25 Feb 2014

Academy chain E-Act loses control of 10 schools

One of England’s biggest academy chains is giving up control of 10 schools amid concern over its standards, as campaigners say it is more evidence of why academies should be Ofsted inspected.

E-Act is losing control of the 10 schools after Ofsted inspections revealed weaknesses in some E-Act schools’ teaching standards.

The charity was investigated last year over its finances, and its then managing director, who was reportedly on a £300,000 salary, was forced to resign.

The Department for Education (DfE) confirmed that it was looking for a new sponsor for the 10 schools in question, and has not yet named the schools.

The charity will continue to run 24 state-funded school across England, but the loss of 10 schools is thought to be the biggest withdrawal of powers from an academy since the programme was established a decade ago. Two members of staff have also resiged.

These chains are becoming like local authorities, but they’re nowhere near as transparent, in terms of their finances or their internal management. Fiona Millar

E-Act told the Daily Telegraph that it had been “working with the DfE to identify where we are best placed to make a significant difference to our academies”.

The statement added: “Our pupils, parents and staff deserve strong support and leadership. Our focus is on where we can provide this and to allow others to deliver elsewhere.”

The Education Funding Agency (EFA) last year ruled that there was was a culture of extravagant expenses among E-Act board members, and raised concerns over the big sums spent on consultancy fees. The former E-Act director general, Sir Bruce Liddington, was criticised for his £300,000 a year salary in 2010/11.

Ofsted inspections

Academies are government-funded state schools but they are semi-independent with freedom to set their own term times, curriculum and teachers’ pay.

More than half of all secondary schools in England are academies – either stand alone, or sponsored – and the coalition is a big supporter of the policy, along with free schools. But the suspected weaknesses at E-Act will be seen as a blow to the programme, and to Education Secretary Michael Gove’s opposition to academy chains and free schools being inspected by Ofsted as a matter of course.

In early February Lib Dem Schools Minister David Laws added to calls from Ofsted Chief Inspector Michael Wilshaw that all schools should be put under Ofsted’s regular inspection remit.

At the moment, Oftsed can request to inspect batches of academy schools from the same chain, but not the chain itself. Sixteen of E-Act’s schools were subject to Ofsted inspections in recent months and the reports are due to be published shortly.

‘Not a panacea’

Fiona Millar from the Local Schools Network told Channel 4 News that the troubles at E-Act was proof of the need for a new approach to academies: “There’s been this mythology that certain types of school are exempt from any failures. But we’re now seeing comprehensive evidence that academies and free schools are not a panacea.

“Effectively, these chains are becoming like local authorities, but they’re nowhere near as transparent, in terms of their finances or their internal management.”

Another key area of concern for campaigners is that individual schools are unable to withdraw from an academy chain if it has concerns over its sponsor. Ms Millar added: “Some of the schools in the big chains have very little real autonomy and they don’t have the opportunity to leave a chain if they don’t want to stay.”

Sara Tomlinson of the Anti-Academies Alliance said that that academies were “unregulated and unaccountable”, and added: “Really we need to stop experimenting.”

A DfE spokesperson said the decision from E-Act showed that that government had the correct inspection procedures in place when it came to overseeing the academy programme.

“We will take swift action to address underperformance in all schools – no matter who controls them. That is as true for academies and free schools as it is for council-run schools,” a spokesperson said.

“We welcome E-Act’s decision to hand over a number of their academies to new sponsors. We hope this will mean E-Act can focus on raising standards in their remaining schools.”