The revelation that another of the Government's flagship academies is the subject of a police investigation following allegations of financial mismanagement is already fuelling demands for this sector to face a tougher accountability regime. Whitehall, it is argued, can no longer keep a sufficient check on academies, now that their ranks number thousands rather than a few hundred, as was the case under Labour.
It had seemed, towards the tail end of last year, that the Education Secretary had accepted the need for closer scrutiny, given that he unveiled plans to install eight regional school chancellors. Michael Gove's intention is that they will be responsible for monitoring academies’ performance and will have powers to intervene where necessary. But whether this will be sufficient to catch out rogue governors or principals inclined to dip their fingers into the till is debatable.
Labour, which asked a former Education Secretary to conduct a review of school structure, certainly thinks not. In an interview earlier this month, David Blunkett envisaged setting up a network of new bodies – probably at sub-regional level – tasked with a considerably wider remit than Mr Gove's regional commissioners, including spotting failure, monitoring admissions, commissioning services and ensuring financial accountability.
Mr Blunkett has described the current schools landscape as "chaotic" – and, indeed, there is widespread agreement with him on that. Sir Michael Wilshaw, the chief schools inspector and head of Ofsted, has described the architecture of the English schools system as “atomised”. Teachers’ unions, too, are united in calling for more accountability for academies and free schools.
On the face of it, then, it would appear that the plan for regional commissioners lacks some of the bite suggested by Mr Blunkett’s proposals – which are due to be unveiled officially next month. Of course, whatever the preferred solution – and it is easy to conjure up a picture of something that looks a bit like a local education authority – the remit will extend to free schools as well as academies. It is vital, though, that the Government – either this one or the next – gets it right.
The academies programme, which was started under Labour’s Lord Adonis and then strengthened and widened by Mr Gove, is one of the success stories of the past decade. Academies have seen their results improve at a faster rate than the rest of the state sector and some in the inner cities – notably Mossbourne Academy in Hackney, east London, whose former headteacher is our current chief schools inspector – have achieved phenomenal success in obtaining places at top Russell Group universities for students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
It would be unforgivably remiss if the future of Britain’s many outstanding academies was put in jeopardy as a result of a few individuals whose activities have sparked police investigations into financial irregularities. To ensure such an outcome is avoided, tougher monitoring arrangements should be put in place as soon as possible.