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?