Academies mean councils struggling to take integrated approach to education

Councils are struggling to take an integrated approach to education in areas where high numbers of secondary schools are academies, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) has revealed.

The report has found that the government is taking longer than intended to convert a large proportion of the underperforming schools that it believes will benefit most from academy status.

However, converting maintained schools to academies is central to the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) approach to improving education – so far at an estimated cost of £745m since 2010-11.

Schools that Ofsted has rated as ‘inadequate’ are to convert to academies with the support of a sponsor, with the aim of opening within nine months, but almost two-thirds of these schools take longer than this.

The NAO has estimated that last month there were 37,000 children in maintained schools that had been rated as ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted more than nine months previously and had not yet opened as academies.

It has reportedly been difficult for the department to find sponsors for some of the most challenged schools, particularly small, remote primary schools which can struggle to attract local sponsors and are less easy to integrate into multi-academy trusts.

There is “considerable regional variation” in the number of available sponsors located close to underperforming schools and a shortage of sponsors and multi-academy trusts to support new academies. For example, 242 sponsored academies are over 50 miles from their sponsor.

Since 2012-13 the department has offered grants aimed at boosting the ability of sponsors to take on more academies, but the NAO reports seeing no evidence that the efficacy of this has been assessed.

The proportion of secondary schools that have become academies far outweighs primary schools, with 72% of secondary schools, including free schools, having academy status – compared to 27% of primary schools.

This means that local authorities are responsible for most primary schools and specialist providers, but very few secondary schools, with up to 93% of secondary schools being academies in some councils.

According to the report, this high proportion of secondary schools that are academies means that it is difficult for councils to take an “integrated, whole-system approach to the education of children in their area.”

The process for converting schools to academies has recently been improved, with closer scrutiny of the financial position of maintained schools applying to become academies and prospective sponsors. Expected governance standards have also been increased by the DfE.

The auditor concluded that there is further scope for the process to be made more effective, particularly when identifying financial risks and strengthening assurance that trustees and senior leaders are suitable to be responsible for public money.

Amyas Morse, head of the NAO, 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.”

Top image: recep-bg

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