Speedier conversion-process needed for inadequate schools, finds NAO report

The National Audit Office (NAO), the government’s spending watchdog, has released a report into the academy conversion process of maintained schools.

The report focuses on the arrangements for converting schools to academies, including the robustness, cost and speed of the conversion process, and the availability of sponsors and multi-academy trusts to support schools to convert to academies.

The report found that a much higher proportion of secondary schools than primary schools have
become academies. At January 2018, 7,472 state-funded schools were academies (35%), of which 6,996 had converted from maintained schools. 72% of secondary schools were academies, compared with 27% of primary schools.

The report found that most academies were previously good or outstanding maintained schools. Between 2010/11 and 2016/17, 4,674 schools, mainly those that Ofsted had rated as good or outstanding, became academies without a sponsor. Over the same period, 1,573 mainly underperforming schools converted with the support of a sponsor.

The report found that the conversion of failing schools isn’t always happening quickly. Since April 2016, it has been the DfE’s policy to make LA-maintained schools rated ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted to convert to academies, and its aim to have them reopen as academies within nine months. But the NAO found that of the 166 schools branded ‘inadequate’ between April 2016 and March 2017, 105, or 63 per cent, were still under council oversight nine months later.

The NAO’s findings also reveals that the DfE has not formally set out its current policy for converting schools to academies and the broader implications for the school system.

However, the DfE has recently strengthened the conversion process, the report finds. In designing and implementing the conversion process, the Department has focused on supporting large numbers of schools to convert, rather than allowing only the strongest applications to proceed. The Department has improved its scrutiny of applicants’ financial health, and in 2017 the Education and Skills Funding Agency developed new tools to summarise data on financial risk. The Department has also strengthened the standards of governance it expects from academy trusts. The report does highlight that there is scope for the DfE to make the conversion process more effective, particularly in identifying risks.

There is considerable regional variation in the availability of sponsors located near underperforming schools and there appears to be a shortage of sponsors and multi-academy trusts with the capacity to support new academies.

Now it no longer expects all schools to become academies, the Department should articulate its vision for the school system. Specifically it should set out how it sees academies, maintained schools and local authorities working together to provide an integrated, efficient and effective school system across all parts of the country.

The Department should reinforce and consistently apply tests of financial risk and due diligence to all academies and trustees, building on those used for prospective sponsors.

The Department and the Education and Skills Funding Agency should improve how they share knowledge and expertise. There is scope for the Department to involve the Agency more in assessing financial risk during the conversion process and for both organisations to consolidate the information that they currently hold in multiple databases.

The Department should take more effective action to speed up the process of converting inadequate schools and should improve its understanding of the factors limiting academy sponsors’ capacity to expand, or discouraging new sponsors from taking on underperforming schools. It should also evaluate the impact of the funding it has provided to build sponsor capacity. It should use this information to
target initiatives to develop capacity in the local areas where need is greatest.

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