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It's time to hold ministers to account for their waste of public money, starting with Gove

The mass expansion of academies and free schools, regardless of need, shows the incompetence and extravagance of the Education Secretary.

Education Secretary Michael Gove leaves 10 Downing Street in central London on November 21, 2012. Photograph: Getty Images.

All eyes are fixed on decisions about the level of public spending in the Spending Review later this month. But how well - not just how much – public money is spent is an equally essential part of sound government finances.   

The Chancellor’s obsession with the politics of austerity and spending cuts means he is overlooking waste, inefficiency and ineffectiveness across government. Labour should make value-for-money central to its Spending Review response and to its alternative for government. We must expose every department to the full force of a value-for-money strip search starting with the inefficiency, incompetence and extravagance of the Education Secretary.

After three years, the evidence on cost simply doesn’t support the government’s flagship policy of mass academies. The independent Academies Commission, in the most in-depth study of the academies and free schools programme so far, found substantial progress among many Labour-era 'sponsor academies', but no marked evidence of improvement in more recent waves. My questions in Parliament have revealed that none of the free schools inspected by Ofsted have been classed as 'outstanding', and a third have been judged as 'requires improvement'. So not only is an academy no quick fix, it is often no fix at all. And it certainly can’t be used as the only answer for under-performing schools.

But the financial performance of policy also demands close scrutiny. Publicly-funded education must come with a guarantee that the public pound is being well spent and that government, parents and pupils are getting good value for money. This is not currently the case.

After axeing investment in the re-build of 735 schools under Labour’s Building Schools for the Future programme in 2010, it took Michael Gove another two years to identify 261 schools he judged in need of the most urgent repairs. Even by the end of this year, 18 months later, building work will still not have started on over 90 per cent of these school projects.

Meanwhile, money has been made immediately and plentifully available for free schools. We face a crisis in school places, with a quarter of a million more needed by the start of the 2014 school year. Yet evidence suggests new free schools are not all being targeted at the areas that most need school places. More than half of the first wave were opened in the country's least deprived areas and recent research by the National Union of Teachers has suggested that millions of pounds are being wasted on new free schools in areas that already have excess places. Such decisions fail the test of good public policy and good public spending.

The government’s ten-fold expansion of academies and free schools brings other value-for-money risks. Academies and free schools receive more direct public money but they have less financial accountability. It is harder to follow the public pound through the system and this can lead to misuse of public money. Examples of malpractice are growing.

The head of the second largest academy provider E-ACT recently stood down after serious concerns were raised about financial irregularities and extravagance. Before that, the CEO of the Priory Federation of Academies Trust was forced to resign after siphoning off school funds. Lax controls and light-touch reporting requirements add to the risk that public money may be misspent in free schools and academies.

There is also no sound control over salary escalation in the academies system, with top pay starting to spiral up. The CEOs of E-ACT and the Priory were earning £300,000 and £200,000 a year respectively when they stood down, while data from the School Workforce Census reveals that the average pay for academy and free school principals is now almost £7,000 a year higher than other school heads. No one becomes a better head or does a tougher job just because the structure of their school changes.

The National Audit Office also reports academy costs being driven up by the lack of local authority bulk purchasing power which has resulted in many schools spending more money on buying their own services such as insurance and ICT (NAO, Managing the expansion of the academies programme, p. 36) Some academy chains are outsourcing school management functions to private companies, including services from the profit-making arms of their own sponsors or academy trusts. The risks of inefficiency, profit-taking and conflicts of interest are all obvious but obscured by a lack of public reporting and almost no school-level financial data for local authority maintained schools on the one hand, and academies and free schools on the other.

This lack of transparency makes it all but impossible to know whether or not individual academies and free schools are providing value for money, especially compared to established schools that choose to remain a part of the local education authority.

If people see or suspect that public money is being misspent or failing to bring the benefits that politicians claim, they lose faith in the policy. And if the Chancellor won’t hold his cabinet colleagues to account for their waste of the public’s money, then Labour must.