On Monday night Channel 4 aired a Dispatches programme that was billed as an expose on how academy trusts spend their budgets in ways that some might call questionable. From this springboard, Dispatches launched a particularly savage attack on academies.
The first half of the programme presented opposing views of the financial autonomy that comes with academy status. It pointed out that since academies receive their budgets directly from the government rather than the local authority (LA), they can choose where to buy services from, such as school uniforms, catering and legal support. However, Dispatches took issue with procurement choices made by some academies. The programme looked at the recent accounts of more than 100 academy trusts and found that around half had paid money to directors, trustees or their relatives through business deals or direct employment. In one year these deals totalled more than £9 million. This is not illegal, but it should raise a few eyebrows.
Yet financial autonomy is often seen as a major advantage of academy status. Vic Goddard, the principal of Passmores Academy (which you might remember from Channel 4’s Educating Essex), spoke about how freedom from LA control has enabled the school to negotiate better deals for the services it needs. This chimes with my experience of speaking to school leaders in academies, some of whom told me that instead of being required to use the LA’s services, academies can choose to buy-in some of what the LA’s offers and opt out of what they don’t want.
By the ad break I felt that both the pros and cons of academies’ financial autonomy had been given a fair hearing. However, the second half of the show was mainly dedicated to horror stories of academy trusts spending their money in what many would argue are unethical ways. The examples chosen were provoking, particularly the stories about expenses. For instance, the show highlighted that the chief executive of one trust spent £1,200 of public money on two hotels, while another chief executive claimed £40 a month for a broadband bill for a home in France. An investigation by Dispatches found that 40 of the biggest trusts spent £1 million on expenses since 2012.
It is right to question this kind of spending because it’s not exactly in the spirit of what academies’ budgets are for, namely providing the best education for pupils. However, I question how widespread these problems are. There are over 8,000 primary and secondary academies in England and I can’t believe that every trust spends money in the ways Dispatches highlighted. I tried to imagine what academy heads and governors must have felt watching the programme. I doubt they saw themselves in the spending habits described by Dispatches. Instead, I bet they were frustrated that their schools’ reputations were being tarnished because of the actions of others.
The reality is that the vast majority of all schools, maintained schools and academies, spend their budgets in responsible ways in increasingly difficult circumstances. Financial efficiency has never been more important in schools because they have to do much more with less. The Key’s State of Education Survey found that 31% of school leaders expected budget pressures and lack of funding to be the biggest challenge for schools over the next 12 months. The reasons why this is the case is a crucial angle that was missing from the Dispatches programme. Budgets constraints is a story affecting all schools, whereas financial mismanagement is a story affecting a minority of academies.
That’s not to say we should ignore the issues highlighted by Dispatches. I came away from the programme feeling that Department for Education does need to monitor academy finances more closely, but I was not convinced that academies are intrinsically flawed. Vic Goodard summed it up best. “The accountability of … money needs to be tighter than it is currently” he said. “The structure of becoming an academy is quick and easy, but what happens afterwards is still developing … within that void you’ve got between those two positions, there’s an opportunity for people to make poor choices”.