The Department for Education has refused to release names of academy trusts receiving loans or non-repayable grants to help stabilise their finances in the financial year.
My Freedom of Information requests* had been refused on the grounds that disclosing the names of trusts receiving ‘deficit funding’ would likely ‘prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.’ The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA), the DfE department dealing with academy funding, needed to discuss ‘live, complex financial issues’ with trusts and support them in stabilising their finances, the DfE argued.
An internal review upheld this earlier decision. I had argued there was a precedent for releasing the information as the DfE had done so for financial years 2016/17and 2017/18.
The internal review said ‘historic release of similar information’ shouldn’t be regarded as a precedent when deciding whether releasing information was in the public interest. The ‘greater public interest’ was not served if ESFA couldn’t have a ‘safe space’ in which to discuss ‘live financial issues’, the DfE argued.
ESFA already had ‘a transparent mechanism’ to show which trusts were under ‘formal intervention’. These were Financial Notices to Improve which are published online. But many trusts which have received emergency funding have never been issued with a Financial Notice to Improve. These include Bourne End Academy, Collective Spirit Free School (now closed) and Greater Manchester UTC (now closed).
Financial Notices to Improve, the DfE argued, ‘will set out deficit funding that has been, or is about to be, provided.’ But they don’t. They list steps trusts must take to address ESFA concerns and make it clear that trusts are ultimately responsible for ensuring a balanced budget.
Trusts are, in any case, required to publish annual accounts which are publicly available, the DfE said. But trust accounts don’t always make it clear whether financial support has been given. Grants can be lumped with ‘other DfE grants’. And repayments of ESFA loans can be hidden under ‘creditors’.
While accepting that ESFA needs time to discuss any support which might be needed to stabilise academy finances, there is no need to keep it hidden once support has been given. Parents and taxpayers have a right to know if schools are struggling financially. This is especially true as funding for education becomes tighter.