School Autonomy Allows Schools to Fall Through the Gap

A second report in a week by the UK House of Commons has criticised the effect of school autonomy in England. The Public Accounts Committee issued a report saying problems in schools are going unnoticed because of a lack of oversight of schools under the autonomy regime. It has “allowed some schools to fall through the gap” and failure to go “unnoticed”.

In releasing the report, the Chair of the committee, Margaret Hodge, said that:

The Department for Education has focused on increasing schools’ autonomy but it has done so without a proper strategy for overseeing the system. Its light touch approach means that problems in some schools can go undetected until serious damage has been done.
Confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the Department, the Education Funding Agency, local authorities and academy sponsors has allowed some schools to fall through gaps in the system, meaning failure can go unnoticed.

The report criticised the UK Department of Education for failing to collect enough information to be effective at identifying and responding to risks to school performance. In particular, it said, early action to prevent decline or continuing poor performance in schools is happening rarely. It said that weak oversight arrangements can mask problems in some schools, which then go undetected until serious damage has been done.

The report raised particular concerns about the lack of oversight of sponsored academy schools which are funded by the state but operate independently of local education authorities under an outside sponsor. In England, the main way the Department of Education intervenes to improve low performing schools is to turn them into a sponsored academy.

The report said that the Department has taken an over-optimistic view of sponsor capacity and that oversight of academy sponsors had not kept pace with the expansion of the academies programme:

Some have expanded too fast and a significant number are failing to improve standards in their schools. [p. 2]
In its keenness to expand the academies programme and increase the number of sponsored academies, it has allowed some chains to grow too quickly without the necessary capacity and capability. [p. 6]

The Office of Standards in Education (Ofsted) told the committee that the Department had allowed some sponsors to expand “exponentially, without the capacity to make the necessary improvements” at schools they took over.

The report noted that there are 18 academy sponsors that the Department is not allowing to grow further because of poor performance in some of their schools. These sponsors run 163 academies that currently contain a combined total of 94,000 pupils. Two of the chains run 108 academies. The Department could not explain why it had allowed these chains to become so big before stopping their growth.

The Department has also failed to intervene in many low performing academy schools. The report notes that in September 2013 there were 179 academies that met the Department’s criteria for formal intervention, but it only sent a warning notice to 15. The report said that the Department has not done enough to evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions and so does not know which are the most cost-effective.

The Education Funding Agency within the Department maintains a list of academies of national concern over financial management or governance issues. It has issued financial notices to improve to four of these academies, as a result of fraud allegations or financial irregularity; but there are another seven which have been on the list for suspected fraud but have not received a financial notice to improve. Both the Department and the Agency acknowledge that their records are not good enough to explain why they have intervened in some academies and not others.

The Public Accounts Committee of the House of Commons has recommended over several years that the Department of Education improve the way it supports and regulates the autonomous schools system. However, little has been done because of government faith in school autonomy. As a result, many schools have been left on their own and are falling through the cracks.

The report provides a disturbing insight into the operation of school autonomy. The light-handed oversight of schools opens a wider gap for schools to fall through. It also opens up greater potential for financial fraud. These are serious issues that education authorities and parliamentary committees in Australia must have greater regard for in the continuing expansion of the independent public schools program.

Trevor Cobbold

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