Academies: the DfE charm offensive starts here

Now it may be entirely coincidental, but over the past couple of weeks there has been discussion on the internet about the powers of academies, and specifically about their control of the assets in the Trust deed, and then yesterday the DfE have published a paper entitled Academies; a myth buster. https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/academies-a-myth-buster Hopefully, this document will survive in the public domain longer than the last DfE publication reviewed on this blog.

The DfE document addresses the land point as follows:

When a community school becomes an academy, the new academy trust takes on the legal title to the land from the council, doesn’t it?

Wrong. When a community school becomes an academy, legal title is not transferred from the council to the academy trust. The freehold is retained by the council and a lease is granted to the trust.

Note, that the DfE only mentions community schools. My understanding is that if a school is a Foundation School the situation over the title to the land may be different. Indeed, there have been suggestions that some schools have looked into a two stage process of becoming a Foundation School, and then becoming an academy specifically because of the land issue. If there is a loophole with regard to ownership of the land and buildings that must remain public assets, then it should be closed forthwith.

There is another part of the document that reads rather clumsily in the present world of Commissioners and the central control of all schools from Westminster.

There isn’t much financial accountability around academies though, is there?

Wrong: the financial accountability systems in place for academies are more rigorous than those for local authority-run schools and they mean that not only do any problems get uncovered but also that there can be swift resolution of any issues. The spotlight of this accountability system demonstrates that academies cannot hide from their responsibilities and are held to account for their actions. There have been almost 200 detected cases of fraud in council-run schools.

By locally-authority run schools the DfE author presumably means community and voluntary schools. But, to describe then as locally-authority run is an insult to reality. Perhaps that’s why they are later called council-run schools, a quaintly archaic term. Interestingly, although in 200 of these schools, that set and control their own budgets, there have been cases of fraud over an undefined period of time the document doesn’t say how many cases of fraud, if any, there have been in academies during the same period, thus perhaps creating a new myth that academies don’t have any cases of detected fraud.

Finally, the DfE is categorical about profit answering that:

Oh right – but academy trusts are private companies and can make a profit.

That’s not true either: all academy trusts are charitable trusts and they cannot make a profit.

But, the DfE doesn’t say anything about either academies accumulating surpluses or the need for arm’s length contracting, especially where the academy is part of a chain that may encourage individual schools towards particular contractors.

One myth that isn’t addressed in the DfE document is that councils cannot force academies to help when pupil numbers in an area increase and the academy has spare places. Perhaps because academies can behave in that way, so it isn’t a myth, even if it could cost the council thousands of pounds in extra transport charges finding other schools for the pupils further away from the academy with spare places.

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