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Published: Thursday 30th October 2014 by The News Editor
More than 1.5 million children are still not getting a good education, but the Government and local councils are failing to deal with under-performing schools consistently, the spending watchdog has warned.
In a damning report, the National Audit Office (NAO) said the Department for Education (DfE) has not been able to show the impact of the different measures it uses to tackle low standards, despite hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money being spent on overseeing England’s state schools and academies.
As part of major reforms of the education system, schools are being given more freedom to run themselves.
But the NAO raises concerns that the DfE does not know enough about local councils’ oversight of schools, why some academy sponsors are more successful than others, and does not have enough information about school governors.
While schools have improved in recent years, nearly one in four children (23%) – around 1.6 million in total – are still being taught in schools that are considered less than good by Ofsted, the report warns.
It says that the DfE has been clear that it expects schools to be rated as good or better by Ofsted, and set minimum floor standards on what pupils should be achieving at the end of primary school and in their GCSEs.
But the NAO goes on to say that the department’s measures of school performance are limited because they only focus on academic areas, measured by exam results and inspections.
It says that the DfE knows that schools which have low academic standards can also have issues with leadership, governance and keeping children safe.
“Such issues may also develop in schools that still achieve the minimum standards for educational performance, as has been highlighted by a number of recent cases,” the report says.
This is likely to be a nod towards the recent alleged Trojan Horse plot by hardline Islamists to take over schools in Birmingham. Inspections conducted as part of investigations into the plot raised concerns in some cases about how schools were being governed.
The NAO’s report says that the DfE has “limited measures” – mainly schools’ financial reports and information from individuals such as whistleblowers, to give early warning of series declines in performance that are not see through exam results between inspections.
It found that the department, and the Education Funding Agency (EFA), do not know enough about school-level governance to be able to identify any risks, such as “entryism” – a strategy in which a group or body encourages its members to join another organisation in an attempt to expand their influence.
“The department has a ‘fit and proper person’ test for governors in new academy trusts, but up to now has not been notified when these governors change,” the report says.
“It does not perform subsequent checks on new governors to identify risks, such as entryism. It relies on local authorities to oversee governance arrangements in maintained schools, in line with legislation, but does not know whether or how well they do this.
“We do not expect the department to know the identity of every governor in every English school, but, in addition to the analyses in Ofsted’s periodic inspections and on a risk basis, it needs more routine information about governors than it has had up to now.”
The report also says that the DfE relies on sponsors to turn round failing schools, but does not collect information about the type of support these sponsors offer, while Ofsted are unable to inspect the overall management of these groups.
And it concludes that the DfE has not done enough to evaluate the impact of different measures it, and other groups, use to improve standards, as well as not knowing the cost of different interventions.
In total, the NAO estimated that the DfE and other bodies spent at least £382 million in 2013/14 on “oversight” activities, including formally intervening in schools.
NAO head Amyas Morse said: “The Department for Education’s system for overseeing schools is still developing. The Department has been clear about the need for schools to improve and nationally education performance has done so. But there are significant gaps in the Department’s understanding of what works, and the information it has about some important aspects of school performance is limited.
“Greater school autonomy needs to be coupled with effective oversight and assurance. The Department has made some improvements but has further to go.”
A DfE spokeswoman said that England’s schools have been transformed in recent years, with 800,000 more children now taught in good or outstanding schools compared to 2010.
“This is a great achievement but we would be the first to admit that the job is not yet done,” she said.
“Any child being taught in a failing school is an opportunity lost, which is why we have intervened in more than 1,000 failing schools over the past four years – pairing them up with excellent sponsors to give pupils the best chance of receiving an excellent education.
“There will always be more to do and we are certainly not standing still, but with more children being taught in good or outstanding schools than ever before, the NAO’s conclusions are simply not supported by the facts which show the huge progress made thanks to our plan for education.”
Councillor David Simmonds, chairman of the Local Government Association’s children and young people board, said: “As champions for children and parents, councils agree that persistent under-performance from any school is unacceptable and failure to tackle this risks letting down a generation of children and young people.
“Councils want to intervene more quickly, but decades of giving schools ‘greater freedom’ and ‘protecting’ them from council interference means that local authorities now have very indirect and bureaucratic ways to tackle poor performance and improve schools. Ironically, the Government and academy chains have more direct power than councils to quickly turn around under-performing schools.”
Shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said: “This report is an utterly damning account of David Cameron’s failure in education. It makes clear that the Government has no plan for tackling poor standards and simply does not know who is responsible for overseeing schools and the safeguarding of children.”
Published: Thursday 30th October 2014 by The News Editor