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

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