Gove is wrong: academies and free schools aren’t subject to greater accountability because they’re not publicly audited

Janet Downs's picture
The school landscape is rapidly changing, writes Steve Bundred*, ex-chief executive of the Audit Commission. The expansion of the academies programme and the establishment of free schools have further complicated an area in which local authority (LA) maintained schools rub shoulders with foundation, voluntary-controlled (VC) and voluntary-aided (VA) schools.

Many of these schools are not under LA stewardship and have a plethora of different funding and sponsorship agreements. Many long-standing rights and safeguards no longer exist or are not enforceable, Bundred writes. Areas threatened include fair admissions, exclusions and special educational need provision.

This fragmented system has few “essential safeguards”, Bundred says. Accounts in LA schools are public audited. Their accounts are subjected to effective scrutiny and auditors are obliged to make public any concerns they find. This contrasts with academies and free schools whose accounts are audited by a private auditor employed by the academy/free school trust. These auditors have a narrower brief – they are not expected to rule on whether spending is value for money, for example. And they are not obliged to make public any concerns – they only have to bring them to the attention of the trust employing them. To make matters worse, spending by academies in groups is consolidated into group accounts.

Public auditors, on the other hand, have to rule on whether spending is a good use of public money. And, as stated above, they have to report concerns publicly. Bundred gives the case of a former grant-maintained (GM) school where theft of £500,000 was discovered by a public audit after the GM school reverted to LA supervision in 1998 when GM school status was abolished. The lighter-touch regulation of GM schools, the forerunner of academies, had allowed the head to spend school funds on expensive holidays, shoes and handbags.

Taxpayers should be able to trust Governments to distribute public money fairly, Bundred writes. But confidence is eroded when academies have different funding agreements, sponsors** have different agreements and when free schools are established in areas with surplus places.

There’s also the question of where parents in academies complain if they suspect wrongdoing. If schools ignore complaints, Bundred asks, who is responsible for sacking those responsible? It’s unrealistic, he writes, to expect the Department for Education (DfE) to have the resources and expertise to intervene in all but the most blatant instances of possible misuse of public money. This would allow low-level fraud to go undetected.

Bundred says a debate is needed about a proper public accountability framework. He warns safeguards in other sectors such as health could also face attack if proper accountability for public money spent on education is eroded.

These concerns echo those voiced by Henry Stewart when he wrote that academy finances were neither transparent nor accountable.

*”School’s out for Accountability”, Municipal Journal, 12 February 2014, available to subscribers only.

**I would also add confidence is undermined when academy sponsors appear to be fast-tracked and when they take on academies despite being under investigation or when they don’t appear to exist.
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Brian's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 16:46

Don't forget the significant impact some academy arrangements are having on standards though. Headline in in today's Independent 'I':

'Private schools' role in academies has been controversial, but one college is getting results.'

The college is Wellington, sponsor of Wellington Academy, which has taken a more 'hands -on' approach since 'disappointing GCSE results last year'.

So what has the hands-on approach yielded:

- by September the two schools will have the same uniform
- by September the two schools will have the same house system
- the new leadership team has cracked down on bad behaviour
- the new leadership team has insisted that all pupils wear the uniform smartly
- pupil progress is now assessed and reported on termly rather than annually
- The school wants 60% of pupils to attain five A*-C GCSE incl. maths and English in 2015.

So the results the school is now getting (according to the headline) amount to no more than fairly superficial changes and a 'want' for GCSE results. I wonder if such changes and a wish list would result in headlines for a non-academy.

The article said that the school expects to be given a 'Good' rating in the Ofsted inspection it 'has arranged for the end of the year.' Clearly I'm not up to speed on this. None of the schools I know can arrange their Ofsted inspection almost a year in advance ... they get notified at lunchtime the day before. Am I missing something?

Andy V's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 17:23

Brian, in turn I would suggest that based on the Wellington Academy's last 2 section 5 reports had it been a maintained school it would either have gone into special measures or been - wait for it - been academised.

It was also interesting to read Mr Seldon's piece in the Independent today where he admitted that he under estimated how much effort would be needed to make his academy a success.

Based on the last 2 Ofsted reports I would say that Seldon's experiment has not been anything to trumpet ... :-(

Andy V's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 17:53

I've traced my original post regarding what I see as the blatant double standards between Wellington Academy and any other non-academy or Free School:

On the theme of double standards bear with me while I return to a previous post on this thread:

Wellington (Seldon’s) Academy:

1. Ofsted 1 Dec 11 – Grade 3 Satisfactory
2. Ofsted Jan 14 – Grade 3 Requires Improvement

But with the following notable highlights:

a. Overall effectiveness of boarding experience – Grade 4 Inadequate
b. Leadership and Management

i. 2011 – Governors criticised – see pages 5,6 and 9
ii. 2014 – Governors criticised pages 1, 3 and 9
iii. 2011 – HT/SLT 8/9 strands were grade 3 – see page 9
iv. 2014 – HT/SLT grade 3 – see page 7

c. The 2014 report is contradictory regarding L&M:

i. Page 1 – grade 3
ii. Page 1 – The school has the following strengths: “The Principal of the school has exceptional leadership qualities. With the executive headteacher he has acted swiftly to root out practice that compromises the high expectations of the sponsor and senior leaders.”
iii. Page 7 – ” The Principal, supported by the executive headteacher, is determined and fully committed in the pursuit of excellence for the students and community of Wellington Academy. The Principal and executive headteacher are experienced and insightful leaders. Change is swift with high expectations that all senior staff will carry out their roles to a high standard.”

d. there are inconsistencies regarding the boarding experience and pupil safety:

i. Page 1 – School needs to improve: “Boarding is inadequate because the school does not meet all of the National Minimum Standards for boarding schools.”
ii. Page 1 – School has the following strengths: “The outcomes and provision for boarders are good. They feel safe and are well cared for.”
iii. Page 3 – Schools to: “Ensure a consistent approach in dealing with bullying and ensure pupils are well behaved at all times.”
iv. Page 9 – Quality of Boarders’ provision and Care – grade 2 (Good)
v. Page 9 – Boarders’ Safety – grade 4 (Inadequate)
vi. Page 9 – L&M of Boarding – grade 4 (Inadequate)
vii. Page 9 – “The academy has not consistently applied safer recruitment practices. The procedures are not sufficiently robust and, as a result, the welfare and safety of boarders is not adequately safeguarded. There are management failings in ensuring that boarders are kept safe. The lack of monitoring of recruitment records has led to the inability to manage risk effectively.”

Put another way this report is wholly inconsistent and riddled with contradictions that are too numerous to highlight here. I know other eagle eyes will identify many others.

The data dashboard is not pretty reading either

My question is why is this school not grade 4 and in special measures.

It is also supremely ironic that Dr Sheldon’s sponsored academy simply does not match his lauded advice to the rest of state education and this report thoroughly undermines Mr Gove’s latest quack advice to the nation on our education policy

- See more at:

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 17:56

Brian - if I were a parent, especially one with children eligible for FSM, I wouldn't be too happy at having to fork out for a new uniform.

As you say, superficial changes and a hope that 60% with reach the benchmark in 2015.

Just before the GCSE results came out, the governing body praised Wellington Academy for its A level results. But when the GCSE results appeared the head fell on his sword. I wrote about it here:

Odd that Dr Seldon thinks Ofsted will come at the end of the year. Inspectors visited in January (surely Dr Seldon knows) and judged Wellington Academy as "Requires Improvement" with Inadequate for boarding as the Academy doesn't meet minimum standards for boarding.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 18:00

Here is the Independent article:

Anthony Seldon acknowledges that he may have been a bit "naive" to think it was enough for an independent school just to sponsor a state-school academy and watch it thrive.

"The only way you can do this is by being fully committed and being fully up to speed with the way that state schools operate," he tells me.

Brian's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 18:17

Thanks Andy. The article you provide the link for is in The Independent and is much longer and with more detail than the one I'd read ... that was in the 'i'. Not sure the longer article offers much more evidence of the 'significant impact' though. Certainly it highlights further Anthony Seldon's laudable ambitions for the school (outstanding by 2016) but ambitions aren't 'significant impact.'

Andy V's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 18:28

It also raise the inevitable issue - often raised by Janet, Henry et al - about what happens to an academy that persistently attracts grade 3 (and in this case 4 for of all things Boarding and the safety of pupils)? We know what happens to LA schools but ...

I also find it interesting that in LA schools Ofsted refer to the improvement measures put in place by a new (and relatively new) HT with the caveat that they haven't had time to bear fruit. This can and has been the difference between grade 3 and 4, and more often than not a grade 4 'Serious Weaknesses' and 4 'Special Measures'. The problem for me is that Wellington appears to have been given a life-jacket that it doesn't deserve and wouldn't have been extended to an LA school.

There again I could just have some personal baggage regarding his absurdly superior patronising statements telling the state school oiks how to run schools.

Steve's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 20:06

This would be the same Steve Bundred who presided over an Audit Commission that only collected information on fraud in maintained schools for the first time in 2013. Forgive me if he lacks some credibility on the transparency of public audit.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 21:01

The Independent's Richard Garner has been a steadfast supporter of Academies since they were introduced.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 22/02/2014 - 13:16

Steve - according to the Audit Commission website, it's been doing "Protecting the Public Purse" reports since 2009 (first link). It doesn't appear to have had the power to report on English LAs until the 2007 Health Act was passed (second link).

Are you thinking of the National Audit Office?

Public audit doesn't just mean Audit Commission collecting evidence - it refers to auditing done by LAs over all aspects of LA spending (including that of LA maintained schools). These auditors have to look at value for money which is a wider remit than the responsibility of the private auditors employed by academy trusts. And LA auditors are obliged to make concerns public (hence the use of the word "public"). This doesn't apply to auditors of academies - concerns, if any, are reported to the trustees but there's no obligation to make them more widely known.

That said, there are problems with both LA and academy auditing as discussed here:

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