Schools 'need better monitoring'
Schools are being exposed to "serious damage" because they have been handed much greater autonomy "without a proper strategy" for monitoring their performance, the Commons public spending watchdog warned.
An over-reliance on whistleblowers to expose problems and confusion over the safeguarding role of local authorities had allowed schools - such as those targeted by the Trojan Horse scandal - to "fall through the gap", MPs said.
Education Secretary Nicky Morgan told MPs yesterday that a plot such as that by Islamist extremists to take over schools would be identified and dealt with more quickly as a result of measures put in place since the events in Birmingham.
But shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt said the Government's "chaotic and disjointed" schools policy offered parents and pupils no such certainty.
And a report by the influential Commons public accounts committee (PAC) complained of widespread failings.
The PAC urged ministers to clarify the roles of local councils and others in ensuring the welfare of pupils at academy schools - which have extensive freedom over day-to-day running.
There should also be a "skills audit" of school governors and a full evaluation of the types of outside intervention employed to resolve issues.
Chair Margaret Hodge said: "The Department for Education has focused on increasing schools' autonomy but it has done so without a proper strategy for overseeing the system.
"Its light touch approach means that problems in some schools can go undetected until serious damage has been done.
"Confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the Department, the Education Funding Agency, local authorities and academy sponsors has allowed some schools to fall through gaps in the system, meaning failure can go unnoticed."
The fact that more than a third of schools rated " inadequate" by Ofsted in 2012/13 had previously been rated "good" or "outstanding' and that 1.6 million children were taught in schools in England rated less than "good" illustrated the problem, she suggested.
"Early action to prevent decline or continuing poor performance in schools is rarely achieved. Oversight bodies need to work together to identify problems and intervene earlier in time to challenge and support schools.
"The Department also does not know whether local authorities have the capacity to improve their schools, or what interventions they use and at what cost.
"The Department emphasises performance as measured by exam results and Ofsted inspections. But it relies heavily on whistleblowers to identify significant risks of failure, such as in safeguarding arrangements, financial integrity or governance.
"Whistleblowers were involved recently in Birmingham, where two of the schools at the centre of the 'Trojan Horse' allegations had been rated 'outstanding' and were therefore exempt from routine inspection.
"The failure of the Department and the local authority to identify problems with governors at some Birmingham schools highlights just one risk of not knowing enough about governors."
She said it was especially worrying that " some local authorities do not understand their safeguarding duties towards pupils in academies.
"Local authorities are responsible for monitoring safeguarding arrangements in all schools. However, out of the 87 local authorities surveyed by the National Audit Office, 13 said they did not monitor academies' safeguarding arrangements, and 13 said they would not intervene directly in an academy if pupil safety was threatened.
"It is likely that some local authorities, because of wider messages about academy autonomy, felt that safeguarding in academies was no longer their responsibility.
"We hope that the Department will respond to our recommendations fully in order to reduce the likelihood of further unforeseen school scandals, like the 'Trojan horse' affair in Birmingham."
A Department for Education spokesman said: "This report does not reflect the real picture in England's classrooms.
"Our plan for education is delivering higher standards in schools across the country. One million more pupils are being educated in good or outstanding schools than in 2010, a credit to the hard work of teachers and parents and our strong oversight of schools.
"We have already intervened in more than 1,000 schools over the past four years, pairing them up with excellent sponsors to give pupils the best chances.
"That compares with the years and even decades of neglect many schools suffered under local authority control.
"There are 41 local authority schools that have been in special measures for more than 18 months, compared to just nine academies. In fact, 54 local authorities have never issued any warning notices to schools that are letting pupils down, whereas we do not hesitate to take swift action on under-performance."