Academies: Where does the buck stop?

Written by: HTU | Published:

The academies programme has reached primary education, but under this new system, who is responsible for our schools and what happens when things go wrong? We look at an increasingly confusing view of accountability

The complaints procedure used to be a straightforward matter. Complain to the teacher first, then the headteacher, the governors, the local authority and finally the secretary of state.

But as an increasing number of schools become academies and one headteacher can span a number of schools, where does accountability really lie?

The chain of complaint continues to be unclear. During the recent appearance of education minister Michael Gove at the Education Select Committee, the discussion about accountability and the need for an “intermediary layer” between school and secretary of state dominated – an issue that had been brought forward by Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw himself.

Martin Johnson, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, is particularly concerned that within the growing complexity of academy chains, federated schools and executive heads, there is uncertainty about who is accountable.

He said: “We had begun to discuss with the previous government how the increasingly varied arrangements might be better regularised. Who is really in charge when there is both an executive head and an operational head or an academy chain director and a headteacher? What often seems to be happening is that the executive headteacher is in charge when things go right and the operational headteacher when there’s a problem.”

If this situation is confusing for the education professionals, it must be even more confusing for parents and students. Who do they go to if they have a complaint and if they are not happy with the solution what recourse do they have?

One example of the accountability dilemma is in relation to exclusions. The level of academy exclusions in 2009/10 was double that of other maintained schools. While the numbers go up, accountability appears to go down. The new statutory guidance from September 2012 (Exclusion from maintained schools, academies and pupil referral units in England, April 2012) treats academies and free schools the same as other state schools, with a few important exceptions:

• Academies do not have to provide the local authority with the number of exclusions within the last 12 months, whereas maintained schools do.

• There is no requirement for an academy to have a representative from the local authority at the governors’ meeting to consider an exclusion.

• Academies make their own arrangements and organise their own independent review panel – this is not done by the local authority.

• Academy trusts decide their own payment arrangements for panel members.

These differences may seem minor but do in fact mean that the exclusion process for an academy is perhaps less open to scrutiny.

Spending is another area were there are concerns after the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee recently reported its fears about blurred levels of accountability.

Its concerns centre around the fact that until April the Young People’s Learning Agency was responsible for overseeing the financial management of academies. This role has now been taken over by the Education Funding Agency but there seems to be no clear complaints procedure or routine method of checking how money is being spent.

The committee’s report said: “It is not clear whether existing monitoring and accountability mechanisms do enough to flag up concerns that should be investigated. For example, some academies have paid very high salaries to their senior staff and incurred expenditure of questionable value.”

Independence has been a strong factor for those choosing academy status and the decreasing role of the local authority will lead to more collaborations, federations and networks emerging. Critics might call it “fragmentation”

of our education service, Mr Gove calls it “diversity”. Whatever we call it, in the plethora of new arrangements even the best need someone to keep an eye on their actions.

• For more primary education news from Headteacher Update, click here.

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