A couple of guest posts for the next couple of days. Tomorrow, we have Tom, a guy we bumped into at the hustings, who has sent us his take on the event: we’ll post our own analysis when we can (possibly when the tinnitus from the PA clears).
Today, education. Now, as I don’t have kids myself; and my own state education is a fading memory of freezing my arse off in muddy fields, teachers who didn’t get the memo about the abolition of corporal punishment, and former MP Liz Blackman / very likely future cabinet member Vernon Coaker being my teachers; well, it’s a subject I’m not au fait with, apart from teachers not liking Gove very much, and a placard that made me splutter that simply read ‘DEMON POB’.
With the NHS, ask a nurse. With education, get in a teacher. Ahead of a an education hustings next week that Soubry has refused to participate in, we asked a former teacher to educate us on a particularly egregious policy that stomps over democracy and sacrifices the education of our children on the alter of free-market ideology.
Over to Colin Tucker..
Retired teacher, Colin, is Secretary of ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ which campaigns against the ’academisation’ of state schools and the setting up of ‘free’ schools, in the Nottinghamshire area. Many if its members live in Beeston. It has no party-political affiliations.
Have you been consulted?
What would you be expecting if someone said they were going to consult you? They’d put both sides of a proposition then ask you to say which you preferred – maybe, if there were lots of you, there’d be a ballot of some sort?
Well, not if you’re living in the brave new world of ‘academies’ as set up by Michael Gove, Conservative Chief Whip and former Secretary of State for Education.
Take our local Beeston Fields Primary School, which is in the middle of a ‘consultation’ about becoming an academy (a publicly-funded school outside the remit of the Local Authority). Obviously, you knew that much already, because it has been wildly publicised in the local area! You didn’t? It hasn’t? Then read on.
The Governors at Beeston Fields propose it should join ‘The Flying High Trust’ (of which, more later). As a school currently outside the top two OFSTED categories, Beeston Fields can’t ‘go it alone’ as an academy: it has to join a multi-academy trust and, it appears, the ‘Flying High Trust’ approached Beeston Fields Primary. A number of meetings with governors have taken place and the Governing Body has decided that the school will become an academy – part of the Trust – in September this year. At which point, the ‘consultation’ started! You might think this is the wrong way round, but, to be fair, this does seem to be a standard way of proceeding. A consultation is required by legislation but who is to be consulted – and how – is vague. Frankly, it’s no more than a ‘nod’ to ‘democratic process’.
The Beeston Fields consultation seems to consist of a very ‘pointed’ letter to parents from the Headteacher and two meetings for parents on the same day, just before the end of (last) term. The Head’s letter (dated 5 March) would appear to be the first time parents were made aware of what is proposed. It implies heavily that the Local Authority is now ineffective and that schools are expected to look for alternatives. There is much praise for ‘Flying High’ and an invitation to the meetings where questions can be answered and parents can meet representatives of ‘Flying High’. There is no suggestion that anyone will be there to put the ‘cons’ of academisation or that any kind of vote will be taken. There seems to be no acknowledgement that any parent might oppose this move, only that they might need fears allayed and concerns addressed. There’s acknowledgement that staff and the local community should be involved in the process but no clear route for the community to express its views. In an FAQ document on the school website, it is asserted that staff have been involved and ’no objections’ have been raised!
This move to become an academy is, under the law as it now stands, irrevocable but is being made by a handful of people who, in theory at least, might have no connection with the school or the area in a year’s time.
What is this all about? The claim – in the case of Beeston Fields, and more generally – is that it’s all about improving education for the children. It must therefore be stated clearly and unequivocally, that there is no evidence that a school becoming an academy has any beneficial effect on educational outcomes – and neither does the setting up of ‘free’ schools. Gove, Cameron et al have frequently asserted that they DO but their use of statistics is dubious and has successfully been ‘rubbished’ by Henry Stewart at Local Schools Network.
(See http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/05/the-academies-illusion-what-the-data-reveals/ and http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/03/free-schools-policy-exchange-finds-no-positive-effect-for-schools-nearby/)
At Beeston Fields, parents seem to have been kept largely in the dark until they received a – to say the least – contentious letter and invitation from the Head. The ‘consultation’ period runs from 6 March to 1 May (ie eight weeks, two of which are the Easter holiday, but only three school weeks after the ‘consultation’ meetings). Her comments about the effectiveness of the Local Authority and the ‘encouragement’ to seek other forms of support, are misleading and we must take with a pinch of salt her claim that her staff ‘raised no objection’ and ’recognise the benefits’: I know too much about the makeup of small primary schools not to imagine a head ‘telling’ her staff about her plans, to which none felt brave enough publicly to object, and of her taking their silence as assent.
Beeston Fields parents have barely three weeks after the end of the Easter Holiday before this ‘sham’ consultation ends, on 1 May. However, anyone against will be unclear of their course of action: write to the Head or Chair of Governors and receive a ‘There! There! It’ll be alright!’ in return? Organise opposition? Get up a petition? It is, to all intents and purposes, a ‘done deal’.
Still they’ll be joining that prestigious-sounding multi-academy trust, won’t they? Like so many of these trusts, ‘Flying High Trust’ is basically an Outstanding OFSTED-rated school, Candleby Lane, in Cotgrave, which three other primaries have joined with. Despite some high-sounding aspirations on their slick website, they actually have no real record (it was founded in 2012) and nothing like the weight of back-up of a local authority. I know nothing of the motives of the people behind ’Flying High’ but I do know the original head of Candleby Lane is now ’Chief Executive’ of the Trust (someone else does his head’s job). I’ve no idea what he is paid but I do know other local ‘trusts’ that originated with a single person and their school, where the ‘top man’ is paid well over £200 thousand (Barry Day at Greenwood Dale and John Tomasevic of The Torch Academy Gateway Trust) and, for some of us, there is a suspicion that people are following a self-interested agenda that is not entirely motivated by improving education for the masses!
Academies and ‘free’ schools are fairly obviously a significant part of the Conservative marketisation agenda, which believes that ‘the market will provide’. (In fact, they are a continuation of the ’opted out’ Grant-Maintained schools of the Thatcherite era). That might be true of, say, independent coffee shops, but it’s no way for a publicly-funded education system to function. Inevitably, there will be ‘failures’ along the way, which is tough if you’re the coffee-shop owner whose business goes under, but in education it can blight children’s lives (think ‘Al Madinah’ in Derby).
There have also been some high profile scandals such as Jo Shuter, former Head of a school in London, now ‘struck off’ as a teacher because of some outrageous ‘fiddles’; or the former principal of a ‘free school’ in Bradford now facing fraud charges, both at one time highly praised by Gove and Cameron. Elsewhere, within the rules (just) ‘directors’ of these now independent but state-funded schools, find ways of syphoning off our money through ‘consultancy’ fees or by awarding contracts to their own companies. Those of us who spend time digging around in the murky world of academies and ‘free’ schools, keep coming cross Tory donors and fellow travellers who seem to be making a bob or two: funny that!
At a time when we were being told money was scarce and had to be used wisely, billions have been expended on the ideologically-driven academies and ‘free’ schools projects. If a Conservative-led government emerges in May, many observers fear the ‘market’ in education will be opened up and the ‘players’, some of them foreign companies, won’t need to hide behind the front of a ‘charitable education trust’.
A few years from now, who will run Beeston Fields Primary School: the unelected board of a trust based elsewhere in Nottinghamshire, or, following a ‘takeover’, a successor company, perhaps based abroad? Certainly not a local authority answerable to your elected representatives, if the current ‘consultation’ goes quietly through, on the nod.
If you wish to know more about the neo-liberal reform of education, visit the ’Hands Off Our Schools’ website (www.nottsantiacademies.org) or the ’Local Schools Network’ (link above) or the ’Anti-Academies Alliance’ (www.antiacademies.org.uk)
If you wish to take part in the Beeston Fields consultation, email the Head or Chair of Governors, care of firstname.lastname@example.org.