming pool (Al-Madinah free school).
3 Money being used to purchase sex toys and supplements (Priory Federation).
4 Unusual payments to academy trustees (AET).
5 Thousands of pounds being spent on unapproved consultancy fees (E-Act).
6 Bosses of academy chains being paid eye-watering salaries (E-Act, Priory Federation).
Freedom over staff employment** had resulted in:
1 Inadequate teaching at Al-Madinah free school by unqualified and inexperienced staff.
2 Family members being employed (Priory Federation, Kings Science Academy).
3 An unqualified, inexperienced head leaving after the first few weeks of term (Future Academies/Pimlico Primary free school).
4 Trustees of proposed free schools employing one of their group as head irrespective of experience.
Freedom to ignore minimum standards for school food:
1 Turkey twizzlers, anyone?
Freedom from local authority oversight means:
1 Local authorities have no power to intervene if an academy or free school is floundering.
2 Academies and free schools are not audited by the local authority but have to arrange their own external audits.
Freedom from red-tape:
1 This is illusory. Academies and free schools have extra legal and financial responsibilities.
2 The Academies Commission found that many heads of newly-converted academies were surprised at the amount of extra bureaucracy.
Freedom from “control”:
1 Many heads in academy chains told the Academies Commission they had less freedom than when they were maintained by the local authority.
2 Some academy chains impose a corporate “brand” which reduces a head’s ability to run a school (eg Future Academies impose a particular curriculum; Aurora Academies Trust charges its schools to use its curriculum)
These extra freedoms don’t actually amount to much according to the Academies Commission because non-academies can do most things academies and free schools can do. But the extra wriggle-room allowed to academies and free schools and the perception they have far more leeway than LA schools has unintended consequences. The Department for Education can’t monitor thousands of schools from the centre but relying on whistleblowers to highlight irregularities is no way to run a public service costing the taxpayer billions of pounds a year.
*Academies and free schools are allocated 100% of their budget. LA maintained schools lose a small part of their budget (between about 8% and 15%) to pay for back room administrative and legal services.
Note: Financial irregularities are, of course, not limited to academies and free schools. The misuse of public funds at Quintin Kynaston school took place both before and after it became an academy. I’ve submitted a Freedom of Information request asking for the number and names of LA maintained schools where there have been proven financial irregularities since September 2011.
**LA maintained schools have always had the freedom to recruit their staff although these are employed by the LA. Although the LA has no say in the recruitment process, any dubious recruitment, say of family members, might cause an LA to investigate a school. This acts as a deterrent.