Children’s education is being damaged by academy school failures and misuse of funds that includes paying “excessive salaries” to top bosses, a public spending watchdog has warned.
Academy trusts are now responsible for educating nearly half of all children in state-funded schools in England but are not sufficiently accountable to parents and local communities, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has found.
A succession of high-profile collapses of schools and misuse of public money is harming both pupils’ learning and taxpayers’ pockets, a damning new report by the influential committee says.
The PAC has slammed sizeable salaries paid to schools bosses, including an alleged £850,000 payout to one disgraced executive headteacher, and criticised the use of controversial building contracts at some academy schools.
The cross-party committee of MPs, which acts as a watchdog on public spending, has now called for greater governance of the academies sector.
Meg Hillier MP, chair of the committee, said: “We have seen the troubling consequences of poor governance and oversight of academy trusts. Government must raise its game to ensure the failures of the past are not repeated.”
But the Department for Education (DfE) has hit back saying a haul of Oxbridge university offers at academy schools over the last week proves the system is working to improve outcomes for thousands of pupils.
Among the PAC’s findings are warnings that parents have to fight to obtain even basic information about their children’s schools.
It says academy trusts do not do enough to communicate decisions that affect schools and how they are spending public money.
Two high-profile academy chains - Durand Academy Trust and Bright Tribe Trust - are singled out for serious failures in governance and oversight.
The report says the previous executive headteacher at Durand Academy Trust was entitled to a lump sum payment of £850,000 despite “catastrophic failures of governance”, which it describes as a “shocking reward for failure”.
While the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) is taking steps to control executive pay, the report warns these measures in isolation will not prevent abuse and are “as yet unproven”.
Witnesses also told the committee school improvement works funded by public money at The Whitehaven Academy, in west Cumbria, run by Bright Tribe Trust, had not been carried out and the building was in a poor state of repair. The allegations were the subject of a BBC Panorama investigation last year.
Parents were forced to use freedom of information requests to Bright Tribe to find out what was happening at the school when information was not forthcoming.
The PAC also criticises failings in transparency and governance across the academies sector, saying the accounts of individual academy trusts and for the sector as a whole are not accessible to parents and local people.
The committee says it is not clear who parents can turn to if they need to escalate concerns about the running of academy schools and academy trusts.
It warns the DfE has few sanctions at its disposal to penalise academy chiefs involved in malpractice.
While the DfE can ban individuals from teaching and acting as school governors, the ESFA admits there is nothing to stop censured staff setting up businesses that can trade with the education and training providers it oversees.
The PAC committee also raises wider concerns about the schools sector.
It says neither Ofsted, which inspects schools, nor the ESFA is assessing the impact of continued funding pressures and how this affects the quality of education. Headteachers marched protesting over funding cuts last year.
And nearly a quarter of schools have not provided information to DfE about the extent of asbestos in school buildings. The PAC says it remains “seriously concerned” about the lack of information, which was first reported in April 2017.
Responding to the report, Cllr Anntoinette Bramble, chair of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “This raises serious questions around academy financial governance and will be hugely concerning to parents and teachers across the country.
“The findings reinforce our call for councils to be allowed to step in and oversee failing academy finances, as they do with council-maintained schools that face financial challenges.
“It is now clear that the Department for Education does not have effective oversight of spending in more than 7,000 academies.”
But the DfE responded robustly to the allegations.
It says it does not accept the PAC’s “negative characterisation of academies”, adding that standards of education have risen for thousands of pupils under the government’s flagship education policy.
A spokesperson said: “Only last week we saw the real life impact of academies with the Oxbridge offers to children at Harris Westminster, London Academy of Excellence and Brampton Manor Academy.
“The majority of academies are delivering a great education and - as recognised by the PAC - we are taking robust action in the small minority of cases where they are not meeting the high standards expected.”
The DfE said academies are subject to higher levels of accountability and transparency than local authority schools and that it is challenging trusts who pay high executive salaries.
The findings come only weeks after HuffPost UK reported exclusively on separate but related issues concerning academy governance.
It was revealed the Harris Federation trust, which runs 47 academy schools in and around London, was accused of systemically cheating Ofsted inspections at a number of its primary schools.
The National Education Union called for the DfE to act on the raft of troubling allegations, which were denied by the Harris Federation.