The last three DfE academy factoids exploded

Janet Downs's picture

Here is the final article debunking Department for Education facts in their recent press release.

DfE Myth Seven: Academies aren’t transparent

Academies, the DfE says, are ‘more accountable than local-authority schools’.  That’s because Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs) monitor their performance, it says.   But LA schools are also monitored via their LAs and by accountability measures which burden all English schools: Ofsted and league tables based solely on results.  And RSCs aren’t going to ignore local-authority schools if these schools appear ripe for academy conversion.

‘Unlike local-authority schools, academies are regulated charities - so they prepare annual financial statements that are fully audited by an independent external auditor.’  But external auditors only check if accounts are made up correctly.  They don’t assess value for money.  And they can miss irregular spending which only comes to light when whistleblowers raise the alarm (Perry Beeches is the latest example*).

Complex structures and governance arrangements in academy trusts are ‘not always transparent’, the National Audit Office said.   This can ‘increase the perception of any wrongdoing.’   These complexities also increase the danger of conflicts of interest (see EFA report into financial government at EMLC Academy Trust, for example).  And it’s not always clear when academy trusts are charitable arms of for-profit education providers.  Remember what ex-advisor to Michael Gove, Sam Freedman, said: when such firms become involved in education, ‘they are not interested for altruistic reasons. It's an investment."

DfE Myth Eight: Becoming an academy will mean my good school has to change

The DfE denies this but of course academy conversion is a change.  It’s a change in structure either to a stand-alone academy or an academy within a multi-academy trust (MAT).  If it becomes a stand-alone academy, then it becomes responsible for a large number of legal, administrative and financial burdens which can direct attention away from a school’s prime purpose: educating children.  If a school joins a MAT, then it surrenders autonomy – the academy trust will decide how much freedom the subordinate academy will have.

It wouldn’t be a DfE press release without some dodgy data.  ‘2015 GCSE results show that secondary converter academies are performing 7.2 percentage points above the national average, with 64.3% of pupils achieving 5 or more good GCSEs, including English and maths,’ the DfE trumpets.  But this compares converter academies, most of which were already high performing, with all other schools including sponsored academies which performed less well.    

DfE Myth Nine: Converting will be a bureaucratic and financial burden to schools

The DfE’s response tackles only the cost of conversion which it says has reduced from £250k per academy in 2010/2011 (that was when the DfE overspent by £1b on the academies programme, remember) to £35k today.  It ignores the administrative and legal responsibilities which come with academy status. 

‘The policy is fully-funded’, the DfE says.  That’s because it will offer the same grants (£25k) which were provided to schools which have ‘successfully become academies’.  But successfully becoming an academy (ie successful in going through the conversion process) is not the same as becoming a successful academy.  Some academies, like some LA maintained schools, are successful.   But some, like some LA maintained schools, are not.  And, as Henry Stewart has found, schools are more likely to remain or become inadequate if they are sponsored academies.

If every school were to convert, it would cost £412m in grants.  George Osborne has said £1.5b has been set aside to ‘increase classroom standards’.  But one-third of that would go on conversion costs alone. 

The DfE’s press release says £500m is available to ‘build capacity including recruiting excellent sponsors and encouraging the development of strong multi-academy trusts.’  It’s unclear whether this £500m is in addition to Osborne’s £1.5b or part of it.  If it’s the latter, then £1b of the amount supposedly available to improve what goes on in the classroom will be spend on legalities, administration, sponsor recruitment (aka giving inducements in the form of start-up grants) and encouraging the development of MATs.

One cost which the DfE doesn’t mention is the cost of academies moving from one trust to another.  This is likely to increase year-on-year – more academies means more transfers.  And it appears the full cost of transfers is not something the DfE wants to publicise.  It took me over a year and a tribunal before the DfE released the cost of 23 academies which changed hands between September 2013 and October 2014.   The costs ranged from £0 to nearly £0.5m.  There are at least 70 transfers where transfer costs have not been revealed.

This cost won’t, of course, be a burden to any particularly academy.  The contrary’s likely to be true when MATs receive transfer fees.  But it would be a burden on the education budget and, as so much of the academies programme, divert money and attention from the classroom.

This is the third in a series of articles debunking DfE rebuttals of alleged myths.  The others are here and here.

Henry Stewart’s earlier article debunking academy myths is here.

The NUT response to the DfE press release is here.

 *UPDATE  Investigation by Schools Week reveals the tangled web at Perry Beeches.  So much for the much-vaunted 'transparency' and 'accountability' of academy chains.

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