Converter Academies Beware!

Just one year ago Caistor Yarborough School in Lincolnshire was found to be a good school with outstanding features. Then in August last year it converted to academy status. Now, as Caistor Yarborough Academy, it has just been put on ‘notice to improve’. The academy is disputing OFSTED’s judgement – you can read the story here.

What I suspect we are seeing here is not the rapid decline of a good school following academy conversion, it is simply the next step in Michael Gove’s plan for privatising education; stand-alone converter academies will be handed over to the big academy chains. Chains like Harris or Ark. These chains present as ‘charities’ but they all have profit-making arms. Even without the go-ahead yet to run their schools for profit (this will be the next step), there are plenty of opportunities for these organisations to benefit from ‘efficiencies’ they make in their schools. Ark Academies for example, despite presenting itself as motivated by a purely altruistic interest in improving our children’s’ education – ‘an international charity whose purpose is to transform children’s lives’ – does not plough its considerable underspend back into education. No – instead it invests the money in the investment funds managed by its parent company (Ark Academies was founded by hedge-fund managers). This article describes how it operates. Salient points for me include that in 2010 Ark Academies had an operational surplus of £1.8 million but spent £0 on staff development, and if Ark Academies goes into liquidation, the parent company’s liability is just £10.

The weapon that will bring about Gove’s big school and academy give-away is the new OFSTED framework. I believe the new framework has been devised to ensure that just about any school can be found to be ‘not good enough’  – Michael Wilshaw’s preferred term for ‘satisfactory’. Few schools are safe, but stand-alone converter academies are by far and away the easiest targets. Converters have already made the structural change to academy status, parents have already been disempowered and there is no local authority to turn to for support or alternative improvement solutions. These schools may well have been tempted to convert by the promise of ‘greater autonomy’ (although it was most likely the extra cash that swung it), but the truth is, academies are entirely at the mercy of the Secretary of State for Education, who grants them funding (or not as he sees fit), on an annual basis.

I believe we can expect to see many more stories of previously successful converter academies failing their OFSTED inspections in the months to come. I also believe that it is no coincidence that OFSTED is now littered with academy-chain people such as Sally Morgan, an Ark advisor, and is run by former Ark director Michael Wilshaw. There is a discussion on the independence, or otherwise, of OFSTED here.

Further proposed changes to OFSTED from September 2012 include;

  • early full re-inspections of schools that require improvement.
  • a school can only be judged as ‘requires improvement’ on two consecutive inspections before it is deemed to require ‘special measures’

What happens when a school goes into special measures? We have only to look at the story of Downhills Primary which has been unfolding in agonising detail on the parent campaign’s  Facebook page. The school gets handed over to Michael Gove’s preferred choice of sponsor. In the case of Downhills this is Harris Academies, run by Carpetright millionnaire and ‘great friend’ of David Cameron, Lord Harris of Peckham. The Anti Academies Alliance has just published a report on the Harris Federation here

So I will close with a question; Who will Caistor Yarborough Academy belong to a year from now?

Calling all parents, prospective parents and school communities across Birmingham

I am starting a new group to bring parents and community across the city together to campaign for proper consultation on educational change, and I would like to invite you to get involved. As you may already be aware, parents’ experience of academy consultation in Birmingham has been seriously flawed with consultation often taking place after the decision has been made. For a fairly typical example see this post about the experience at Kingswinford School. A few of us have been fortunate in being able to make our voices heard at last – including my school community at Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre, but things are set to get a lot worse for parents across Birmingham.

In the 2011 Education Act the Secretary of State for Education gave himself new powers to bypass governing bodies and impose a sponsor of his own choice on schools. Michael Gove is now ruthlessly using his new powers and his first target is primary schools. My local MP Steve McCabe has written to the DfE to express concerns that the schools are being selected on the basis of out-of-date data – for example on the basis of 2009 SATS results, with subsequent school improvements being ignored. You may have followed the plight of Downhills School in Haringey, which is being given to the sponsor Harris Federation despite being above the government’s floor targets and despite sustained and overwhelming opposition from parents who have not been consulted. On Thursday a Downhills parent posted the following tribute to their (now removed) governing body on their Facebook group;

‘I think the Save Downhills Campaign should place on record its thanks to our governing body. These volunteers have really stuck their necks on the line. They’ve worked tirelessly, they’ve been bullied and bad-mouthed but they’ve responded with reason and dignity. Their principled stand was based on achieving sustainable school improvement – which they’d already proved they could oversee, with standards increasing 24% 2009-11. They dared to ask for evidence that an academy would be better because they have always, always had the best interests of the children at heart.’


Now the Government has turned its attention to Birmingham and our city is being particularly heavily targeted. There is a Birmingham Mail article about this here. This has already happened to one Birmingham school, Montgomery Primary school in Sparkbrook, which is being taken over by the sponsor AET against the wishes of parents, community and teachers at the school. Like Downhills, there has been no consultation with parents or community and their voices have been ignored. Montgomery parent Mohammed Ashraf posted the following account of ‘consultation’ on their Facebook group recently;

‘..we asked for a consultation meeting so parents and community could have an input, that we didn’t get, but instead representatives from the parent group, local mosques and local resident forum were invited to talk to sponsors. I have had an email from the school and have spoken to governors and they have said that if they didn’t make a decision of sponsor a day before ofsted, the school was at risk of going into special measures and the governors being removed and a interim board being implemented (Gove’s master plan) as (with) the school in Haringey, London. So they said they waited to the last moment to give Gove a (chance for a) change of mind.’

Academy status for primary schools is totally untried and untested, but there are now 29 Primary schools across the city being threatened with forced academy status. Parents and community at most of these schools do not even know they are on the list, and the chances are that they will neither be told nor consulted. This is wrong.

The situation is urgent – some of these schools are already in discussion with sponsors while parents are being kept in the dark. We must do something on a wider than individual school basis because individual school communities are being ruthlessly dismissed and ignored. But parents’ voices can be powerful and if we can work together with parents across the city we can make ourselves heard. If you would like to get involved in the new group or would like to be kept updated with developments please email me (Sarah) at

NB. The group is so new that it doesn’t have a name yet – suggestions welcome.

Total loss of confidence in OFSTED

Downhills Primary School in Haringey has improved results by 21% between 2009 and 2011. Last year 61% of pupils reached level 4 for English and Maths – above the Government’s floor-target. This phenomenal improvement was achieved despite high levels of deprivation and an enormous historical funding gap. No wonder the community has such confidence in the school. Yet the Head Teacher has resigned today after OFSTED ignored the facts and put the school in ‘Special Measures’. Meanwhile favoured academies run by the likes of EACT are found to be ‘Outstanding‘ despite results that are considerably below the national average. There can be no public confidence in OFSTED anymore. OFSTED is nothing more than a tool of government being used as a weapon against schools and communities in Michael Gove’s mania to force his academies agenda.

Academies gaming results at twice the rate of other schools

In the wake of the high-profile Downhills Campaign there have been a greater than usual number of stories about academies in the media. Michael Gove’s increasingly desperate (but no less dangerous) tactics in pursuing his vision of a privatised state education system, and the protests this has spawned, have brought his forced academies programme to the attention of mainstream commentators such as the BBC. Here is an example from Birmingham – Montgomery Primary School teachers strike over academy plan. The BBC largely remains stubbornly uncritical of the Government’s policy. Listen to this Radio 4 Today programme for an unashamedly pro-academy take on the Downhills campaign. Newsnight on the 16th January was an attempt at least, at presenting a balanced view, focusing albeit rather poorly, on the very real issue of backdoor selection in academies. The Guardian meanwhile, has been commenting on academies at about twice the usual rate, raising issues such as  undemocratic centralised power, privatisation & predatory chains , unfair admissions, schools run for profit, and OFSTED as an instrument of Government.

When it comes to the forced academies policy, it seems each time the DfE is asked to comment, variations on the same tired old phrase get churned out; ‘Academies are improving results at twice the rate of other schools,’ or ‘Academies are improving their results at twice the national average rate.’ It was always a feeble justification, being a cherry-picked snippet of data presented out of context, based only on data from Secondary schools, and ignoring as it does, a multitude of other factors that ought to be considered when looking at successful methods of school improvement. But, (Michael Gove’s childish name-calling aside), this would seem to be the DfE’s only response when challenged on their aggressive, underhand and undemocratic attempts to force sponsored academy status on Primary schools against the wishes of whole school communities. See Warwick Mansell’s blog post: The very undemocratic process of forcing academy status on Primary schools for a detailed description of how these tactics are played out in practice.

It has long been known that academies’ improved results are not all that they appear to be. The National Audit Office published a report in September 2010 that showed that academies achieve improved results by a combination of entering pupils for GCSE equivalents with higher pass-rates and by changes in their intake – they were found to have reduced numbers of disadvantaged pupils. The NAO findings were based on data from 2006-2009. Here is what the report had to say on curriculum changes in academies;

2.12 Figure 102.12 overleaf shows that, nationally, academies had proportionately fewer GCSE entries in 2008-09 than in 2006-07, and more entries for qualifications equivalent to GCSEs. However, a similar trend can be seen in both comparator schools and maintained schools overall. For later academies, the proportion of entries for GCSEs decreased more rapidly than in other schools, and the proportion of entries to GCSE equivalents in 2008-09 was seven percentage points higher than earlier academies, and ten percentage points higher that comparator schools.

Government officials describe this practice as “gaming” the system in order to climb the league tables. Now, two years later, a release of new data from the DfE in the wake of the Wolfe Report and Michael Gove’s demonisation of vocational education, reinforces and updates the National Audit Office findings. Expert, Dr Terry Wrigley has analysed 2011 exam results and has found many academies’ use of GCSE equivalents to be ”excessive”. He says “This seriously inflates the attainment figures for academies, compared with all schools nationally, creating a false impression that they are successful.” In reporting Dr Terry Wrigley’s findings, the BBC is starting to sound a tiny bit critical of academies – Academy schools: Vocational equivalents ‘inflating results’ and more surprising still, even the Telegraph is having a go. Dr Terry Wrigley’s full report has been published on the Anti Academies Alliance website.

So what of the DfE’s claim that academies are improving at twice the rate of other schools? In fact Terry Wrigley found that the gap that emerges in academies’ results when GCSE equivalents are not included is twice that of maintained schools. So the DfE could more accurately say that academies are gaming results at twice the rate of other schools.

So has the DfE dropped the claim? Well, in the BBC report it certainly seems to have been downgraded. A DfE spokesperson is reported as saying that  ‘academies’ results, including in the core subjects of English and maths, were improving faster than the national average.’

Fact Check anyone?

Update: 21st February 2012

In this report in the Haringey Independent the DfE has returned to making the false claim that “Academies ..  are improving their results at twice the national average rate.”

Academy Applications Grind to a Halt in Birmingham

And a new phase of forced Academy conversion begins

A comparison of the DfE’s latest publication list of schools applying for Academy status  with the list published in August shows that since August only 4 Birmingham schools have submitted applications to become Academies. Furthermore the current list up until December 2011 shows that last month no schools in Birmingham submitted an application at all, not one Birmingham school opened as a new Academy and no applications from Birmingham schools were approved by the DfE.

If this Wikipedia list of Birmingham’s schools is correct, there are 400 state schools in Birmingham – 296 Primary schools, 76 Secondary Schools and 28 Special Schools. Of these, 24 are Academies (7 Sponsored and 17 Converters). According to the DfE’s latest publication there are a potential 12 more in the pipeline. Assuming all 12 convert (which is by no means certain), that will make a total of 36 Academies. That still leaves 364 (or 91%) of Birmingham’s schools yet to convert. By school phase – 61% of Secondaries, 92% of Special Schools and 99% of Primary Schools in Birmingham have not applied to be Academies. Fewer schools in Birmingham have converted or applied to convert than have done so nationally; the Anti Academies Alliance calculates that up until November 2011 58% of Secondary schools and 97% of Primary schools nationally had not applied to become Academies.

This apparent halt in Academy applications in Birmingham tallies with the recent assessment by the Children’s Services Network that the rate of schools converting to Academy status nationally is slowing down. The CSN estimates that at current rates it will take 30 years for every school to become an Academy. The slow-down would suggest that the majority of schools inclined to convert voluntarily, have now done so. This was the opinion expounded at the Anti Academies Midlands conference by National Secretary Alasdair Smith. He explained that Michael Gove is entering a new and much more difficult phase in his mission to make every school an Academy – a phase of forced Academy conversion.

The stick Michael Gove has been using so far has been aimed at Primary Schools and involves a particularly disingenuous use of national averages. If pupils have not made average progress the school is deemed to have fallen below the minimum standards and is pressured into becoming an Academy. Of course, an average being what it is, there will always be schools that fall below it. There are a multitude of reasons why this might be the case, higher than average levels of deprivation and numbers of pupils with English as an additional language to name but two, but the reasons why pupils might have made below average progress are not taken into consideration. This means that even schools judged by OFSTED to be good or outstanding could find themselves on Gove’s hit list.

But the blatant misuse of national average data is not a big enough stick to tackle the huge majority of schools that have shown no interest in converting voluntarily, so Gove has used the 2011 Education Act to further increase his powers to force schools to become Academies. The Education Act 2011 received royal assent on 15 November 2011 and greatly widens the range of circumstances in which the Secretary of State can direct that a maintained school is ‘discontinued’, and thus is replaced by an academy. For more on this see David Wolfe’s blog post Education Act 2011 – Secretary of State gets wider powers to force academy conversions.

Head teachers in Haringey recently made their views on forced Academy conversion clear in a resolution passed in October opposed to the Secretary of State forcing some of their schools to become sponsored Academies. How Birmingham schools will respond to this new phase of forced Academy conversion is yet to be seen, but I for one am looking forward to the fight.

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 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 – 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?

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?

Kingswinford School to convert to Academy after a period of non-consultation featuring no meeting for parents

Governors of The Kingswinford School are intent on pushing through their Academy plans and have announced a date for conversion of 1st January 2012. The decision has been taken despite overwhelming opposition from staff who held a one-day strike on 18th October, and despite serious concerns raised by parents at a public meeting on 27th September about the lack of information and consultation.

I attended and spoke at the public meeting on 27th September. I had been asked to present a parents’ perspective on Academy status. The meeting had been called, not by the school leadership, as might be expected as part of a consultation process, but by staff and parents concerned about the lack of communication, information and opportunity for discussion. It was chaired by local Councillor Tim Crumpton. Incredibly not one single meeting for parents had been held by the school as part of the consultation.

There was an uneasy atmosphere ahead of the meeting, which was being held at a nearby Primary school. There had been pressure in school the previous day from Governors unhappy about the public meeting, and the staff I encountered were nervous about repercussions back in school. There was apprehension that some staff might be too fearful to attend.

At the meeting I listened as parents spoke of having been totally unaware that consultation had even been taking place. They were stunned to discover that the consultation period was due to end the very next day. Parents spoke of having received a letter in January informing them that the school would be looking into Academy status, and that ‘further details and opportunities for full consultation with all stakeholders will be provided in due course.’  One parent explained that they had been waiting for more information, but no further letter had been received.

Before the meeting I had trawled through the school website looking for any references I could find to the Academy proposals. Tucked away towards the bottom right of the school website is a notice about Academy status. To find it, you actually have to be looking for it (as I was). Academy status – the biggest proposed change in The Kingswinford School’s history, a decision that will affect generations of children to come – appears 6 news items down in small font. You actually have to scroll down to find it.  When you click on the link you reach the following cheery message;

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 Governors have taken their decision in the best interests of the students, families and staff of The Kingswinford School.’

As more information becomes available, the Governing Body and I will keep you informed as to the progress we are making with this.

Would you like to give us your views about The Kingswinford School becoming an Academy?

(Followed by a downloadable PDF form and some glib and insubstantial information about Academy status).

Incredibly parents are actually invited to comment on a decision that has already been made. To do so they must have internet access and a printer and a habit of regularly scouring the school website. You could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that governors don’t actually want to hear parents’ views, and presumably, since the decision has already been made, wouldn’t be taking them into consideration in any case. Unsurprisingly we heard at the meeting that only one parental response had been submitted during the whole of the consultation up until that point.

Governors would not agree following the meeting to extend the consultation period, but one parent did succeed in persuading the school to hold a meeting for parents. This meeting took place on the 18th October, but it was labelled as an ‘information’ meeting and was not part of the consultation process as that had officially ended on 28th September. Weirdly the meeting was ‘ticket only’. Could it be that Governors didn’t actually want parents to attend?

A letter has recently been sent by post to every parent promoting the virtues of conversion. I understand that this is the first letter parents have had from the school about Academy status since the initial letter in January informing them that further details of consultation would be provided. No letter was sent out to parents informing them of the start or duration of the consultation, or of how they could contribute. No information was distributed to parents on which to base a consultation. The ‘consultation’ for parents consisted of a hard-to-find notice on the school website inviting them to comment on a decision that had already been made.

The lawyer David Wolfe on his excellent blog ‘A can of worms’ makes the following points about the legal requirements of consultation;

The law lays down some important requirements whenever a public body consults (i.e. they do not just apply to academy consultations). As for what they might mean in the context of consultation about an academy conversion:

  • it is hard to see how an academy could lawfully not consult parents (and potentially pupils) at the school already; also at feeder schools; and indeed those feeder schools themselves; also other, potentially affected, schools in the area
  • those consultees need to be given enough information about what is being proposed to understand why it is being proposed – why do the governors want the school to become an academy?
  • they need to be honest about their reasons; and provide proper explanations for them
  • those explanations need to withstand scrutiny – they cannot be nonsense
  • the information needs to be in a form which people can understand – not technical gibberish
  • people need to be given enough time to digest it; and the opportunity to ask questions and for more information
  • if something changes in the course of the consultation, then the consultation may need to be extended for the fresh information to be provided to everyone
  • the governors need to be open minded on the question of whether to go ahead when they consider consultation responses.

David Wolfe goes on to list the information that should as a legal minimum be provided to consultees;

  • the benefits of converting
  • the disadvantages of converting
  • the extra money, if any, the school would get, and on what basis
  • the extra responsibilities and costs the school would take on
  • the risks
  • the ‘freedoms’ (but asking themselves whether the things they might actually want to do with those freedoms are things they cannot do already)
  • the impact on pupils
  • the impact on teachers
  • the impact on other staff
  • the impact on the community
  • the impact on other schools

I am not a lawyer, but there must be very little doubt that the consultation at The Kingswinford School has fallen far short of this and would be very unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.

The NUT and NASUWT are holding a further public meeting on Monday October 31st at Kingswinford Community Centre, 7.30pm