On global campuses, academic freedom has its limits

Kevin Kinser, University at Albany, State University of New York

The Conversation’s international teams are collaborating on a series of articles about the Globalisation of Higher Education, examining how universities are changing in an increasingly globalised world. This is the second article in the series. Read more here.

Last spring, a New York University professor was prevented from traveling to the United Arab Emirates to conduct research. The UAE government did not like his criticisms of the use of migrant labor in the Emirates.

The fact that this academic scholarship was politically unacceptable to the Emirati leadership may not be surprising. But what is important here is that NYU has a branch campus in Abu Dhabi. The university promises that academic freedom will be protected there in exactly the same way that it is in New York City.

It turns out, though, that protection has its limits. As an NYU spokesperson later said, “it is the government that controls visa and immigration policy, and not the university.”

As a faculty member in the United States, I am free to write and speak about any topic. But outside of the US, local laws and cultural prohibitions create a different situation. Plus, governments can use the visa process to keep out people with disruptive ideas. Under these circumstances, academic freedom simply cannot provide the same protections to faculty.

History of academic freedom

Academic freedom has its origins in the 19th-century German universities, where the freedom to teach (Lehrfreiheit) and study (Lernfreiheit) were considered fundamental to the research ambitions of the faculty.

The concept was initially codified in the United States in the early 20th century as a formal rejection of wealthy industrialist control of university activities. In 1900, a faculty member at Stanford University was fired for criticizing railroad labor practices. Several faculty members resigned in protest and began organizing the American Association of University Professors to investigate similar firings of other faculty.

In 1940, the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors and the Association of American Colleges and Universities provided the modern framework for academic freedom that universities – including NYU – still use today.

By these standards academic freedom is considered “fundamental to the advancement of truth.” Therefore, faculty should not be constrained in their ability to examine and explain their subjects.

Freedom within borders

As universities become more and more engaged in international activities, the blanket protections of academic freedom are increasingly difficult for institutions to guarantee.

This is particularly the case for institutions that have opened branch campuses and other foreign higher education outposts. These locations are often established at the invitation and encouragement of local leaders, and many are financially supported with subsidies from the foreign government.

Sometimes this support comes with restrictions as to what subjects can be taught at the outpost or specifications on the students it can enroll. In essence, foreign higher education outposts have less autonomy compared to the home location as a consequence of these partnerships.

The Chinese government has banned discussions of some sensitive subjects.
Rasmus Lerdorf, CC BY

The potential threat to academic freedom for international higher education is clear in countries with authoritarian governments. According to data compiled by my research group at Albany, the Cross Border Education Research Team, the top countries to host foreign branch campus are United Arab Emirates (with 32 campuses), China (28), Singapore (13), Qatar (11) and Malaysia (9). All of these countries have governments that control dissent and have policies restricting freedom of speech and freedom of the press.

Restrictions in many countries

We’ve already seen what the UAE’s response has been to a critical academic voice. But what about the others?

Chinese-sponsored Confucian institutes, which are culture and language centers hosted by universities outside of China, have been criticized for avoiding controversial subjects like the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. The government has also reportedly banned classroom discussion within China of sensitive subjects such as mistakes made by the Communist Party and the wealth of its leadership.

Most branch campuses in China have a senior administrator who represents the Communist Party, and preferences are given to party members in some hiring decisions.

Singapore has been criticized by academics for its laws against homosexuality and restrictions on public demonstrations. Similar charges apply to Malaysia and Qatar. Malaysia sedition law has just been strengthened to counter growing protests over government corruption.

Qatar’s strict censorship laws create circumstances where necessary teaching materials cannot be officially obtained, and criticism of the ruling family carries a steep sentence.

Freedom within campus gates

Nevertheless, international campuses usually have broad assurances from the host governments that academic freedom will be respected.

The reality of academic freedom in international education is actually somewhere in between the extremes of government control and the full ability of universities to protect their institutional autonomy.

My research team has visited over 50 branch campuses in countries around the world, including UAE, China, Singapore, Malaysia and Qatar. We found little evidence for restrictions on academic freedom on the campuses themselves.

Rather, we typically find an academic community that is allowed to debate topics that might be off-limits elsewhere in the country.

This academic freedom, however, ends at the campus gate. A free-wheeling discussion in the classroom cannot continue in a coffee shop. A publication meant for students’ eyes is not meant to be seen by the broader public.

Scholarship should not be controversial

Additionally, certain subjects are not even part of the curriculum, which is problematic.

We know of no scholar of queer studies, for example, teaching in Malaysia or Singapore. The most common subject in international education is business, which doesn’t usually pose a challenge to the existing social and political order.

And faculty we interview usually say the subject of academic freedom simply never comes up – they never run up against a problem, because like most faculty, their scholarship and teaching is simply not that controversial.

Moreover, people working and studying overseas recognize that there are different cultural mores that should be respected. Most, like taking off your shoes before entering a home, are accommodated with little affront to deeply held academic values.

Even ones that would be considered out of place at home, like gender-segregated learning environments, can be addressed without needing to reject the tradition it comes from.

But others truly are a bridge too far.

As campuses expand and establish a global presence, I believe, explicit restrictions on academic freedom should be vociferously challenged. And home campus administrators should not get complacent in the assurances from their hosts about the academic freedom they will enjoy.

It is clear that there are limits to academic freedom in international higher education. But that doesn’t mean that all engagement has to stop.

The Conversation

Kevin Kinser, Associate Professor of Education, University at Albany, State University of New York

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Just how effective are language learning apps?

Mike Groves, University of Bath; Diana Hopkins, University of Bath, and Tom Reid, University of Bath

Around 70 million people – including Bill Gates – have signed up for the language learning app Duolingo. The app has received plenty of media attention, and its creators claim that it can help anyone with a smart phone learn a new language.

The app is free, and promises all kinds of cutting edge features, such as adaptive algorithms to suit users’ learning speed, as well as gamification to boost motivation. They also claim that this app can provide members of poorer communities with access to language learning that would otherwise be denied them; a worthy aim indeed.

For those who haven’t tried it, Duolingo works as follows. The user is introduced to some vocabulary, and then every day they spend a few minutes doing language exercises, such as translating sentences.

There is a level of adaptivity: words that you get wrong come up again and again, while words that you get right come up less often – although they do still appear. This recycling and repetition is a core element of the app – it is what the creators hope will eventually lead to acquisition of new vocabulary. As users complete the exercises successfully, they can move up through the “levels”, and unlock bonus lessons on “flirting” and “idioms”.

Language learning in theory

As experienced language teachers, we wanted to think about whether or not this technology is really cutting edge. Clearly the delivery mechanism is new, and textbook writers would be amazed at selling 70 million copies. But in a field filled with spirited – and sometimes acrimonious – academic theorising about language learning, it’s worth investigating where Duolingo fits in.

The earliest modern language instruction was called “grammar translation”. It focused on translating sentences and learning the rules of the grammar as the primary goal. This type of rote learning is how many people learned Latin – including Monty Python’s Brian. It is also the method used by the teachers of generations of happy English tourists to France, who ended up knowing how to conjugate a verb, but utterly unable to make themselves understood without shouting in a strange type of pidgin English with a French accent.

Not the dative!

After World War II, a method called “audiolingualism” took over. This was based partly on the idea that positive rewards reinforce behaviour, and that rules and patterns form the primary systems of language. The drill – where students repeated sentences over and over – became the main learning activity. The American Army claimed great success with one form of audiolingualism, which become known as the “Army Method”. But it has been suggested that the motivation was more important than the method; and a soldier’s motivation is radically different to a school child’s.

In the context of the classroom, generations of school children sat in rows, chanting grammatically correct sentences after their teacher. But when they went to France, they could say little more than “la plume de ma tante est sur la table” (“my aunt’s pen is on the table”). This didn’t help in restaurants.

Through the 60s and 70s a number of new methods started to come to the fore, often based on a holistic, humanistic philosophy. From a contemporary point of view, these range from the charmingly eccentric “silent way” – where this teacher is forbidden from speaking – to the clearly
charlatan “suggestopedia” approach, where students and teachers are encouraged to have a parent-child relationship, and read out long dialogues to musical accompaniment. Some students objected to being psycho-analysed in class, and others were still unable to order their meal in a restaurant.

Charmingly eccentric.

Communication is key

Over time, a lot of ideas coalesced into what is generally known as the “communicative approach”. This catch-all label refers to methods which prioritise the function of language as communication, not structure. The idea is that, if you are speaking to someone, it’s good to get the grammar right, but it’s OK if you don’t: if you do get the grammar right, but your pronunciation is so bad that the person can’t understand what you are saying, that’s much worse. It’s equally bad if you are so worried about getting the grammar completely correct that you are too hesitant to take part in a conversation.

The great beauty of the communicative approach, or some would say its great failing, is its ability, like language itself, to adapt and adopt new ideas. It brings in ideas and techniques from all the history of language teaching, and as long as they help the students communicate effectively, they are accepted.

So where does Duolingo fit in with this theoretical background? Well, when using the app to learn, say, Italian as a beginner, you are drilled on sentences like “I am the child”, or “I have a bowl”. This is audio-lingual drilling: there is no communication happening. Instead of basic communication, the users are drilled again and again in decontextualised, effectively meaningless sentences.

Unlocking language skills?

But there are two things that no theorist would deny about learning a language: the importance of learning a lot of words, and the need for constant effort. And this is where an app like Duolingo really comes into its own: it reminds you every day to practise, and reinforce the words you have learnt, while encouraging you with virtual rewards (if that’s your thing). Since the chunks of time needed are so small, it can be done in the coffee queue, allowing the users to learn without sacrificing other things in their lives.

We believe that apps like Duolingo can be a useful supplement when you are learning a language – but not a substitute. It can help you learn some words, and some basic constructions, but it isn’t going to allow you to leap into a conversation in a new language. It’s better than nothing, but there are plenty of more effective options out there.

But perhaps we are missing the point. Language plays an incredibly powerful gatekeeping role in many societies. Speaking the right language, in the right way, provides a huge number of opportunities: so we maybe shouldn’t be thinking whether this app will help comfortably–off European tourists to better enjoy their holidays. Perhaps the creators are right, and we should be thinking about whether apps like these can provide any opportunities for those in the world who otherwise have none. If these apps can be used to tackle issues such as global literacy, then the aims of their creators can only be applauded.

The Conversation

Mike Groves, Course Leader of Insessional English (EAP), University of Bath; Diana Hopkins, Course Leader, University of Bath, and Tom Reid, Course Leader, University of Bath

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Gloomy vocabulary in books reflects poor economic climate

Josephine Lethbridge, The Conversation

Literature has mirrored the shifting economic climate over the past century, according to a study published today by researchers in Bristol and London. When times are tough financially, it seems, books gets miserable.

Mood expressed in English language books was measured by recording the frequency of words expressing unhappiness across a database of more than eight million digitised books published in the past 100 years.

This “literary misery index” was found to have a strong correlation to the annual US economic misery index, which is the sum of inflation and unemployment rates.

The researchers found that some periods, particularly the years following World War I, the aftermath of the Great Depression and the 1975 energy crisis, were clearly marked by “literary misery”. The results seemed to follow a pattern of Western economic history, shifted forward by a decade.

The team began to look into this field in a paper published last year. Alberto Acerbi, who was involved in the research, explained the first paper “demonstrated a new methodology. It showed that some clear trends can be extracted from the mass-analysis of digitised books. Now, we are starting to try to explain these trends”.

“Our results show that a robust correlation exists between economic mood, and social mood as expressed in books,” he said. “Given the size of the database we used, one can think about it as a sort of barometer of the general mood”.

The research adds a new dimension to the recent flurry of research into how emotive language online can be used to assess and predict wide socio-political and economic trends. Previous studies have investigated how large samples of language on social media and web search engines can be used to statistically predict future consumer activity, the stock market, and voting intention.

However, by taking this premise and applying it to past literature, Alex Bentley and colleagues’ paper suggests that a much larger range of writing can be opened up to such analysis.

Following the recent mass digitisation of millions of past books, similar research into public feeling in a variety of subjects could be expanded to include a past before the internet.

This would allow cultural trends and moods to be tracked over a much larger span of time than is currently possible.

“We are in the era where non-computer scientists, for example social scientists, are able to work with large-scale inputs of data and test hypotheses that in the past was infeasible,” Vasileios Lampos, who was also involved in the study said.

However, Josh Cohen, Professor in Literary Theory at Goldsmith’s, remains doubtful as to the efficacy of these claims.

“There is the crudest kind of causal determinism at work here, the kind that’s been eliminated from social and political theory as much as from literary studies,” he said.

“The most dubious implication of all is that the ‘misery words’ somehow signify the same things in the same way across all literary texts. Without even the most rudimentary reference to how words signify, their bald presence is almost completely meaningless.”

“The number of texts must be so vast, the variety of concerns so diverse, I just can’t credit the idea that all these different uses of ‘negative emotional’ vocabulary mean the same thing and can be used to substantiate the same claim.”

Of course, an enormous quantity of factors differentiate literature from the kind of word samples used in online language analysis. This means that similar forays into the past may not be so imminent. However, the study certainly reveals the new directions that are offered by this kind of mass literary analysis.

The Conversation

Josephine Lethbridge, Arts + Culture Editor, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Beware the bad big wolf: why you need to put your adjectives in the right order


Simon Horobin, University of Oxford

Unlikely as it sounds, the topic of adjective use has gone “viral”. The furore centres on the claim, taken from Mark Forsyth’s book The Elements of Eloquence, that adjectives appearing before a noun must appear in the following strict sequence: opinion, size, age, shape, colour, origin, material, purpose, Noun. Even the slightest attempt to disrupt this sequence, according to Forsyth, will result in the speaker sounding like a maniac. To illustrate this point, Forsyth offers the following example: “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife”.


But is the “rule” worthy of an internet storm – or is it more of a ripple in a teacup? Well, certainly the example is a rather unlikely sentence, and not simply because whittling knives are not in much demand these days – ignoring the question of whether they can be both green and silver. This is because it is unusual to have a string of attributive adjectives (ones that appear before the noun they describe) like this.

More usually, speakers of English break up the sequence by placing some of the adjectives in predicative position – after the noun. Not all adjectives, however, can be placed in either position. I can refer to “that man who is asleep” but it would sound odd to refer to him as “that asleep man”; we can talk about the “Eastern counties” but not the “counties that are Eastern”. Indeed, our distribution of adjectives both before and after the noun reveals another constraint on adjective use in English – a preference for no more than three before a noun. An “old brown dog” sounds fine, a “little old brown dog” sounds acceptable, but a “mischievous little old brown dog” sounds plain wrong.

Rules, rules, rules

Nevertheless, however many adjectives we choose to employ, they do indeed tend to follow a predictable pattern. While native speakers intuitively follow this rule, most are unaware that they are doing so; we agree that the “red big dog” sounds wrong, but don’t know why. In order to test this intuition linguists have analysed large corpora of electronic data, to see how frequently pairs of adjectives like “big red” are preferred to “red big”. The results confirm our native intuition, although the figures are not as comprehensive as we might expect – the rule accounts for 78% of the data.

We know how to use them … without even being aware of it.

But while linguists have been able to confirm that there are strong preferences in the ordering of pairs of adjectives, no such statistics have been produced for longer strings. Consequently, while Forsyth’s rule appears to make sense, it remains an untested, hypothetical, large, sweeping (sorry) claim.

In fact, even if we stick to just two adjectives it is possible to find examples that appear to break the rule. The “big bad wolf” of fairy tale, for instance, shows the size adjective preceding the opinion one; similarly, “big stupid” is more common than “stupid big”. Examples like these are instead witness to the “Polyanna Principle”, by which speakers prefer to present positive, or indifferent, values before negative ones.

Another consideration of Forsyth’s proposed ordering sequence is that it makes no reference to other constraints that influence adjective order, such as when we use two adjectives that fall into the same category. Little Richard’s song “Long Tall Sally” would have sounded strange if he had called it Tall Long Sally, but these are both adjectives of size.

Definitely not Tall Long Sally.

Similarly, we might describe a meal as “nice and spicy” but never “spicy and nice” – reflecting a preference for the placement of general opinions before more specific ones. We also need to bear in mind the tendency for noun phrases to become lexicalised – forming words in their own right. Just as a blackbird is not any kind of bird that is black, a little black dress does not refer to any small black dress but one that is suitable for particular kinds of social engagement.

Since speakers view a “little black dress” as a single entity, its order is fixed; as a result, modifying adjectives must precede little – a “polyester little black dress”. This means that an adjective specifying its material appears before those referring to size and colour, once again contravening Forsyth’s rule.

Making sense of language

Of course, the rule is a fair reflection of much general usage – although the reasons behind this complex set of constraints in adjective order remain disputed. Some linguists have suggested that it reflects the “nouniness” of an adjective; since colour adjectives are commonly used as nouns – “red is my favourite colour” – they appear close to that slot.

Another conditioning factor may be the degree to which an adjective reflects a subjective opinion rather than an objective description – therefore, subjective adjectives that are harder to quantify (boring, massive, middle-aged) tend to appear further away from the noun than more concrete ones (red, round, French).

Prosody, the rhythm and sound of poetry, is likely to play a role, too – as there is a tendency for speakers to place longer adjectives after shorter ones. But probably the most compelling theory links adjective position with semantic closeness to the noun being described; adjectives that are closely related to the noun in meaning, and are therefore likely to appear frequently in combination with it, are placed closest, while those that are less closely related appear further away.

In Forsyth’s example, it is the knife’s whittling capabilities that are most significant – distinguishing it from a carving, fruit or butter knife – while its loveliness is hardest to define (what are the standards for judging the loveliness of a whittling knife?) and thus most subjective. Whether any slight reorganisation of the other adjectives would really prompt your friends to view you as a knife-wielding maniac is harder to determine – but then, at least it’s just a whittling knife.

The Conversation

Simon Horobin, Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Oxford

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

How should kids learn English: through Old MacDonald’s farm or Ali Baba’s farm?

Joan Kang Shin, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Children love to sing songs. Think about the time when you were a child. What was your favorite song? What songs did you learn at home and at school?

Traditional children’s songs introduce children to the world around them. They do this in a fun and developmentally appropriate way. In the US, preschool age kids learn about farm animals like cows, ducks and sheep as well as their sounds, like moo moo, quack quack, and baa baa through the popular, traditional song Old MacDonald Had a Farm.

Without realizing it, children learn language and content simultaneously. Songs build skills that help children distinguish the sounds of a language, and connect sound to script and assist with vocabulary building.

It is no surprise, then, that English language programs for young children frequently use songs to enhance language and literacy instruction.

Even when teaching children English in other countries, teachers typically use traditional songs from the US and the UK. However, English is the world’s lingua franca, a global language shared by many cultures. It is not solely connected to American and British cultures.

So, do kids around the world always have to sing about Old MacDonald to learn about farm animals in English? Or is there another way?

Global perspective on songs

Since 2004, I have been providing professional development to thousands of English teachers in over 100 countries through online courses and in-person workshops. This experience, primarily with teachers of young learners, has given me a global perspective on English language teaching around the world.

It also inspired me to search for a new approach for teaching English through songs.

Based on my own passion for using songs to teach children language and my interest in other cultures, I began collecting children’s songs in different languages through my global network of teachers.

Although distinctive in their language and melodies, the songs I collected from over 50 countries had much in common. The songs were all short, repetitive, catchy and easy to remember. They played with the sounds of the language through rhyme and rhythm and often had corresponding body movements. They also had common topics interesting to kids, like animals, nature, toys and family.

All the songs shared certain qualities that made them attractive to children. This led me to consider the possibility of using these songs as an interesting and compelling source of cultural material for the classroom.

International children’s song approach

The approach I developed is simple. It combines my research in using songs to teach children with my search for appropriate cultural materials for teaching English as a global language.

Teaching kids through songs from the world.
Murat Yilmaz, CC BY

It is called the “international children’s song approach” and uses songs from around the world to teach English to kids. Children can learn a version of the song their peers are learning around the world. Examples can be found in the English language program I coauthored, Welcome to Our World.

Instead of singing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” to learn about farm animals, children can sing a song in English that originally comes from another country or culture.

For example, children in Turkey learn a song about farm animals through a similar song in Turkish, called Ali Babanın Çiftliği or Ali Baba Has a Farm.

See the original song and a translation in English below.

Ali Babanın bir çiftliği var (Ali Baba has a big farm.)

Çiftliğinde inekleri var (On his farm, there are cows.)

Mö, möö diye bağırır (Moo moo, they go.)

Çiftliğinde Ali Babanın (On Ali Baba’s big farm.)

The melody for Ali Baba Has a Farm is completely different from Old MacDonald; but similar to its American counterpart, the Turkish song has a catchy, rhythmic tune that is repeated with other animals and their corresponding sounds.

Using the international children’s song approach, teachers from around the world can use an English adaptation of Ali Baba Has a Farm in their English language curriculum.

Welcome to Our World. This series for three- to five-year-old learners of English includes 24 songs that originated from 18 countries, such as I Have a Ball from Tunisia, Three Bears from Korea, and Tiny Little Boat from Spain, to name a few.Of course, they continue to learn English through the typical children’s songs from American and British culture, but they also learn through English adaptations of their own as well as other international songs.

English is a global language

English is the most commonly taught foreign language worldwide. Statistics show that there is a “wave of English” building up in this century. This is hardly surprising considering English is the language of science, technology, commerce, diplomacy, tourism and the internet.

An estimated two billion people are learning English — that is, almost a third of the world’s population. In many countries where English is not widely spoken, there are government mandates to teach English as a foreign language in primary schools.

In countries such as South Korea, Turkey and Brazil, many children begin learning English in addition to their native language as early as three years of age.

Whether children are learning English as a second language, or even a third or fourth language, they are being exposed to it at earlier and earlier ages worldwide.

Using international children’s songs from around the world is an effective approach for teaching English as a global language to kids.

Language is a carrier of culture, and English is uniquely positioned to communicate across cultures around the world. Materials to teach it should embrace all cultures.

Why only sing about Old MacDonald and his farm? Why not sing about Ali Baba and his farm too?

The Conversation

Joan Kang Shin, Professor of Practice, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Exclusive: Primary schools could boycott ‘chaotic’ Sats tests

By Helen Ward (TES)
The NAHT heads’ union says schools could refuse to administer the tests if discussions with government are not ‘fruitful’

Headteachers are warning ministers that they could boycott Sats next year unless significant changes to primary assessment begin in the next few weeks.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the NAHT headteachers’ union, has been outspoken about the “chaos and confusion” of this year’s tougher key stage 2 tests.

Now he wants the Department for Education to take action on three key issues before half-term, including rethinking proposals for resits in Year 7, redesigning the reading test and addressing concerns about the use of “secure fit” rather than “best fit” on the writing assessment.

The government also needs to address the inconsistencies between local authorities on how writing is moderated, he said.

Mr Hobby added: “The long-term picture is to sit down and discuss a more coherent strategy for assessment that could take years to come to fruition. But in the short term there are very serious concerns. A boycott remains a possibility for 2017 if discussions with the government are not fruitful.”

His warning comes as the government is preparing to publish further details on Thursday of how pupils performed in the controversial reading, maths, and Spag tests.

Initial results, published in July, revealed that just 53 per cent of pupils had reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths, compared with 80 per cent of pupils who achieved the expected level 4 last year.

‘The tests last year were a shambles’

The government has said that the writing assessment system will stay in place for the coming school year, to give it time to “engage” with teachers before changes are made.

The NAHT’s position is being backed by other teaching unions. Mary Bousted, general secretary of the ATL, said: “The current regime is not fair, valid or reliable. We would be prepared to look at a boycott.

“The KS2 tests last year were a shambles.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “The improvements that we have made to the primary curriculum and assessments will raise educational standards and help ensure all children leave primary school having mastered the basics they need to succeed.”

They added that the DfE was “working constructively with teaching unions” to “ensure this is done effectively”.

This is an edited version of an article in the 26 August edition of TES. Subscribers can view the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. You can also download the TES Reader app for Android or iOS. TES magazine is available at all good newsagents.



Councils ‘should monitor academy cash’

Dixons Academy
Image captionTwo members of staff at Kings Science Academy in Bradford were convicted of fraud

Academy budgets should be overseen by local authorities following a series of financial abuses, say council leaders.

Cash earmarked for education in England is too often “disappearing into the back pockets of those in charge”, says the Local Government Association.

Current scrutiny is ineffective, leaving the media and whistleblowers to uncover fraud, argues the LGA.

The government says academies and free schools are subject to greater scrutiny than council-run schools.

Council leaders are urging Education Secretary Justine Greening to restore local oversight of all school finances “providing democratic accountability so that parents and communities can be confident their children aren’t missing out”.

They say the Education Funding Agency, the official body responsible for the financial oversight of academies and free schools, lacks the capacity “to provide the level of scrutiny necessary to ensure value for money and catch out fraudsters”.

The LGA highlighted two scandals this year at:

  • Kings Science Academy in Bradford where two members were convicted of fraud for transferring £150,000 of government grants into their own bank accounts
  • and Perry Beeches Academy in Birmingham where the chief executive was paid a second salary through two separate companies

In April, a report by MPs on the Public Accounts Committee raised concerns that the rapid expansion of the academies programme in England had made it difficult to keep track of spending and land.

In May, the government abandoned controversial plans to force all England’s schools to become academies.

The Department for Education says all academies operate under a strict system of oversight and accountability which is more robust than in council-run schools and ensures any issues are identified quickly.

“Unlike other schools, their accounts are scrutinised by an independent auditor and we have considerably more financial information about academies than we ever had for council-run schools,” said a spokeswoman.

“The academy programme puts control of running schools in the hands of teachers and school leaders, the people who know best how to run their schools.

“They also allow us to tackle underperformance far more swiftly than in a council-run system where many schools have been allowed to fail for years.”

Gove and Cameron at Perry Beeches
Image captionFormer Prime Minister David Cameron and then Education Secretary Michael Gove were at the opening of Perry Beeches III free school in 2013

Richard Watts, chairman of the LGA’s children and young people board, said: “We are told that academies and free schools are subject to more financial scrutiny than council-maintained schools, yet we keep hearing that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, which has been earmarked to make sure our children get a good education, is disappearing into the back pockets of those in charge.

“The National Audit Office has raised serious concerns about the ability of the DfE to effectively monitor academy trusts’ spending, even before the planned expansion of the academy programme, and we don’t believe it can possibly have effective oversight of spending in more than 20,000 schools,” said Mr Watts, who is Labour leader of Islington Council in north London.

“Centralising control of schools isn’t working, oversight needs to be devolved down to local councils,” he added.