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