MPs urge DfE to make academy trusts more transparent and accountable to parents

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Multi-academy trusts (MATs) are “not sufficiently transparent or accountable to parents and communities” and a “succession of high-profile academy failures” has damaged children’s education and been costly to the taxpayer, a cross-party group of MPs has said.

A report from the House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts (CPA) has concluded that the governance of academy trusts must be strengthened and government oversight more rigorous.

There are now around 7,500 academy schools in England, educating 3.8 million children, with most operating as part of a MAT. MATs are directly funded by, and accountable to, the Department for Education (DfE) via the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and they received funding of £20 billion in 2017/18.

However, MPs found that parents and local people “have to fight to obtain even basic information about their children’s schools”. MATs do not do enough to communicate and explain decisions, they added.

The committee’s report also says that the accounts of individual academy trusts, and for the sector as a whole, are “not yet as useful and accessible” as they should be. Often information published is for the MAT as a whole and MPs want to see financial information made available at school level.

The report recommends: “The ESFA should include in the Academies Financial Handbook 2019 requirements for academy trusts to make available financial information at school level and to be transparent about governance and decision-making at all levels of the trust.”

MPs also concluded that there is no clarity about “to whom parents can turn when they need to escalate concerns about the running of academy schools and academy trusts”.

MATs must have complaints procedures to deal with concerns that have not been addressed and there is a right of appeal to the DfE. However, MPs said that the DfE cannot confirm that appropriate arrangements for complaints are in place in all MATs. It has called on the DfE to ensure that all academy trusts have published complaints procedures, including a named individual for parents to escalate concerns to, by the start of the next academic year.

The report also raises again the issue of related party transactions and excessive executive salaries. In March 2018, the CPA called on the DfE to tighten controls around third-party transactions and to crack down on excessive pay.

Since then, the ESFA has said that from April 2019 MATs will have to declare every single related party transaction and seek approval for transactions of more than £20,000.

And last year, the DfE wrote to single academy trusts and MATs that were paying high salaries to warn them about excessive levels of pay. The ESFA told MPs that these letters had seen pay reduced in about a quarter of the trusts concerned. It is now asking the remaining trusts for evidence about how salaries have been set.

However, the MPs said that the DfE and ESFA action on these issues are “as yet unproven and in isolation will not prevent abuse”. They added: “We expect to return to these issues in future.”

The report also says that the ESFA is “not sufficiently transparent about the results of inquiries into concerns about the financial management and governance of academy trusts”.

It recommends that inquiry reports into financial or governance concerns should be published within two months of the investigation.

Chair of the CPA, Meg Hillier MP, said: “When things go wrong in schools, pupils can be badly affected. 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. Parents and the wider community are entitled to proper access to transparent information about their local academy schools. They must have confidence that when issues arise, robust measures are in place to deal with them.

“The government must act to make this happen and, as detailed in our report, we expect the DfE and ESFA to demonstrate they are doing so.”


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