Wake up Britain to what is happening to our schools!

Greedy investors have their sights set on making money out of the £53 billion UK budget for state education, and they intend to do this by making ‘efficiencies’. Education is being privatised and our schools are at risk of being run for profit.

I followed a link on Twitter from @Brixtonite this afternoon. Here is the tweet…

The link takes you here.  It is an announcement to investors by the education consultancy Wey Education that they have won a contract to run a school in Mauritius. Scroll down and beneath the announcement is a company summary that includes the following statement:

‘The Company will concentrate on becoming a leading education company focusing on providing a single solution to schools. Wey is responding to the English market opportunity brought about by the transfer of state-run schools to independent charitable entities and the deconstruction of the education function within local authorities. Within the 53 billion pound English education system, the standards achieved by pupils and the rounded quality of the education they receive need to be significantly improved. Additionally the evidential efficiencies that can be made in the operation of schools combine to make a clear opportunity to make a substantial return to investors and improve education in the UK.’

Urgh! indeed. On its homepage in soft-focus pastel letters Wey Education claims that it exists ‘to create a better path for schools, children and parents; to raise the standard of education, providing measurable results in an education environment’. But it is as clear as day from their announcements to investors that what Wey Education is actually about is exploiting our schools for financial gain.

A quick google search for Wey Education threw up this from stock market advisor UKAnalyst.com. They consider Wey Education to be a good ‘speculative buy’ and make the following assessment in support of Wey as their ‘TIp of the Day';

‘While Wey Education has a limited trading history, it has a number of attractions. Firstly, the UK market for education is massive. According to estimates from the company, the government currently spends around GBP16.8 billion per annum on secondary schools and GBP15.2 billion on primary schools. In contrast to universities, the schools budget was relatively untouched by Chancellor Osborne’s Comprehensive Spending Review last October. In addition, the firm has good opportunities to take advantage of recent changes made by the Coalition government which will allow for more private sector involvement in state funded schools.’

In his paper ‘The Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government’s ”free schools” in England Educational Review, 63(4).’ Birmingham City University academic Richard Hatcher evaluates the evidence for the performance of the models on which the free schools policy is based: charter schools in the US, free schools in Sweden, and Labour’s academies. Factors affecting the future trajectory of the free school initiative are discussed, including the opportunities for private companies to set up and run free schools for profit. Richard Hatcher cites Wey Education as an example of a business seeking to run schools for profit;

‘A case in point is Wey Education. Last year Zenna Atkins was Chair of Ofsted. This year she is the chief executive of Wey Education, which aims to run a for-profit chain of academies and free schools. Atkins said, ”When you have a fixed fee for every child set by the Government, who cares whether (the body running a school) is making a profit or not?” ‘

This is the real purpose behind the Government’s Academies and Free Schools programme. It has nothing whatsoever to do with ‘raising standards’ or ‘providing a first class education,’ as the DfE would have us believe. After all, free schools are not even required to appoint qualified teachers. It is about privatisation and opening up new markets. It is about investors profiting from the budget for state education, it is about running our state schools for profit. There is no doubt in my mind that this is immoral, and I think the majority of parents would share my view. In 2011 a YouGov survey of parents found that only 15% thought it was a good idea for schools to be run by private business. But where is the scandal, the indignation, the outcry? Wake up Britain please to what is being stolen from right under our noses.

Ark Academy Bid for Kings Norton High School

The following report of a public consultation meeting at Kings Norton High School was submitted by a father of two young children who lives in South Birmingham, and was originally published on the B31 Blog

ON 10 October 2010 I attended a public consultation meeting at Kings Norton High School on the proposal to turn it into an ARK academy school. I have to say that it was far worse than I had actually imagined it would be!

I had thought that, whilst academies would be a form of privatisation, there would be enough safeguards in place and enough self-restraint by the people running the academies for it to avoid being too radically different from schools as they are currently run. Having heard from the people pushing this academy agenda I now think that is quite naive.

The 1-hour public ‘consultation’ meeting basically consisted of a 30 minutes of an incredibly one-sided sales-pitch given by 4 academy fundamentalists, followed by an attempt to shut down any form of criticism that came from the floor. The academy fundamentalists consisted of the ARK project director, the chair of the governors of Kings Norton High School, the Head Teacher of Kings Norton High School , and another head teacher from an existing ARK school in Birmingham.

The head teacher from the existing ARK school was apparently brought in to give an independent overview of how excellent ARK academies were – the irony that he was a high-paid ARK employee [and therefore clearly unlikely to stray from the ARK line!) was apparently lost on the organisers of the ‘consultation’. Indeed, the ARK school head teacher didn’t fail to disappoint – his opening sentence was “I can honestly say that becoming an ARK academy school is the best thing that has happened to our school in its history”!

The whole ethos underpinning the ARK academies was really quite disturbing – in fact the whole thing seemed incredibly sinister. In what appeared to echo some kind of bizarre 19th century workhouse logic, ARK announced that basically they have decided that if working class children are going to be able to get the same jobs as affluent children then they need to be treated ‘harder’, be subject to greater discipline, and made to work longer and harder than children at other schools. These were pretty much the exact words used (except they talked about ‘deprived’ or poor children rather than working class). ARK schools introduce more detentions, including Saturday morning detentions, simplify the process of handing out detentions, and extend the school timetable so that it runs from 8.30am to 4.30pm or 5pm. So it’s basically work harder, experience more discipline, and work longer. This disciplinarian approach was fully endorsed by the ARK head teacher, without any mention or question of whether it might have any detrimental effect.

During the meeting, the question of who was funding ARK came up – and especially the rumour that ARK was funded by hedge-fund managers. In fact, the ARK projects director seemed completely unashamed to admit that indeed this was a charity set up by hedge-fund managers. In fact, it appears that main funding source for the entire charity is an annual gala for the super-rich – http://www.arkonline.org/about-us/news/ark-10th-anniversary-gala-dinner. So, it’s basically some super-rich hob-nobbing event, where the rich devise and fund projects to take their draconian disciplinarian ‘flog them harder’ educational approach to working class schools. That, in my view, is genuinely obscene!

The response by the 4 academy fundamentalists to questions from the floor was in my view quite shocking. The first question from the floor was from a mother who felt that the children might get tired, and not have enough time to relax or play as a result of the extra hours in the timetable, especially if they are expected to do homework as well. As she pointed out, they would be working longer than she herself was as an adult. The head teacher of Kings Norton High School basically responded by saying that if children are going to learn to compete in the adult job market then they need to start learning the skills and behaviour necessary to do so now. When it was pointed out to her that obviously the reason children are treated differently from adults is because they are children and not adults (and they might start adopting adult behaviour when they’re adults, rather than when they’re children) the basic response was an accusation that anyone who failed to stick to this doctrine is letting down the children. In fact this was the response throughout – if you don’t agree to our doctrine then you’re basically responsible for the failure of your own, and the community’s, children!

And failure means not going to University – this is the carrot that kept being dangling under the noses of parents – to such an absurd extent that those on the panel felt inclined to defend the Government’s fees policy. According to this argument, if we just think about it as a debt to be paid off in small amounts over a career, then it’s really not that much after all!

The response to questions on the democratic governance of an ARK academy school was also quite disturbing. The Head Teacher had been talking about how important it was to incorporate parents’ opinions into the running of the new academy. She refused to give any details, for instance, on the new timetable, as she claimed this would be worked out by the school in partnership with the parents. When it was pointed out to her that one of the problems with the academy schools is precisely that parent governors are sidelined, and ARK have a majority on the school board, the ARK project director pointed out that the new governing board will have 1 LEA governor, 1 parent governor, 1 staff governor, 1 community governor, and 6 (SIX!) ARK employees. This she claimed, again without a hint of irony, would ensure a good balance of representation on the board.

It was then put to the 4 academy fundamentalists that this was therefore a form of privatisation. In giving his sales pitch at the beginning of the meeting, the head of the already existing ARK school had spoken about how the parents at his school had taken a vote and decided that an academy was the best way to save their school. It was therefore asked whether there would be a similar vote on what was to be a big decision to quasi-privatise Kings Norton High School. At this point, the ARK Head admitted that it had been a mistake to use the word ‘vote’; instead he had meant ‘consultation’! And, the answer was no, there would be no vote – although no reason was given. Instead, though, the Head of Kings Norton High School reassured us that in a prior parents’ consultation (in which it turned out after some questioning that only academy fundamentalists had been invited to speak on the panel), she had personally asked parents leaving the well-scripted sales pitch whether they now agreed that Kings Norton High School should be turned into an academy – according to her own survey, 90% of parents did agree with her. It was then asked from the floor if it would not be more democratic to have a full referendum of parents, in which the arguments for and against could be aired, and then a decision taken – i.e. not a sales pitch followed by a survey conducted by herself! – the answer to this request was no, there would be no vote for parents on the quasi-privatisation of their school.

The question of staff opinions on the academy was then raised. Some staff were present at the meeting, but it was obviously difficult for any staff opposition to be voiced in a room in which current and future employers were present and making such a strong case in favour of the need for the change.

Finally, having denied that parents would have any say in whether the school would be handed over to ARK, having refused to accept that children should be expected to work less hard than adults, having refused to admit that it was at all sinister that hedge fund managers wanted to use their wealth to buy the right to run schools for working class children according to some kind of workhouse logic, it then transpired in the final question that the Head Teacher had already informed all the parents what uniforms to buy as the transition is due to occur in January 2012. Grinning, the chair of governors announced that he certainly hoped it would all go ahead – so basically the entire public consultation was publicly admitted to being an outright sham!

I should add that the Head Teacher and the chair of governors repeatedly pointed out that Birmingham City Council has failed to properly support Kings Norton High School, and that they felt that the only viable option facing them was to turn to ARK support. Whilst I have no doubt that Kings Norton High School is facing problems, and certainly see no reason to defend Birmingham City Council’s reckless approach to the school, this should not detract from our concern about the way in which control of the school is being handed to hedge-fund managers with a penchant for disciplining working class children.

Can stand-alone Academies survive in a new PR-driven marketplace?

Some ponderings on the following article that was published in TES magazine on 28th Oct;

In a spin over £1m PR bill

The failing Academy chain UCST is intending to spend £1million on PR over the next 5 years.

”The trust’s decision to employ a PR company has been heavily criticised by heads’ and teachers’ unions, which believe public funding is being sucked out of the school system. Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads’ union the NAHT, said money being spent on public relations was money not being spent on “books and teachers”.

The lack of accountability to parents in the way Academies are run is a familiar concern, but this article raises concerns about a lack of accountability to Government;

‘Mary Bousted, general secretary of education union the ATL, said the trust’s move showed there was a growing lack of accountability when it came to how academy chains were spending public money. “It is becoming harder and harder for the Government to track how these charities are spending taxpayers’ money,” Dr Bousted said.

If Michael Gove’s vision of all our schools becoming Academies comes to pass, then this sort of spending on PR will become commonplace, and if Mary Bousted’s concerns are justified then there will be little Government can do about it. It is an inevitable consequence of the privatisation of our state education system in which democratically accountable community schools are replaced with individual and chains of ‘independent’ state-funded schools. These schools are registered businesses and  have to compete as any other business does, in the marketplace. Like other businesses they will have to engage in advertisement and promotion to survive. Schools will sink or swim in a free market of schools. The chain in question has been sinking.

The trust’s academy arm has suffered a turbulent few years. Both of its Sheffield academies were judged to be inadequate by Ofsted in 2009, with Sheffield Park placed in special measures. Then education secretary Ed Balls banned the group from taking on any more schools until their existing academies improved. Last year, a third ULT school, Stockport Academy, was judged to be inadequate, placing the chain in fresh turmoil.’

As a struggling business, PR and advertising is probably critical to the ongoing survival of the troubled chain, but is this really what per-pupil funding should be spent on?

The previous Government banned the chain from taking on more schools, but…

‘ the current Government has lifted the ban on expansion and the trust’s rehabilitation has continued with the announcement that Jon Coles, the Department for Education’s director of standards in schools, is to be its new chief executive.’

It would seem that Michael Gove is pursuing his Academies crusade so blindly that he is willing to facilitate new Academies no matter what the educational cost to our children, and is happy to provide ‘jobs for the boys’ while he’s at it.

Any school considering converting to Academy status needs to ask itself whether individual stand-alone converter academies will be able to compete and survive in this new PR-driven marketplace. What are their chances of avoiding being swallowed up by the monster chains?


Are Governing Bodies equipped to take on the role of the LA?

When a school converts to an Academy the Governing Body becomes responsible for managing a range of services that the Local Authority previously managed for them. But do Governing Bodies have the skills to manage these often complex issues? Do they understand what they are taking on, and have these matters been given sufficiently consideration before making a decision to consult on or proceed with Academy conversion? These are questions that school communities have been asking.

This article in the TES Calls for academy arbitration rise four-fold would seem to indicate that for many converter academies the answer to these questions, regarding HR at least, is no. The article reports that the number of employee disputes in academies so severe that they need the country’s arbitration service to settle them has risen nearly four-fold in the last year.

‘ The statistics were obtained by Jon Richards, national secretary for education and children’s services at Unison, which believes the number of disputes in academies is only likely to increase as more schools convert. “There are an awful lot of issues around equal pay schemes and areas contained in the Education Bill, such as giving teachers anonymity if they are accused by a pupil, which will require very skilled people to deal with,” Mr Richards said. “There are a host of problem areas stacking up. The expansion of the academy programme is creating new employers who quite often don’t know what they are doing.” ‘

The implications for staff of this lack of expertise, many of whom will have been transferred to their new ill-equipped employer under protest, are obvious. But this also has implications for pupils, as poor employers will not attract and retain good staff.

The question that this article raises for me is what other new responsibilities might Academy Governors also be struggling with? The National Governors Association lists the following additional services that the school may become responsible for as an Academy;

SEN support services for non-statemented pupils, behaviour support services, school meals and milk and the assessment of free school meals eligibility, kitchen maintenance and repair, museum and library services, licences and subscriptions, central staff costs (e.g. maternity cover, trade union cover, long term sickness), cost of terminating employment, school improvement services, education welfare services, pupil support (e.g. clothing grants), music services, visual and performing arts services, outdoor education services, monitoring of national curriculum assessments.

Clearly inexperienced management of any one of these will be bad news for pupils.

Backdoor Selection

A conversation I had this summer with a fellow parent was brought to mind when I read this article about Stoke-on-Trent City Council’s concerns that Academies will exclude the pupils they don’t want and refuse to accept pupils excluded from other schools, creating ‘ghettos’ of excluded pupils in other schools. The parent I was chatting to happened to work for school admissions at Birmingham Local Authority. When I told her about my campaign against Bournville School, she described to me the impossibility of dealing with the city’s Academies when seeking to place excluded pupils. She explained that the Academies simply fail to respond and refuse to be available to take her calls. Similar frustrations are echoed in the article, which quotes Councillor Terry Crowe as saying “I’ve seen how academies can be a law unto themselves. We have to live with that, but we also have to protect the interests of all students in Stoke-on-Trent.”

The article  also makes the worrying suggestion that under-performing pupils may be at risk of being unfairly excluded by academies;

”Former Blurton High governor and city councillor Brian Ward has also raised concerns that academies have a motive to exclude under-performing pupils to prove the new system is working.”

If you accept this, it follows that Academies also have a motive not to give places to less able pupils in the first place – that Academies have a motive to discriminate against those children least likely to get the school up the league tables. This would impact on various groups of pupils including children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds and children with special educational needs, and in fact this is exactly what the government-commissioned National Audit Office report into Academies found. It found that Academies increased their league table results by a combination of changes to intake and changes to examination courses (ie. GCSE’s switched for courses with higher pass rates such as BTECS and other vocational qualifications).

This all adds up to selection by the backdoor, and anyone who values comprehensive state education should be very concerned. There is little doubt in my mind that this explains eamples such as Skegness Academy which has seen a remarkable reduction in the number of children with special educational needs in the space of just 18 months  – see post Dramatic reduction in SEN rates following Academy conversion for school in Skegness.

But how can this be happening when the DfE says that all academies must comply with the admissions code of practice because their funding agreement requires them to do so, and that “Academies must have regard to the SEN code of practice and statutory guidance on inclusion.”? The lawyer David Wolfe answers this question on his blog ‘A Can of Worms’;

”The short answer is that what the Department says, including in legal documents, often glosses over many of the distinctions between maintained schools and academies/free schools and/or between different academies/free school in a way which can be quite misleading.”

David Wolfe goes on to explain that not all Academy funding agreements say that they must comply with the admissions code of practice, and if it’s not in the funding agreement, they don’t have to do it.

With regard to children with special educational needs, David Wolfe says;

‘The obligation to have regard to the SEN Code of Practice and the statutory guidance on inclusion does not apply to all academies – indeed it was not notably even applied to some of the Academies set up immediately following the Ministerial commitments to ensure that Academies would be required to comply with the law relating to special educational needs as it applies to maintained schools.’

At Bounville School the argument for Academy conversion that Governors made most strongly to staff was that the school would be its own admissions authority. Perhaps unsurprisingly this argument did not feature quite so strongly in the case made to parents. Teachers at Bournville school rejected this argument, however. One teacher explained to me ‘The Governors are saying there are some children they don’t want us to teach. We are not saying that. There are plenty of children who are not going to get us up the league tables who are an absolute joy to teach.’

What does the future hold for those children I wonder, in Michael Gove’s vision of every school being an Academy, each one being its own admissions authority?