Expansion of academy schools is risky


An expansion of the academies programme could risk placing a serious strain on the public purse, according to a new report.

The Commons public accounts committee said that creating more independent state schools posed substantial risks as many struggled to keep their own finances in order.

In a new Committee of Public Accounts’ report, The Academies Programme, it emerged that one-in-20 academies opened under Labour ran up a deficit last year and more than a quarter needed help to secure their longer-term financial health.

Academy status gives individual head teachers almost complete freedom over budgets, the curriculum, hiring staff, term times and the length of school day. The Coalition government has pledged to rapidly increase the number of academies, and now wants to allow any primary or secondary school to convert into an independent academy.

However, the report said their expansion posed “increased risks to value for money and proper use of public money”.

Margaret Hodge, the committee’s Labour chairman, said: “Over a quarter of academies could need extra financial or managerial help to maintain long-term financial health. In these circumstances, simply issuing guidance on basic standards of accountability and financial management is not enough.

“A clear mandatory framework with strong measures to deal with non-compliance is needed.”

Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said: “The lack of clarity from Government about the purpose of the new academies programme comes across loud and clear in this report. While previously under Labour the aim of sponsored academies was, and remains, to work within deprived areas, the new Academies have no such clear objective.

“The fact that concerns have been raised about the effectiveness of accountability in academies is a sad indictment on a Government that spends much time devising endless ways to assess and judge local authority schools. There seems to be no desire to ensure Academies are subject to the same rigorous scrutiny.

“It is unacceptable that in some academies there continues to be financial mismanagement of what we have to remember is public money. Similarly it is quite unbelievable that, under the previous system, some sponsors never paid in full the money they pledged to open up Academies. How many times are we told that the private sector is so much better at delivering public services only to find the reverse is true?

“It is nothing short of reckless for the Government to push ahead with the expansion of the academies programme when this report shows the Education Department is already struggling with the administration of, as the committee says, ‘the relatively small’ number of Academies at present."

January 2011

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