The way the Department for Education (DfE) measures school performance is ‘limited’, says National Audit Office (NAO), because it only focuses on education performance as measured by test results and Ofsted inspections. These are important factors, NAO said, but don’t reflect ‘the full range of children’s outcomes’. (The NAO didn’t define the ‘full range’ except to say some schools can have ‘safeguarding, leadership and financial issues’. Immediately we’re up against the difficulty of deciding whether schools are ‘underperforming’. The NAO appears to be concentrating on Ofsted judgements despite saying focussing on these was ‘limited’.)
The NAO mentioned floor targets in passing and cited the number of schools which fell below the benchmark. (But it didn't mention some before-floor schools are actually doing a good job, or that some above-floor secondary schools had inflated their results by a disproportionate use of ‘equivalent’ exams.)
So, did the NAO think the estimated £382m pa hurled at oversight and intervention was money well spent? Its findings included:
1 The DfE relies on ‘limited measures’ – schools’ own financial reporting and ‘ad hoc intelligence’ ie whistleblowers – to flag up problems.
2 The DfE hasn’t stated clearly defined the roles and responsibilities of external oversight bodies. The pace of change and mixed messages from the DfE and Ofsted has resulted in confusion about oversight of safeguarding, the role of local authorities in relation to academies and academy sponsors’ responsibilities (I would add the responsibilities of academy trustees).
3 Decisions about interventions don’t appear to be made consistently. The NAO noted the Government’s preferred option was matching ‘underperforming’ schools with a sponsor but the DfE had been slow in intervening when some maintained schools were judged ‘inadequate. (The NAO didn’t seem to consider delaying intervention might actually be a good thing – there’s less chance of forced academy conversion or accusations of bullying if non-academies are allowed to work with LAs to improve. Avoiding conversion would save the taxpayer the cost of pre-opening, assorted grants and ‘rebranding’.)
4 48% of ‘underperforming’ schools had improved after intervention while 52% remained the same or deteriorated. But 59% of schools which received no formal intervention improved. This doesn’t mean, however, that no intervention is better than intervention, the NAO stressed (but it does show that formal intervention doesn’t automatically result in improvement).
5 The DfE doesn’t know the costs of different interventions. The NAO found the grant given to sponsors to take over ‘underperforming’ secondary schools had fallen in real-terms between 2010/11 and 2013/14. (But the DfE still offers £150,000 for sponsors for ‘pre-opening’ secondary schools and start-up grants seem to be offered long after an academy has started up. This raises the question of how much the Government was previously paying sponsors if the amount of grant is supposed to have fallen.)
6 The DfE doesn’t know enough about the effectiveness of LA oversight of schools. The NAO found the DfE had ‘serious concerns’ about 16% of LAs and ‘some concerns’ about 68% in 2011. (It’s unclear how the DfE came to its conclusion that 84% of LAs presented at least ‘some concerns'. But if the situation was as bad as the DfE claimed then it’s surprising school improvement services in only 11 of the 152 LAs have been inspected - 9 were judged Ineffective, but one, Isle of Wight, has been re-inspected and found to be Effective).
7 The DfE doesn’t know why some academy sponsors are more successful than others. Not all sponsorships have resulted in improvement (that could be because school improvement is based on factors not linked to sponsorship). Ofsted can’t inspect academy sponsors or chains so there’s no independent evaluation of their work – this is a flaw.
8 Oversight of an increasingly diverse school system is still developing – this has resulted in ‘inconsistent action’ from the DfE and others.
The DfE agrees with the facts presented by the NAO but not its analysis, conclusions and recommendations. (That’s probably because the NAO has highlighted weaknesses in the Government’s approach and implied that academy sponsorship as a way to improve schools is not a magic bullet.)
NOTE Words in brackets are the author’s comments.
ADDENDUM Read 'The 13 Most Important Points in the NAO Academies and Maintained Schools Oversight report' by Laura McInerney of Academies Week here.