Sweeping it under the carpet?

The Harris Academy Trust accounts are revealing – just a short read and you’ll be shocked when you realise the amounts of public money being spent on redundancy payments and executive pay (£20K annual  pay rise for top man Moynihan). And you thought your taxes were being used to educate children!


Failure of academies policy – as predicted

This is the view from The Observer, 28 January:

“This week, the Observer reveals six out of 10 of the biggest academy trusts have raised serious concerns about a lack of school funding. Schools in England are facing an average 6.5% fall in real per-pupil funding by 2019-20, the steepest cuts since the 1970s. They come on top of the £3bn of annual savings schools need to find in order to counteract the impact of the rising costs of inflation, pensions and recruitment, which the National Audit Office says amounts to a further 8% reduction in per-pupil funding: a massive, under-the-radar decrease in school resources. Little wonder, then, that last year 5,000 headteachers wrote to Philip Hammondwith a “desperate” plea for more cash.

But the alarm bell being sounded by these academy trusts suggests questions that go beyond the funding challenge facing schools. It raises the spectre of what would happen if a major academy chain were to go bust.

Since 2010, the main thrust of government schools policy has been to convert council-run schools into academies run by independent trusts. More than half of secondary schools are now academies, a huge structural reorganisation that dwarfs anything that has gone before. The basis of the government’s school improvement policy is that poorly performing schools should be taken over by high-performing academy chains.

But converting huge numbers of schools into academies has not achieved anything other than removing them from local democratic accountability. There is no evidence that, on average, academy chains do any better at managing schools than the local authorities they replaced. Instead, the reforms have created a structural mess, opening up profound gaps in accountability and governance.”

Sixth Form Colleges

It’s barely a week since the ‘spending review’ and already the discussion has moved on, overtaken by other momentous events. So, not unnaturally, some of the more obscure details – beyond ‘the cuts that didn’t happen’ – in Child Tax Credits and the police – never got a mention at the time and now probably will only surface on specialist blogs like this one.

For a number of years, there has been an anomaly in education funding, whereby schools were exempt from VAT, with the exception of Sixth Form Colleges. On the face of it, it would seem a simple ‘mistake’ for a chancellor to put right, but we have to understand that successive governments wanted to bolster school sixth forms, which have often been too small to be properly viable but nonetheless a badge of prestige for the school, especially in middle-class areas. Sixth Form students also attract a larger per capita funding.

Being part of an 11-18 school, continuing with teachers who already know you, being part of a smaller entity, has an appeal to some students; for others, a move to a bigger institution, akin almost to a small university, where the teachers only teach post-16 courses, is a more attractive option.

George Osborne could have responded easily to those who have been campaigning for the removal of the VAT anomaly from Sixth Form Colleges by, well, simply removing it. Instead, he has chosen a cynical course to push more institutions down the academisation route: Sixth Form Colleges are now permitted to become academies, and thus, save themselves paying VAT. Cash-strapped college principals will find themselves with little alternative.

We are bound to ask why, if, as this government frequently claims, academies are the best way forward for all, they have to practise this kind of financial arm-twisting to bring it about?



The election, schools, pupils, teachers – and HOOS

This Hands Off Our Schools group has no party-political affiliation. We are under no illusions that, had Labour won the election, the picture would have been rosy and we could have cheerfully disbanded! Labour had not seriously opposed some of the Coalition’s biggest reforms to education, whilst in opposition. During the election campaign, they rubbished the ‘unqualified teacher’ nonsense and said they would halt new ‘free schools’, although they also had plans for something that sounded remarkably similar. ‘Academisation’ would no doubt have become entrenched. Education did not play a large part in the campaign and it’s doubtful that many people voted Conservative because of their policies on education.

Still, the Conservatives have won an overall majority and can therefore claim a ‘mandate’ for those policies, even if most voters would probably be unable to tell you what they are. The ‘opting out’ of community schools to become academies will probably now accelerate – perhaps some were hanging back to await the outcome of the election – and with continued undermining of local authorities’ finances and the cut to school funding promised by the Conservatives (Cameron pledged a cash-terms protection of school finances, meaning a real-terms cut), schools will desperately seek ways of improving their finances, as they see it.

There will be greater pressure for ‘failing’ schools to be ‘taken over’ by more ‘successful’ schools. The judgement of which schools are ‘failing’ and which are ‘succeeding’ will be based on unreliable data, which in turn will be heavily relied upon by a flawed and often inconsistent inspection regime. In addition, there will be pressure, both political and of necessity, for standalone academies and ‘free schools’ to join chains, thus furthering the vision of a ‘market’ of schools run by unelected edu-businesses, many of which will be headquartered abroad. Perhaps we can expect legislation eventually allowing these chains to be run for profit, or maybe the current rules are so lax that those involved can make enough from the various scams available within the rules to mean this won’t be necessary. It is perhaps worth emphasising here that there is no evidence that academies perform better than community schools, and even, in fact, evidence pointing the other way. This has never been about improving outcomes, but about ideology.

Cameron has promised 500 more ‘free schools’. His arguments that the existing ones perform better and have a positive influence on other nearby schools – about the only mention of education, early in the campaign – has been soundly rubbished by Henry Stewart at Local Schools Network. Again, with the uncertainty before the election now over, we may see the flood gates open for proposed new ‘free schools’ all over the place. Opposing academisations is hard enough since the rules on consultation and openness are so vague as to mean it has nearly happened before anyone out side the school governing body really knows about it, as we have seen recently with Beeston Fields. ‘Free schools’ are even harder to campaign against because, not only can they keep plans secret and consultation is ‘lip service’ only, but there is no ‘parent body’ to galvanise into opposition.

The effect on teachers of increased pressure from inspections, uncertainty engendered by cuts, changes of governance which could, in turn lead to worsening of conditions of service as governors seek ‘efficiency saving’, has already been seen in a looming teacher supply crisis, as more and more older teachers take early retirement and younger ones leave after a few short years. In a ‘market system’, the theory goes, when something is in short supply the price goes up, however, we do not expect that logic to apply to teachers, unless it’s through a ‘divide-and-rule’ plan for golden hellos and retention bonuses in shortage subjects which, of course, we have seen before. There are unlikely to be any even ‘cost of living’ salary rises in the future. The demoralising pressure on teachers and the failures to recruit suitably-qualified ones in some areas will be bound to have a negative affect on teaching and learning and ultimately on pupils. Teachers and schools already struggle to make up for the difficulties many children and their families face as a result of other policies of the Coalition government, which are likely to be exacerbated under a Conservative-only majority government. It is rumoured that even the cosmetic ‘pupil premium’, a LibDem ‘trophy’ policy, is under threat, effectively another cut.

Hands Off Our Schools – and its work to campaign for democratically-accountable schools – must continue. We firmly believe – as implied by our name – that these schools are ‘ours’, meaning, they are funded from public money, they belong to the public and they should ultimately be accountable to us, the public. Anything else risks our education being run by and for the profit of unaccountable individuals and companies. Such people have already shown they can find ways of syphoning off our money – by ‘consultancies’, inflated salaries and extra, managerial posts, unjustified ‘expenses’ and by providing goods and services from their own companies, quite apart from the illegal frauds one or two have perpetrated.

It won’t be easy, but we will continue to oppose them because they are wrong, and we will continue to campaign for a better school system.

Police investigate another academy

The Independent newspaper is reporting yet another police investigation has been launched into financial irregularities at an academy. The Education Funding Agency has started to recover  £162000 from Glendene Arts Academy in County Durham, that was not used appropriately. It’s a familiar story: a private company set up alongside the state-funded academy, for which several school staff worked. Some of the money was then used to pay for things which appeared to have little to do with the education of the children.