Auditors are unable to decide whether the oversight system for maintained schools and academies gives value for money, because of confusion about the roles of the Department for Education and councils.
The National Audit Office said despite spending £382m a year on school interventions, the DfE “has not demonstrated the effectiveness of the different interventions it and others make in underperforming maintained schools and academies”.
Its report Academies and Maintained Schools: Oversight and Intervention said the DfE relied on councils to oversee governance in maintained schools, “but does not know whether or how well they do this”.
Auditors from parliament’s spending watchdog found “a lack of clarity” over councils’ view of their role in relation to academies.
Councils lacked powers to intervene in problematic academies and the DfE saw no need for them to monitor academies proactively or require performance data from them, it said.
“However, Ofsted has interpreted local authorities’ statutory duties differently, and has criticised authorities for not working effectively with local academies to improve performance,” the NAO found.
Practice concerning academies varied between councils in “a way that demonstrates the confusion”, the report said.
It also found that the DfE also did not know why some academy school sponsors were successful and others not.
“There has been confusion about oversight of safeguarding, the responsibilities of academy sponsors, and the role of local authorities in relation to academies,” the report said.
NAO head Amyas Morse said in a statement: “Greater school autonomy needs to be coupled with effective oversight and assurance. The department has made some improvements but has further to go.”
LGA children and young people board chair David Simmonds (Con) said councils wanted to intervene more rapidly in failing schools, 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”.
He added: “We now call on the government to free councils from the red tape that weakens their intervention powers, and allow us to get on with the job of effectively turning around the very worst performing schools.”
A DfE statement said: “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.”
Kerry Ace, finance and policy manager at the Chartered Institute of Public Finance & Accountancy said the increased use of academies meant “we need to see radically better oversight of their financial management and governance”.