In September 2010 I seconded a motion about Free Schools and Academies at the Lib Dem Conference in Liverpool. Peter Downes from Cambridgeshire drafted the motion and proposed it to Conference where it was accepted after a lively debate. I have reproduced part of my speech winding up the motion because the Public Accounts Committee have today published a report on the managing of the expansion of the academies programme that makes sobering reading and reflects some of my concerns in 2010.
I have also included some of the PAC’s remarks after the quotes from my speech.
This motion was carefully crafted to recognise that being in coalition should not require us to abandon our basic principles:
As Lib Dems we believe in
- good local schools for all, that are
- supported and coordinated by democratically elected local bodies; and a
- a system based upon fairness, that protects the most vulnerable.
What we don’t believe in is an expensive and wasteful free-for-all.
Many of you in this hall joined the Lib Dems because of our education campaigns,
‘a penny on income tax’,
better early years education,
and a Pupil Premium championed as long ago as 2001.
Education has always been important to Liberal Democrats.
As you know, the Coalition’s programme for government is based upon, Freedom, Fairness and Responsibility- that’s what it said in the Coalition Agreement.
If you pass this motion, you send a message to the government that Lib Dem activists understand the challenge of government, but are not prepared to abandon all our principles.
We believe that government, an especially a coalition government, is for the many, and not just the few; for the future, as well as the present, and founded upon real principles.
But Lib Dems know it is to work with schools, to inspire staff and pupils, to demand high standards in return for investment in teaching and learning, to have an appropriate curriculum, and to manage provision locally, not from Whitehall, and above all not to waste money we cannot afford pandering to the demands of the few whilst ignoring the needs of the many.
I don’t care who runs schools, but I do care that those who do so recognise that public money is for the good of all, not the benefit of the few.
Extracts from the PAC Report published 23rd April 2013.
10. Despite some improvements, academies’ governance is still not sufficiently transparent for parents to scrutinise how their child’s school is spending its money, and for communities to hold their local school to account. There are gaps in the availability of key information such as academy funding agreements and governing body minutes, with less than 20% of academies surveyed by the National Audit Office publishing this information on their websites.
21. When schools become academies, responsibility for their academic and financial performance passes from the local authority to the Department and the EFA respectively. However, local authorities retain some overall statutory responsibilities for young people in their area. The Department suggested that, in addition to these specific responsibilities, it would expect local authorities to retain some detailed knowledge of all educational provision in their area, including academies. At the same time, the Department and other witnesses suggested that academy trusts, particularly multi-academy chains, should also play a key performance-monitoring and intervention role in between academies and the Department and EFA.
22. We heard conflicting views about whether inconsistency or uncertainty in the roles of these various players had created an accountability gap. We are not convinced it is clear who is accountable for performance monitoring and intervention in academies, nor how the Department can know whether the system is operating consistently, effectively and with minimum bureaucracy across different localities and academy structures. We expressed concern that interventions in failing academies may be delayed if roles and responsibilities are not clear, or if central oversight is too distant to identify school-level problems before young people’s futures are put at risk.
In reading the PAC Report I wonder why such a waste of money was allowed to happen in a time of grave austerity. To take just one example, the DfE spent an extra £92 million on insurance premiums for academies, monies that should have been available to spend on educational outcomes. A simple national scheme administered from Sanctuary Buildings would surely have released most of that money to be spent where parliament intended, on education not on insurance premiums. Then there is the £350 million paid to academies and not recovered from local authorities, presumably over-funding schools in areas with more academies compared with the parts of the country where there are fewer academies. And, as the PAC remarked, ‘some of the budgets the Department drew upon to fund the expansion had been previously earmarked for other purposes – most notably £95 million originally intended for improving underperforming schools. There is a risk that the Department’s decision to solely use this money to create academies—many of which were already high-performing—may have been at the expense of weaker non-academy schools which could potentially have benefitted from it more. This is a particular risk in the primary sector.’
With local government being forced to cut important services, and other government departments having taken a heavy hit on their budgets, this cavalier approach to department spending at the DfE on a flagship programme is exactly the sought of concerns that were voiced in the Liverpool Conference motion. One might have expected better from Conservative majority partners in a coalition, and maybe it is time for the Secretary of State to take responsibility for his actions. At the very least he should explain what steps he is taking to prevent the waste continuing while he considers the overall funding formula for schools of all types.