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.

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.

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

John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and was formerly housing minister, local government minister and financial secretary to the Treasury

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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad