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Academies: Governance problems still unresolved

13 May 2016 by Henry Ker

Academies: Governance problems still unresolved

Government’s U-turn on compulsory academisation is welcome while governance problems still exist

Sceptics of the Government’s budget plans to force all schools to convert to or have plans in place to convert to academies by 2022 have welcomed the recent U-turn on the proposal.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has stated the government ‘listened to the feedback from parliamentary colleagues and the education sector … [and would] now change the path to reaching that goal’ − although in the face of industrial action by teachers and scant support from anyone in the media it could be argued they had no choice but to listen.

The change of path follows Nicky’s speech to National Association of Head Teachers on 30 April, in which she said the mandatory conversion is ‘the right step for our education system’.

Perry Beeches multi-academy trust

Despite this positive development, this week also saw storm clouds gathering around academy governance.

The Executive Head, Liam Nolan, of Perry Beeches multi-academy trust (MAT) – which looks after five schools in Birmingham – recently resigned from the organisation.

He had already stepped down as the trust’s chief executive after an investigation earlier in the yearuncovered financial mismanagement. 

This leaves the MAT without sponsors and mounting financial issues.

This is the same MAT that was once celebrated by David Cameron as among the best in Britain, lauding it as ‘one of the most successful comprehensive schools ever in Britain’ in 2013.

A damning report in March by the Education Funding Agency (EFA), the Department for Education’s financial watchdog, alleged financial mismanagement at the MAT; what they called ‘a failure by the trustees and the Accounting Officer to maintain high standards of probity and stewardship over the management of public funds.’

Allegedly, debts have been estimated by one member of staff to be around £1.8 million and are continuing to rise.

The EFA report found Nolan was paid £160,000, on top of his regular salary as executive head, between 2013 and 2015.

The money went via a company called Nexus to another company, Liam Nolan Ltd − this contravened Treasury guidelines as well as academies’ financial rules.

Further irregularities included nearly £1.3 million in payments without contracts to Nexus: ‘No evidence of a formal procurement exercise, including quotations and tendering, was available for expenditure with Nexus,’ the EFA said.

It also found more than £2.5 million in free school meal funding could not be confirmed because the records had been deleted.

Future Academies

Lord Nash, schools minister, has been allowing his daughter to teach at Future Academies in Pimlico, London – the school he founded − despite her lack of a teaching qualification. She has also allegedly been helping to draw up a new curriculum.

Despite being unpaid, there have been concerns raised by parents and a teachers’ union.

However, academy schools have had the option to hire unqualified teachers – a move which has unsurprisingly irked many teachers.

Some commentators have also raised questions about a seeming conflict of interest and nepotism on display.

The Westminster branch Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, Michael Parker, was reported as saying he was baffled the situation: ‘I find it extraordinary that an unpaid, untrained and unqualified volunteer is being allowed to teach children. This is an example of what parents need to be prepared for if the deregulation of education continues.

‘Teachers and parents need to be able to trust the system of governance at Future Academies to oversee an untrained and unqualified teacher. It is difficult … when the academy trust was set up by an unqualified teacher’s parents and her father is the minister for schools.’

Louise Thomson, Head of Policy (Not-For-Profit) at ICSA commented: ‘Conflicts of interests appear to be a running theme in many of the media stories covering MATs ... It is essential that boards understand what conflicts of interest are, what damage they can do and how they can be managed to protect the reputation not just of the organisation but of individual board members.’

Cause for concern

These are perhaps just the first of many issues to come out in the governance of academies – a new and relatively untested structure will always have teething problems, however there is cause for specific concern with academies.

ICSA has raised concerns about the governance at MATs, recently submitting to the Education Committee’s inquiry on the issue.

Louise explains: ‘As the written evidence, from a range of interested parties, to the Education Committee demonstrates many MATs are struggling to put in place effective governance arrangements that meet the needs of the schools and the requirements of regulators.

‘For good governance to become the norm across the sector, it requires a system-wide approach and consistency that enables the desires of regulators and schools to be focussed on the delivery of high quality and safe education for pupils. The governance challenge for MATs is to learn from other sectors and develop a holistic system of oversight, transparency and accountability that enables MATs to achieve the best for their pupils.’

Although academisation is the right option for many schools, until these problems in the system are rectified – as well as the financial issues at Perry Beeches and conflicts of interests arising from the relaxing of educational laws for academies – the news that schools will not have to convert their status is welcome.

Henry Ker is Deputy Editor of Governance and Compliance

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