The Department for Education’s (DfE’s) plans to convert schools into academies have so far cost £745m but in a number of regions have stalled considerably, a new report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has found. There were a number of reasons for this slowdown, the NAO found, including a lack of sponsors and delays in checking academy leaders were ‘fit and proper’ in their roles. Annie Moy, partner at Sharpe Pritchard, said the stalling of progress was in part due to the commercial hesitancy of academy trusts when faced with schools struggling ‘both financially and academically’.
For a number of years the conversion of maintained schools into academies, independent state schools which receive funding directly from the government, has been central to governmental education policy.
In January 2018, 7,472 of 21,538 state-funded schools in England were academies. Almost 7,000 of these had converted from maintained schools.
The NAO found the DfE provided revenue funding of £17bn to academies in 2016/17, 35% of the total amount spent on schools.
In its report NAO warned it may not be feasible for the DfE to continue to convert schools into academies, despite most of them having performed as well as maintained schools, and that conversion has been ‘relatively straightforward’.
Moy notes a major ingredient in this slow take-up could be that as private companies, academy trusts take a commercial view of the risks involved with taking over schools: ‘This, combined with the uncertainty over future school funding, means that there is often little incentive for academy trusts to take over schools which are struggling financially and academically.’
The NAO warned that challenges would increase in the future, with no current policy having been explicitly set out, and with most currently-maintained schools being primary schools, which can be less easy to integrate into multi-academy trusts.
Another factor making conversion a less attractive option for smaller or primary schools, Moy added, is the increased independence which accompanies conversion to an academy, which can bring with it additional management responsibilities: ‘For example, to handle payroll and HR matters, and put in place their own arrangement for cleaning and catering, without necessarily being able to fall back on the shared economies of being one of several schools within a local authority or multi-academy trust.’
There is also substantial variation across the country, the NAO said, in the relative proportions of maintained schools and academies and in the availability and capacity of sponsors to support schools most in need.
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