Thursday, January 27, 2011

PAC on academies: some thoughts on governance and regulation

Today is a big-ish day for education policy. At 11.30am Michael Gove published his Education Bill although the contents are previewed in parts of the media. Until then we can read about the cross-party Public Accounts Committee report on the Academies programme.

The parliamentary PAC report expresses concern over financial control in the academies sector. Unfortunately the headlines have overlooked the good news in the report’s Executive Summary:
sponsored academies… have performed impressively to date, achieving rapid academic improvements and raising aspirations in some of the most deprived areas in the country. In many cases this has been achieved through high-quality leadership, a relentless focus on standards, and innovative approaches to learning and to the school timetable.

However, the Summary goes on to make serious criticisms:

Many academies have inadequate financial controls and governance to assure the proper use of public money, and the Department and Agency have not been sufficiently rigorous in requiring compliance with guidance. In developing a new financial handbook and governance framework, the Agency should make it compulsory for all academies – sponsored and converter – to comply with basic standards of governance and financial management. This should include segregation of key roles and responsibilities, and timely submission of annual accounts.

Academies will have to consider and act on the concerns raised in relation to governance:

We heard evidence of non-separation of roles, for example the chair of the governing body also being the chair of the finance committee, the responsible officer also chairing the governing body, and the responsible officer also chairing the finance committee. All of these roles should be clearly separated. There was further evidence of a shortfall in financial assurance and challenge owing to academies not having audit committees – against Departmental recommendations and Charity Commission good practice. We also heard that not all academy finance directors are CCAB-qualified accountants, again counter to recommendations in the Academies Financial Handbook.

Quite a few academies may not like all or some of these criticisms. It is a fair point that academies may struggle to arrange their governance structures with a standalone audit committee when so many claim that they have difficulty recruiting one governor who is an accountant or auditor. If academies do not move on these issues, they will find that they are censured by the YPLA auditors.

Even without the PAC report, there was a strong case for academies to review and strengthen their governance and financial management. They are high-profile and publicly funded organisations with their reputations at risk if they do not demonstrate compliance with high standards of governance.

(I should declare an interest: I work with academies and provide Responsible Officer services – the quasi internal audit of basic financial controls mandated by the Academies Financial Handbook.)

The report touches on the nature of regulation for the academies sector:

In future [sic] there must be greater clarity about what is required as opposed to what is recommended. Too much in the current framework is permissive, and there is insufficient mandated practice to prevent individual academies adopting practices which do not comply with basic standards of good financial management and governance.

I would agree that there is a need for a clearer distinction between “must” and “should”, particularly in the Academies Financial Handbook. However, I believe that academies should be encouraged and cajoled individually and collectively to raise their standards of governance so that regulatory input can be focused rather than broad-brush and heavy-handed. For a long time I have argued for a code of governance agreed by and for the academies sector leveling-up standards with a “comply or explain” approach. It works in other sectors.

Strangely the report is out-of-date on one issue before it is published when it states:

From January 2011, all academy trusts became exempt charities. This means that the Secretary of State for Education has replaced the Charity Commission in the role of Principal Regulator, and academy trusts submit their accounts to the Department only

Due to delays, the Charity Commission is - for now – the Principal Regulator. Hopefully, when there is a new Principal Regulator (presumably the YPLA and then its successor the EFA), they will use the right mix of regulation, self-regulation and governance to strengthen internal financial control across the academies sector.

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