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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I would like to put on the record my thanks to the Backbench Business Committee, Meg Hillier, who leads the Public Accounts Committee so well, and the National Audit Office. It is fair to say that I rely heavily on the reports the NAO produces and I think it does a wonderful job. I would also like to give a shout out to Botley Primary School—I am a governor—because it got the call from Ofsted yesterday and is in the thick of it. Given that the first thing I am going to talk about is Ofsted, it would be fair to wish the school good luck today. I know they will do us all very proud.
As governors, we focus heavily on school funding. In my local area, a school recently wrote to parents to ask for pencils and pens because it cannot afford them. Another school—I will not mention which one—is consulting, quietly and behind the scenes, on going down to a four-day week, because it cannot afford to keep its teachers at full-time level; if it did, it would have to start going into severe deficits. In the context of the estimates, what we want to know is this: if there are funding pressures, are they affecting outcomes? In the end, that is what it is about. Are they affecting outcomes? Are they driving value for money or not? What are the outcomes of the policy decisions themselves? Today is not about party political speeches, but looking at the evidence in front of us.
The Public Accounts Committee has been looking at a whole host of issues, including school accountability and governance. When, with the Department for Education, governors and parents, we have explored where the buck stops on school accountability, the picture is, unfortunately, quite muddled. No one can tell us empirically where the buck is meant to stop. The Department for Education says that it is up to the multi-academy trusts or local authorities, who say that it is down to the governors, who rely very heavily on Ofsted to be able to say whether or not these funding pressures are leading to lower or higher outcomes. In fact, I think Amanda Spielman slightly overstepped her initial remit—but quite rightly—in saying that there are definitely outcome failures in the FE sector as a result of the financial pressures that many Members have mentioned today. She said that we do not empirically know whether that is happening in schools or not, but our argument is that if we had the proper data, we could probably get a better idea of what is going on.
This is at a time when Ofsted’s own budget is under pressure. Its remit has expanded significantly since 2000, with successive Governments of all colours having asked it to do more and more. As well as schools, its remit now covers other sectors including children’s social care, early years and childcare, further education and skills providers. Meanwhile, its budget has had a decrease—a cut—of 40%. I will go on to talk about more things that I wish Ofsted would do, but the better question may be: what is our mechanism for school improvement and accountability? Is Ofsted the right provider to be able to do this? I know that the Department is consulting on the new Ofsted inspection framework, which we absolutely welcome, but as part of that, we need to carefully consider whether introducing even more into Ofsted’s budget is the right thing to do or whether it is time to have another body altogether.
Passing the buck is more than just a financial matter and more than just about data and numbers; it is also a matter for the community and its parents. One of the more striking sessions in the Public Accounts Committee was when we had campaigners from Whitehaven Academy, whose community shouted from the rooftops about the financial mismanagement and irregularities that were happening in that school. One of the questions that we asked was, “What does it take to get these things looked at?” It took two MPs of different parties, one of whom was forcibly removed from the premises when they visited the school. There was a “Panorama” investigation and we still do not fully know the outcome of what has happened in Whitehaven. This continues to drag on and my Twitter feed is full of parents who are shouting yet again from the rooftops, “Where does the buck stop?”
Meanwhile, we have the Durand Academy, whose school was transferred to the Dunraven Educational Trust. The first canaries in this case were back in 2014. The Public Accounts Committee had a hearing on this issue in January 2015 and in it identified a
“lack of clarity about who ultimately owned assets”,
governance arrangements that were “overly complex and opaque”, a
“lack of effective timely intervention by the”
Department for Education and the FSA, and that the
“lack of an appropriate fit and proper persons test”,
had allowed directors to run the trust who developed “inappropriate business interests”. How on earth did it take until August 2018 for the funding to finally be cut? It is extraordinary.
Our argument is that this is partly because we now have a muddled twin-track system of schooling, where there are local authority-maintained schools of the older style with this new academies system. It has really been only this year—the first time was last year, and now this year—that we have seen the accounts, so that we can properly assess how this system is working alongside the other. We know, for example, that it takes a certain amount of money to convert schools into academies. In fact, in 2017-18 the Department for Education spent £59 million on conversion and re-brokering, but what about the extra costs to local authorities in doing that? What about the hollowing out of local authorities’ ability to support maintained schools? That was an area that the Public Accounts Committee was concerned about. It is an example of cost-shunting by removing an aspect of the system in one part of schools. As far as kids are concerned, they do not care whether they are in academies, free schools or maintained schools.