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?

Seven school governors quit over academy-status plans – Education – Yorkshire Post

Seven school governors quit over academy-status plans – Education – Yorkshire Post.

Some ponderings

Several things strike me about this article in the Yorkshire Post. Firstly, the stunning lack of democracy evident in a process where a decision is made to proceed with Academy conversion in the face of opposition – not just of parents teachers and the community – but of almost half the Governing Body.

Secondly, the phrase at the bottom of the article in which the Headteacher explains that the motivation behind Academy conversion is to “maintain all that is good about Prince Henry’s”. This phrase is becoming very familiar to me. The headteacher of Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre in Birmingham used a remarkably similar phrase ”to preserve all that is good about Bournville”. I heard it again from governors of The Kingswinford School in Dudley and from the Headteacher of Earls High School in Halesowen. Where is this remarkably similar language (used by different schools in different parts of the UK) coming from? Could this phrase be being whispered into the ears of Headteachers and governors by their friendly contacts at the DfE? If so, it must be happening at a  very early stage in the process. Bournville School used the phrase in the very first letter to parents informing them that the school was considering Academy status. I am imagining the conversation goes something like this;

HT: ‘But what reason do we give for converting? We are already an outstanding school and there isn’t any evidence that AS will make us any better’

DfE: ‘Scare them – tell them the LA is in decline, funding is being cut and this is the only way to preserve all that is good about your school’

HT: ‘Brilliant! I’ll draft a letter right away…’

Thirdly, this thought got me wondering just how much involvement the DfE has in the consultation and decision-making process of schools considering Academy conversion, and indeed in the initial decision to even think about consultation. How much arm-twisting of Headteachers and Chairs of Governors might be going on behind the scenes? Does this explain the extraordinary decision taken by Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley to proceed with Academy conversion against the wishes of its own Governors?

Your thoughts and comments welcome.

Taxpayers’ money is being squandered on undemocratic and legally flawed Academy consultations

Today’s Mail Online article about the £18.6 million spent on Academy conversions tells only half the story. What isn’t reported is that schools are receiving conversion grants at a very early stage – before they have even completed the consultation, and the money they spend is not repaid in the event that the school decides not to become an Academy.

During our campaign against Academy conversion for Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre earlier this year, I began to suspect that the school had already received the government’s £25000 conversion grant despite being still in the early stages of consultation. The school had already employed a legal firm for advice and individual governors had mentioned the £25k as being the source of funding.

The DfE makes it clear, however, that the £25K can only be claimed once an application to convert has been approved. An application to convert, furthermore, represents a ‘firm commitment’ on the part of the Governing Body. In order to ensure that this is the case the DfE requires that minutes showing that a resolution to convert has been taken be submitted with the application. This seems eminently sensible, after all it would be crazy to hand out £25k willy-nilly to any school that happened to be considering the pros and cons of Academy status – wouldn’t it?

So how could Bournville already have the £25k if the school was still in the early stages of consultation with governors maintaining they had not made any formal decision to convert? A FOI request revealed that the Governing Body had in fact taken a resolution to convert three weeks before the consultation had begun and submitted an application to convert two weeks into the 12 week consultation. The school defended its actions to parents by maintaining the £25k is provided for consultation and therefore the application had to be submitted in order for consultation to take place. They assured concerned parents that this did not mean they had already made a decision and that the money would not have to be repaid if they decided not to convert.

On 27th Sept I attended a public meeting about Academy conversion for The Kingswinford School in Dudley. I had been invited to speak from a parent’s perspective about the concerns surrounding Academy status. A search for ‘consultation’ information on the school website beforehand revealed that Kingswinford had also applied to convert at a very early stage before consultation had begun. The difference being that at this school nobody was even pretending that the decision hadn’t already been made. Parents were invited via a link on the website (tucked away in a corner that you actually had to scroll down to find) to comment on the decision that had already been made. Any parent that had by chance found their way to this link would have been informed that ‘The Governing Body have decided to proceed with an application for us to become an Academy School. This is a very exciting moment in The Kingswinford School’s history!’ The consultation at Kingswinford was so completely non-existent, that the timing of the £25k grant was the least of anyone’s worries. Stunned parents sat in the meeting – the day before the end of the ‘consultation’ – having been totally unaware until that point that a consultation had even been taking place.

Three weeks later I was speaking at another school’s public meeting – Earls High School in Halesowen. Again Governors had already submitted the application. Just like Bournville School they maintained that the application did not represent a decision to convert, but that it was necessary in order to obtain the £25k grant for consultation.

The DfE guidance on the conversion grant in guidance for schools becoming academies  is clear enough;

Academy conversion expenses

2.28    The school may incur costs on the processes involved in becoming an Academy, particularly for legal advice on documentation and staffing matters, HR advice for the TUPE process, plus the transfer of software licences and data transfer.  There may also be re-branding costs (e.g. new signage and printing new stationery). 

 2.29    You can claim a grant of £25,000, as a contribution to the costs of conversion, which will be paid to the school’s bank account.  This is not intended to cover the whole costs involved, but to be a contribution.  Where a school is involved in a PFI contract and needs additional legal advice, support above this level may be agreed.

So why are schools like Bournville and Earls High misinterpreting the grant as being for consultation? Bournville School’s financial report showed that almost half of the £25k was expected to be paid to the legal firm they had employed during the consultation. Perhaps these schools are acting on the advice of lawyers who stand to gain from the very advice they are giving? When I put this to the Deputy Head of Bournville School he told me I was being cynical.

Why does the DfE allow schools that have made a ‘firm commitment’ to convert to withdraw from the process without repaying the £25k? The 2010 Academies Act is a mass of such inconsistencies, perhaps unsurprising considering the rushed way in which it was pushed through Parliament last year;

The Academies Bill was rushed through Parliament in July, using processes usually reserved for more urgent legislation. … The government compressed the Parliamentary process by taking out the committee stage of the Bill in the House of Commons – an unusual step usually reserved for anti-terror legislation and constitutional matters. It means the Bill did not receive the detailed scrutiny and debate to which legislation of this nature would normally be subjected to before being passed.’  The Reality Behind the Rhetoric, SecEd 2010

Birmingham Local Authority has reported that the advice of their legal team is that the Academies Act is legally flawed. Birmingham advises its schools that to apply to convert before consultation could leave them open to legal challenge, and that to consult on a decision already made is contrary to public law. The National Governors Association likewise urges caution and advises its members as follows;

‘The NGA is of the view that consultation should take place at an early stage of the process before governing bodies have applied for academy status, and that no governing body should submit an application to the DfE unless and until they have consulted their key stakeholders.’  GuidanceforNGAmembersontheAcademiesAct

All three schools mentioned are ‘good with outstanding features’. They are already providing excellent comprehensive education within the Local Authority. They are highly valued within their communities. The parents, students and teachers are not clamouring for Academy status. These schools are not broke. They do not need fixing.

Bournville School has now decided not to continue with Academy conversion. This was a happy result for the parents, students and teachers who campaigned so hard to keep the school for the community. It was a good result for the Governors too, who after all voted 15-2 not to proceed and can now say in all honesty that they have listened to the concerns of the community. Not so good for the taxpayer however, who in a time of cuts and austerity has needlessly spent £25k of the education budget without a penny of that having been spent on any child’s education. As for the legal firm, well they get paid either way.

Sarah Barton

Hands Off Bournville School campaign success appears in the Birmingham Post and Mail today

In the Birmingham Mail:

And in the Birmingham Post:

Bournville School shelves plans to become an academy

Read More http://www.birminghammail.net/news/top-stories/2011/10/20/bournville-school-shelves-plans-to-become-an-academy-97319-29626815/#.TqBXlyF0k1U.wordpress#ixzz1bcNNdSGF

A CAMPAIGNING group has claimed victory for parent power after a secondary school abandoned plans to become an academy.

Governors at Bournville School and Sixth Form Centre announced they were no longer looking to convert the 1,200-pupil school into an academy following a three-month consultation on whether to opt out of local authority control.

Head teacher Barbara Easton confirmed in a letter to parents that the school would not become an academy following a majority vote at a meeting of governors to postpone consideration of academy status until after September 2012.

The decision follows a campaign by parents and staff, which saw also teachers from the NASUWT and NUT teaching unions poised for strike action over the matter.

Mrs Easton said in a letter to parents: “Following a governing body meeting on October 12 the decision was made not to proceed with academy status for the time being.

“It was felt that the school is not yet ready for such a significant change. Thank you to everybody who contributed to the consultation.”

A campaign called Hands Off Bournville School was launched in the wake of the consultation, which included a petition calling for the academy conversion to go ahead only if the majority of parents supported the move.

Members of the NASUWT and NUT teaching unions were set to strike on October 11, but called it off at the 11th hour on understanding that governors would review their position at the meeting.

Parent Sarah Barton, from the campaign, hailed the decision as a “victory for pupils, parents staff and the community”.

She said: “This is a huge relief and shows just how much opposition there was to Bournville School becoming an academy.

“Hundreds of people supported our campaign and teachers put themselves in the difficult position of preparing to strike over it, which is not an easy decision to make.”

A total of 17 schools in Birmingham have converted to academy status since the start of this year, including Aston Manor, Holyhead School in Handsworth and Plantsbrook School in Sutton Coldfield.

Freedoms for schools which switch to academy status include the ability to set pay and conditions for staff, changing the lengths of terms and school days, plus freedoms around the delivery of the curriculum.

Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre Abandons Academy Plans

The Governing Body of Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre in Birmingham has abandoned plans for Academy conversion this academic year. Governors voted by an overwhelming majority at a full Governing Body meeting on Wednesday 12th October to postpone consideration of Academy status until after September 2012. The decision followed months of campaigning by concerned parents and the community. Just days earlier NUT and NASUWT members had suspended imminent strike action on the understanding that Governors would review their position at the meeting.

Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre is a large, successful and happy Community School serving a diverse community in the south-west of Birmingham.

The parent-led campaign group ‘Hands Off Bournville School’ has been fighting Academy conversion since June. Parents’ concerns have centred on a lack of democratic accountability, the lack of demonstrable educational benefits, loss of support from the local authority and unsatisfactory consultation. Things were looking bleak for the campaign when a FOI request over the summer revealed that the application to convert had already been made, despite the consultation being ongoing. Parents were considering making a legal challenge.

Teachers and staff have been overwhelmingly opposed to Academy status for Bournville and saw their opposition as an act of loyalty to the school. NUT and NASUWT members were set to strike on 11th October, but action was averted at the last minute following an undertaking by Headteacher Barbara Easton to recommend that Governors postpone their consideration of Academy status.

Headteacher Barbara Easton has made the following statement in a letter to parents dated 14th October;

Following a Governing Body meeting on 12th October the decision was made not to proceed with Academy Status for the time being. It was felt that the school is not yet ready for such a significant change. Thank you to everybody who contributed to the consultation.

Parents, teachers and the local community have welcomed this as the right decision for Bournville and are over the moon that Governors’ have chosen to heed their concerns.