Accountability and asbestos

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Commons has just published a report into Academy accounts and performance, with a final paragraph about asbestos reporting by schools tacked on the end for some reason. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/1597/159702.htm proving that Brexit is not quite the only game in town at Westminster this week.

The PAC don’t think that accounts for academies are clear enough and provide enough information at the school level for parents and others from the local community interested in the spending of individual schools. Personally, I have found academy trust accounts more forthcoming than financial information about individual maintained schools. However, there are clearly Multi-Academy Trusts where information has not been forthcoming in the views of the PAC.

We can all cite issues of questionable behaviour by the leaders of some Trusts. The DfE spent a lot of time and effort last year trying to deal with the high salaries some CEOs of Mats were paying themselves, with some degree of success.  However, it wasn’t as if everything was fine and dandy before. Head teachers had been known to fiddle the books and use the school credit cards for unacceptable purposes: a few even end up being prosecuted and doing time in prison.

The PAC has set out a list of demands that the DfE must comply with by the end of March, although I expect that deadline will be extended should there be a general election before to date to exit the EU.

Personally, as I have explained in previous post, entitled ‘Does local democratic control matter in education?’ written in August 2017 that someone has viewed earlier today ,I would rather democratic control was exercised where the school is located by democratically elected local authorities and not from London. I suppose, however, if you believe in the Regional School Commissioner role, and I don’t, then they might be the office best placed in the DfE hierarchy to oversee financial transparency of academies.

I am disappointed that the PAC didn’t mention the behaviour of some academies and MATs in respect of in-year admissions and especially the way they deal with children taken into care requiring a school transfer. That is another subject this blog has championed and will continue to so.

Finally, the difficulty in making schools report about asbestos and the importance of this matter is a real concern. The PAC reported that:

The Department originally asked schools to respond to its survey by 31 May 2018. However, due to the poor response rate, it extended the deadline to 25 June 2018 and again to 27 July 2018. Despite this, only 77% of schools responded to the survey. The Department said that it was disappointed with the response rate. We asked the Department what action it had taken with the 23% of schools that had still not provided the information requested. The Department said that it had re-opened the survey and extended the deadline for the third time, to 15 February 2019, to allow the remaining schools to respond. It also told us that those schools that still failed to respond would be picked up in its school condition survey. However, this survey will not be completed until autumn 2019.

Paragraph 30 PAC Report

This really does reveal why we need a governance structure for schools in England that is both accountable and able to act effectively on important issues of whatever description.

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More or less local democracy in our school system: who cares?

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Westminster has published a short and interesting Report into ‘Converting Schools to Academies’. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/697/69702.htm

There is little to disagree with in the Report. The process has been expensive and has caused problems with the remaining statutory duties of local authorities. The Committee cited pupil place planning as an issue, but could have included SEND issues and the education of children taken into care. They could have also realised that Free Schools and the dalliance with the 14-18 sector that brought us UTCs and Studio Schools also contributed to the problems with pupil place planning.

Oxfordshire is one of the few, (perhaps the only?) local authority to require a regional school commissioner to appear before its Education Scrutiny Committee each year to give an account of progress of academies within his remit. The answers to the Scrutiny Committee’s questions have revealed a weak and probably largely ineffectual system for improving school performance among academies. The PAC were right to comment on the need for better links with the Education and Skills Funding Council and the RSCs.

Of interest to Oxfordshire was the PACs comments about small rural schools and academies. Oxfordshire has a large number of small rural primary schools that are much loved by the county. The PAC said

Small rural schools, particularly primary schools, can face particular difficulties in finding suitable sponsors. Low pupil numbers may make rural schools financially unviable and their geographical isolation can make it more difficult for multi-academy trusts to provide support. The Department told us that, since 2010, 1,379 rural primary schools had registered an interest in becoming an academy. Of those, 984 had gone on to apply to become an academy, including 262 that were small rural primary schools.

 The PAC asked what, particularly for small rural schools, the barriers were to becoming academies and how the barriers could be addressed. The Department told us that, in principle, the opportunity presented by a joining multi-academy trust should be greater for a smaller school than a larger one, because there was the potential to achieve more economies of scale.

One wonders why, if the point on economies of scale is true, it is secondary schools that have rushed to become academies while these small primary schools have held back, even in many diocese where they already had links outside of the local authority. It may be that under the 2010 Act many original converters became stand-alone academies and only now are they joining together into multi academy trusts.

This means that there are now three separate governance systems for our schools, often running alongside each other; maintained schools, mostly primary schools; standalone academies, mostly secondary schools and Trusts that can be either primary, secondary or a mixture of both with a smattering of all-through schools as well.

These separate systems are expensive to operate and can cause problems as the PAC Report demonstrated. The DfE will, at some point, have to think how to re-join the parts into a whole. For me, one key question with be the place of local democratic accountability in the system. Do we want an NHS style school system with little local accountability or one more akin to what there was between 1944 and the early 2000s, with a significant role for a democratically elected local body aligned to the rest of local government? Regular readers of this blog will know where I stand.

The Pay of Academy Staff

In the same week that I asked a question of Oxfordshire’s Cabinet Member for Education about the number of employees with salaries over £150,000 in Multi-Academy Trusts operating in Oxfordshire, the Public Accounts Committee has commented on the same issue in a report published today. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/760/76002.htm

The Cabinet member was unable to answer my question as, not surprisingly, the county doesn’t collate the information. However, in my supplementary question, I identified five MATs, all with HQs outside the county, where there was on officer listed in their 2017 accounts as being paid in excess of £150,000. In due course, my list will appear on the county council website and I will publish the link here.

In the Public Accounts Committee Report, issued today, it is clear that the government wrote to all stand-alone academies where in their accounts up to August 2016 there was an officer paid more than £150,000 to ask for an explanation by the 15th December 2017. I haven’t seen an FOI request for the responses. The original letter from the ESFA of 4th December only went to 29 single academy trusts (i.e. academy trusts with only one school in the trust) where the ESFA could identify from the accounts that the trust was paying at least one person over £150,000 and was to ask why such large sums of money had been paid.

In February this year, the Minister wrote to all Chairs of academy trusts in England saying:

 ‘I believe that not all boards are being rigorous enough on this issue. CEO and senior pay should reflect the improvements they make to schools’ performance and how efficiently they run their trusts. I would not expect the pay of a CEO or other non-teaching staff to increase faster than the pay award for teachers. I intend to continue to challenge this area of governance. My view is that we should see a reduction in CEO pay where the educational performance of the schools in the trust declines over several years.’ DfE letter 21st February 2018 reference 35 in the PAC Report.

There has been a history of neglect over senior staff salaries dating back to the Labour government and the emergence of the Executive Head or Principal position soon after the start of the century. Such a grade was never formally recognised in the pay and conditions agreements, and once Mr Gove freed up pay for academies, with no government restraints in place, it was open season for those that wanted to see pay rise to closer to what could be earned in the commercial sector. Buying former DfE officials was also always going to be expensive, but was no doubt one of the justifications used. Using public money to pay related parties is often even less acceptable, as the PAC note in their Report.

We heard of related party transactions where the rules were not properly followed, or where there were doubts about the propriety of the transactions. For example, Wakefield City Academies Trust purchased IT services worth £316,000 from a company owned by the Chief Executive of the Trust, and paid a further £123,000 for clerking services provided by a company owned by the Chief Executive’s daughter. We similarly heard that the founder of Bradford Academy, who was a former teacher, was ordered to repay £35,000 after being sentenced to prison for defrauding the school. The founder and other former members of staff at Kings Science Academy paid £69,000 of Government grants into their own bank accounts. There have also been problems with related party transactions at the Bright Tribe Academy Trust, which resulted in schools being removed from the Trust.

Academy trusts are required to demonstrate to the satisfaction of their own auditors that related parties have not made a profit from the relationship (i.e. that transactions are at cost or below). We were concerned that determining whether a service has been delivered at cost is dependent on information from the supplier, who may have a vested interest in manipulating or inflating this information and is in a position to do so. We questioned whether there were incentives for trustees to take advantage of the system, due to the weaknesses in the system of oversight. The Department, noting our dissatisfaction with the current processes, committed to reflect on the adequacy of the current arrangements. Following our evidence session, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the School System wrote to all Chairs of academy trusts to remind them of the need to scrutinise any related party transactions, and to ensure that a full and proper procurement process is following and the trust is able to demonstrate that the services have been provided at cost.

Paragraphs 10 and 11 of the PAC Report: https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/760/76002.htm

Should local authorities be required either to provide audit services for all academies or at least to review the accounts of those academies with responsibility for schools within their locality? The LGA could apportion responsibility for MATs that cross boundaries in order to ensure that all are looked at by at least one authority that could then report to the appropriate local scrutiny committee.

Public money, especially in a time of austerity, should be spent in the most effective way. TeachVac has cost the government nothing, but demonstrate how a low cost recruitment site works for the benefit of all. The notion of ‘public service’ and not ‘profit from public funds’ must once again be to the fore.

 

 

 

 

Teacher Recruitment

The Public Accounts Committee has today published a report in to teacher recruitment and retention. https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201719/cmselect/cmpubacc/460/46002.htm Associated with the report they have published a letter from the Tes about their recruitment and CPD services. It may well be that the letter from the Tes was published because it corrected a perceived inaccuracy in the oral evidence as to advertising rates.

The PAC has asked the DfE to continue its work on a vacancy service, so I thought, for the sake of completeness, I would share the letter that TeachVac sent to the Committee via its Clerk last November. the letter has now been published by the PAC as part of the evidence relating to this inquiry: better late than never.


Meg Hillier MP

Chair, Public Accounts Committee

House of Commons London SW1A 1AA

21st November 2017

Dear Ms Hillier,

Retaining and developing the teaching workforce

I refer to the recent meeting of the Public Accounts Committee on the above subject. It was concerning to see the Department for Education is planning on spending significant money on developing a system for teacher recruitment that already exists and successfully meets their defined objectives. Their stated objectives were to provide a free service for recruiting teachers to schools which at the same time produced useful data about the teacher vacancy marketplace. A system that does just this has been extant since 2014 and now has more teaching jobs in England than any other service including the paid for recruitment providers. TeachVac produces daily data which is unavailable elsewhere and is completely free to schools and teachers. We have attempted to interact with the DfE team but the conversations about both the data we could make available to them and any modifications to the system they would wish to see have met with a desultory response at best. Considering that this system has cost the government nothing, meets their stated objectives and was developed by a team with some 60 years combined experience of this market, we wondered why the committee didn’t ask the DfE representatives about alternatives that would not impact the already strained education budget. I understand the work undertaken by the DfE so far has been using a third party company that has no experience of the rather different education recruitment market. It appears to have SRS written all over it, but I suppose the DfE will consider that it is ‘their’ system not someone else’s. At TeachVac, the development of another free to use service will not affect our revenues so our concerns are related to the waste of the education budget not our own finances. I would be happy to brief you or your Committee about how TeachVac provides an extensive and free service and the copious and detailed data we collect. I have attached two examples of this data, the first is a look at the problem one county’s primary schools are experiencing in appointing Head teachers and the second is comparative recruitment data for two schools in the same town an issue discussed during your hearing.

Yours sincerely,

The DfE is now sifting through the responses it has received to the bids to develop a service. However, the service will miss the 2018 recruitment round and could have a profound effect on the stability of the whole market for teacher recruitment and, unless mandatory, the quality of the data collected will depend upon the degree of take-up by schools.