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Watchdog doubts ability of DfE to pursue large numbers of academy conversions

The National Audit Office has issued a report questioning the Department for Education’s ability to continue converting large numbers of maintained schools to academies.

The watchdog said that the DfE was “taking longer than intended to convert a sizeable proportion of the underperforming schools it believes will benefit most from academy status”.

At January 2018 the Department had converted 6,996 maintained schools to academies. The process has cost it an estimated £745m since 2010-11, of which £81m was spent in 2016-17.

The NAO report – Converting maintained schools to academies – highlighted how a much higher proportion of secondary schools than primary schools were academies. Some 72% of secondary schools, including free schools, were academies compared with 27% of primary schools.

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“This leaves local authorities with responsibility for most primary schools and specialist providers, but few secondary schools. In areas where a high proportion of secondary schools are academies, it is more difficult for local authorities to take an integrated, whole-system approach to the education of children in their area,” the NAO warned.

The watchdog also found significant geographical variation in the proportion of schools that were now academies. This varied across England, from 93% in Bromley to 6% in Lancashire, Lewisham and North Tyneside. There were 23 local authorities (15%) that had 150 or more maintained schools, while 55 local authorities (37%) had fewer than 50 maintained schools, it said.

The report also found that:

  • Almost two-thirds of schools rated as inadequate by Ofsted and directed to convert, with the support of a sponsor, took longer than the nine months the DfE says it should take to open as academies. The NAO estimated that, at January 2018, there were 37,000 children in maintained schools that Ofsted had rated as inadequate more than nine months before but that had not yet opened as academies.
  • The Department had found it difficult to find sponsors for some of the most challenged schools. “In particular, small, sometimes remote, primary schools can find it challenging to attract local sponsors and integrate into multi-academy trusts.” There were 242 sponsored academies that were more than 50 miles from their sponsor.
  • There was considerable regional variation in the number of available sponsors located close to underperforming schools and a shortage of sponsors and multi-academy trusts able to support new academies. From 2012-13, the Department began offering grants aimed at boosting sponsors’ ability to take on more academies. The National Audit Office said it did not see evidence that the Department had assessed whether this funding was helping.
  • The Department had recently improved its process for converting schools to academies. “This has involved closer scrutiny of the financial position of maintained schools applying to become academies and prospective sponsors. It has also increased the standards of governance it expects from academy trusts”.

The NAO said it had “nonetheless” found further scope for the Department to make the process more effective, “particularly when it comes to identifying financial risks and strengthening assurance that trustees and senior leaders are appropriate people to be responsible for public money”.

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said: “It is unclear how feasible it will be for the Department to continue converting large numbers of schools to academies. There is extensive variation across the country, leaving many local authorities with responsibility largely for primary schools.

“To cut through this complexity, the Department needs to set out its vision and clarify how it sees academies, maintained schools and local authorities working together to create a coherent and effective school system for children across all parts of the country.”  

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