Government not learning from high-profile academy failures

In its rush to convert large numbers of schools to academies, the Department for Education has failed to learn the lessons from high-profile academy failures, says the Public Accounts Committee.

The Parliamentary committee says that the government did not pay enough attention to ensuring that its scrutiny of applicants was sufficiently rigorous, and that recent changes to address this ‘do not go far enough’. The body’s report on converting schools to academies also warns that the Department for Education is failing to give a ‘clear sense of direction’ for maintained schools, academies, local authorities, pupils and parents.

Additionally, policies for converting schools to academies remains unclear, with the committee finding ‘substantial regional variation’, not only in the extent to which schools have become academies but also ‘in the quantity and quality of support available to struggling schools’.

Meg Hillier, chair of the committee, said: "The interests of pupils should be paramount in education but the increasingly incoherent schools system is putting this principle at risk. Government’s haste in pushing ahead with academisation has come at a cost, with high-profile failures indicating significant weaknesses in its assessment regime.

“We are also concerned about how the stated aim of academisation—to drive up educational standards—is panning out in practice. There is a risk that pupils at poorly performing and smaller schools, less attractive to academy trusts, will be left behind.

“Costs associated with conversion can reduce funding available to local authorities to support remaining maintained schools. Academisation can also undermine councils’ ability to provide school places. Oversight of the sector has become confusingly complex, which can place unnecessary burdens on schools and risks weakening decisions in the conversion process. Government must meet these challenges and be far clearer about the direction of travel if stakeholders, not least parents and pupils, are to have faith in its approach.”

Roy Perry, vice chairman of the Local Government Association’s Children and Young People Board, said: “The government needs to recognise the key role councils can play in school improvement and place-planning. Evidence shows councils are better at turning around failing schools than those converted to a sponsor-led academy. This demonstrates the compelling need for local authorities to be given the powers to improve struggling schools, which would tackle the shortage of sponsors highlighted by this report.

“The report also raises concerns over the impact of academisation on councils’ ability to provide school places, which is why councils need to be allowed to open schools and to direct academies to expand where necessary. It is only by working with councils and giving them the necessary powers, rather than shutting them out, that we can meet the challenges currently facing the education system.”

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