Open contempt…

The government is increasingly emboldened in showing its contempt for parents, the teaching profession – the public in general – and in its lack of regard for evidence.

In pushing ahead with Mrs May’s obsession with reintroducing grammar schools, it ignores a wealth of evidence and even staunch opposition from its own side. The arguments have been well-rehearsed and the evidence widely discussed but just consider this one aspect. If it can’t be introduced ‘at a stroke’ (which it obviously can’t) a piecemeal, ‘free-for-all’ will have a destabilising effect as better-off families seek to bus their children to a new grammar ‘over the border’.

Furthermore, will there be a standard ‘entrance’ like the totally discredited 11+ of old (based on the faked results of Birt’s research) and what will the ‘second tier’ of schools be called, that replace the old secondary moderns? Many questions begged – so many that one guesses it’s not going to happen – but then again, they seem to be pressing ahead.

‘Free schools’, UTCs and ‘studio schools’: increasing evidence of these schools failing and closing, and of public money wasted. Yet, the government is again, pressing ahead with more ‘free schools’. To most of us, the evidence is damning but to the ideologues of the right, the failures and closures are entirely consistent with a free market. On the High Street, we are used to businesses opening and closing with regularity so why not in the ‘market’ of education? Well, we can see why but to THEM it’s just the way the market operates and ‘the best’ will survive. Trouble is, on the High Street, it’s the odd entrepreneur who loses his/her money and goes under, often to try again somewhere else, some other time – with schools, children lose out on their one chance of a good education.

Meanwhile, there is a funding crisis in schools, the combination of Cameron’s cash standstill in spending and rising prices, including rises in NI contributions for staff and the requirement to pay the apprenticeship levy. Heads, governors, parents are all providing testimony of shrinking budgets necessitating drastic action: cuts in support staff, cuts in teaching staff, cuts in curriculum offers, desperate requests for donations from parents to help fund the basics of teaching. The government’s only response is to keep repeating the record amount being spent on education. This ignores the extra that this funding is required to do including not only teach more children but fund the expensive ‘white elephant’ ‘free schools’, UTCs etc – and of course the inflated salaries of some of the Trust CEOs.

Perhaps voters will show their disdain for Conservatives’ actions on education at the ballot box in the forthcoming local elections.

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We’re here – and so is NUAST

You don’t need to know why we’ve been dormant for six months or so – six months in which so much has happened on the national and international stage – suffice it to say we are back and there’s no shortage of things to talk about!

First off has to be NUAST. You all know that the Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology is something we have always opposed: built with £10,000,000 of OUR money on a site next to a very busy roundabout with the major A52 ‘flying over’. It was built with a capacity of 800 as a 14-19 specialist ‘free school’ in Science, Maths, Technology and Engineering. For more details see our many previous blog posts.

One of our main criticisms was that we didn’t see how the academy could hope to recruit enough students, especially at the end of Key Stage 3 when parents and students do NOT traditionally think about changing schools. For them to do so could harm the continuity of their education and of course disrupt the forward-planning of the schools they might choose to leave.

Turns out we were right! By the November of its second year (2015), the Year 11 cohort at NUAST, after quite a few ‘comings and goings’, was set at around 60/61; the Year 13 (Upper Sixth) group was even fewer, down below 20 (we think around 19) after a sizeable proportion had left during the first year. The next ‘wave’ consisted of fewer than 50 in the then Year 10, with, it has to be said, a reasonable number of students into the Sixth Form (Year 12, November 2015). NB These figures reflect information supplied by the academy following Freedom of Information requests.

So, as we expected – and predicted – the sums have not added up. To reach even half capacity NUAST would need to be recruiting 120 or so into Year 10 (rolling through without loss to Year 11), and perhaps 60 into the Sixth Form (Year 12 – again, rolling through without loss to Year 13) consistently. It clearly cannot see that happening and would therefore be in breach of its targets with a risk of the school being lost and turned over to someone else (probably a Multi-Academy Trust – MAT).

NUAST governors (or ‘Board of Directors’ as they are tellingly called) are  therefore proposing a radical change, namely turning the specialist ‘free’ school into an 11-19 mainstream secondary school. These proposals are currently out for consultation – we intend to make a submission (which we have already drafted) and urge anyone else with an interest to do so too, by the deadline of 31 January. We will shortly publish our draft response here but in the meantime, here is a summary of the concerns we have:

  1. Sustainability – what evidence is there that the current parlous state of recruitment will be changed by the ‘conversion’?
  2. Health and Safety at the current site – lack of ‘playground’ facilities for younger children, insufficient ‘spillout’ area for large numbers of children coming and going en masse near a very busy roundabout and surrounding roads, dangerous levels of fumes caused by vehicles entering and leaving the roundabout and accelerating/slowing down to leave or join the A52.
  3. Gender imbalance – currently boys outnumber girls 70/30 – an ongoing problem in STEM subjects – what is NUAST’s plan to address this?
  4. Teaching and Learning – there is no evidence of even a satisfactory level of teaching and learning. As yet the academy has received no OFSTED visit – they have attempted to ‘spin’ last summer’s first GCSE and A level results but in fact the GCSE performance (from a cohort of around 60) was average at best and probably below students’ target expectations based on prior attainment. Any attempt to extrapolate from 2016 results, especially for the Sixth Form with a cohort of about 20, is highly dubious.
  5. Capacity to offer a full mainstream curriculum – the current site offers very poor facilities for teaching PE – it is not clear from the consultation document what NUAST will do to ensure it has the facilities and teaching expertise to offer arts, humanities and languages across five years – the evidence (such as it is) from last year’s results shows that only 3% of students achieved the EBacc.
  6. Ongoing collaborations – it is unclear from the plans how businesses and the University of Nottingham will have ongoing input. Whilst this was offered as a ‘unique feature’ of NUAST, our anecdotal evidence from some students,  is that this input so far has been no better than some other local secondary schools have regularly achieved through good liaison over years. Further, the involvement of the Torch Academy Gateway Trust was set to develop through a ‘merger’ which would also include the Djanogly group, which was initially closely involved in the setting up and running of NUAST. How will that affect the future of NUAST?
  7. Cost – one of our biggest criticisms was the initial cost of NUAST and, in the light of its failure to reach a viable level of recruitment, we presume, continued funding above the level justified by the number on roll. Whilst it could be argued that the proposed ‘conversion’ is aimed at reaching those viable numbers, we foresee a further injection of money will be needed for internal alterations (and perhaps purchase and conversion of outdoor space), staff recruitment and staff training. At a time of real-terms cuts to school funding across the board, how can pumping more money into this school be justified?
  8. Impact on other local schools – NUAST has a history of spendthrift advertising (glossy leaflets to thousands of homes, side of bus advertising, a tram in NUAST livery, newspaper advertising) and of aggressive marketing outside what is currently being seen as its ‘catchment’ area. At best, this marketing can be unsettling and a distraction to other local schools, at worst, if successful, it can affect their forward planning and funding.

Recruitment at NUAST

Hands Off Our Schools has just issued this Press Release:

Press Release 9 January 2016 IMMEDIATE

A campaign group is claiming that recruitment to Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology (NUAST) is “chaotic”, with low and fluctuating recruitment and a significant drop-out rate, that are putting the school at “serious risk of failure”. Secretary of Nottingham-based ‘Hands Off Our Schools’, Colin Tucker, has obtained details of the numbers of students recruited and retained, via ‘Freedom of Information’ requests.

“These show that the school only managed to recruit 67 students into its Year 10 in September 2014, of whom 14 left during the year; others apparently joined and by the beginning of this academic year (November 2015) there were 61 in that cohort. Recruitment into a school whose buildings weren’t even open might be expected to be poor – but it was even poorer during 2015 and the number in the NEW Year 10 (November 2015) is only 48!” explained Mr Tucker.

He went on, “The drop-out rate in Year 12 – first year Sixth Form – was very high. They started with 35 in September 2014 but by November of this year, that had dwindled to just 19! (in Year 13). All the more surprising, then, that numbers in the current Year 12 are high with 92 students. Recruitment is, frankly, all over the place – it’s chaotic. They clearly don’t know from one year to the next how many students they’re likely to have.” During the first academic year, according to NUAST 6 teaching staff also left. “I’m not clear if this figure includes the Principal, Mr Sohel, who suddenly disappeared in July, just before the end of term,” added Mr Tucker.

The ‘HOOS’ group supports schools that serve and connect to their local communities, and campaigns against forced academisation and so-called ‘free’ schools (NUAST is a hybrid of a new academy and a ‘free’ school). Mr Tucker says they have analysed the figures. “It always seemed likely to us that NUAST would struggle to persuade students to leave their current school at the end of Year 9 and that is borne out by the figures,” he said. “Whereas, students traditionally decide at the end of Year 11, after GCSEs, whether to stay in their current school’s Sixth Form or to go elsewhere, perhaps to a specialist Sixth Form College. On the basis of these figures, we can predict that NUAST – which we think is at serious risk of failure overall – may well end up trying to be a Sixth Form-only institution. In which case, it has failed to carry out its purpose. However, we know from staff and parents of established local Sixth Form colleges, such as Bilborough, that they are under capacity and struggling for funds. We can also see that, in three of its four year groups, NUAST is a long way from viable, and can only keep going with heavy subsidies from the tax-payer. ‘HOOS’ has consistently said that the money lavished on NUAST – the original building alone cost £10 million – could have been spent far more efficiently on enhancing facilities and teaching at existing schools.”

ENDS

Annual Report 2015

Hands Off Our Schools

Annual Report 2015

We have continued to meet and discuss issues relating to local schools, especially academisations and ‘free’ schools. We have also conducted campaigns via direct action and through publicity.

  1. NUAST – We were very concerned at the stories we were hearing about NUAST, its numbers and its inner turmoil. We lobbied an open evening in February where we distributed leaflets, spoke to prospective parents and even to the Chair of Governors. Subsequent lobbies did not take place due to lack of numbers. Following a Freedom of Information tussle with NUAST, and some research, we were able to obtain and publish information that we believed to be highly damaging to NUAST; following an anonymous tip-off from a parent we were able to alert the local press to the sudden departure of the Principal; we fed information to the press but were unable to get them to publish the more damaging aspects of the information we received. A further FoI request is being sent to attempt to quantify current numbers at NUAST and examination outcomes. We plan to contact local schools potentially affected by NUAST recruitment and seek support in distributing literature.
  2. Beeston Fields Primary – We learnt part-way into the so-called consultation that academisaton was imminent. We wrote and used Freedom of Information to reveal the shoddy nature of the process which we then publicised. We tried to put pressure on the Governors and wrote to the Secretary of State – a contact which went unacknowledged. Once again, the press failed to pick up and publicise this story and we understand the school has become an academy under the ‘Flying High’ Trust.
  3. Edwalton Primary – Also to be academised with ‘Flying High’, this primary school appeared to be going through the same process as Beeston Fields. We once again wrote and put the case against and also supported a parent who became active but could not drum up enough support for a concerted opposition.
  4. We have kept track, as far as possible, with other plans and developments locally in the hope that, if necessary, we can react to potential academisations or new ‘free’ schools.
  5. The election saw a depressing result for HOOS as the Conservatives have vowed to accelerate the pace of academisations and increase the number of ‘free’ schools. The one ray of light was the change of heart of the Labour Party who now oppose ‘free’ schools and have talked about taking all schools back into democratic control. Groups like HOOS have kept the arguments for democratic control of state-funded schools alive and we must continue to do so.

CT

Press Release regarding NUAST

We published the following Press Release today, 3 August, at 4 pm:

‘Education campaigners are warning of “volatility” at the newly opened Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology (NUAST) with up to a third of students in the Sixth Form having left during the year and staff “comings and goings” including the sudden disappearance of the principal two weeks before the end of term.

“We never thought NUAST was a viable or credible development,” said Secretary of the group ‘Hands Off Our Schools’, Colin Tucker. “We’ve been monitoring it carefully throughout the year. It seems that it has been beset with difficulties. It only recruited 106 students in its first year, in Year 10 and into the Sixth Form and, of course, those students couldn’t use the brand new building on the old Dunkirk fire station site until November. According to figures we have, 36 students began in the Sixth Form and NUAST admitted, in response to a Freedom of Information request from us, that it now has only 23. That means a third of them left during the year. Chair of HOOS, Kat Mycock, commented, “According to the figures NUAST gave us, there are almost double the number of boys attending the academy as girls, which further reinforces the dominance of men in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths, something we thought the academy was actively working against.”

NUAST refused to tell HOOS how many staff have left during the year but according to a parent of a Year 10 boy who contacted the HOOS website, “staff turnover has been so high that he has had several different teachers for most of his subjects.”

Mr Tucker added, “There are no teachers of history or a modern foreign language listed on the NUAST website staff list, meaning students cannot qualify for the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), one of the government’s key performance indicators. The only history teacher was the principal, Mr Sohel, but, as reported in the Nottingham Post already, he disappeared about two weeks before the end of term. His replacement, Bob White, doesn’t seem to have had any experience of senior management at a school or college – in fact, it doesn’t appear, from his public profiles, that he has even had any experience of teaching.” NUAST’s first principal, Ailsa Gough, parted company with the academy during its ‘setting up’ year, several months before it opened and Mr Sohel was appointed.

‘Hands Off Our Schools’, which campaigns against enforced academisation and ‘free’ schools in the Nottingham area, says it has a number of other concerns about NUAST including the fact that nearly half of the Board of Directors are closely linked to the Djanogly Learning Trust, which runs the Djanogly City Academy, rated ‘inadequate’ by OFSTED. The Djanogly Learning Trust is currently barred from opening any more academies. There are also no staff representatives on the Board of Directors.

“We would advise any student thinking of joining NUAST in the autumn – and their parents – to think carefully about the upheavals that appear to have gone on there during its first year, and consider whether it really can deliver what they want,” concluded Mr Tucker.’

See recent posts on our website for the full story.

NUAST : meet the new boss…

Whilst we continue to ferret away to find out why the Principal of NUAST, Mr Sohel, suddenly upped and left (see previous posts for the details) we are curious, naturally, to find out who has stepped in, with very little notice, to take over (‘from 1st September’ according to the NUAST press statement but, in effect, from now, since Mr Sohel does appear to have ‘left the building’ – his name has even been deleted from the staff list – and ‘Robert White’ is signing letters).

So who was available at such short notice? The man in the hot seat is Bob White and, on paper at least, his qualifications do seem to be a good fit. He’s been a Chief Examiner, Principal Examiner and Principal Moderator in Product Design and, additionally, Engineering, Graphics, Systems and Control and Resistant Materials, with the OCR Examination Board for over 17 years. However, inevitably, given the need for him to be available straight away, he isn’t in a managerial post and, according to his Linkdin profile, he doesn’t appear ever to have had experience of running an institution. He operates in the world of ‘education consultancy’, describing himself as a ‘consultant’ to OCR for the past 7 years, and operating as Orston Consulting Lt since 2012 (this Nottingham-based company appears to consist solely of Mr White and somebody who, one assumes, is his wife, who is the Finance Director). Mr White has a BEd from Nottingham Trent and lists his skills as ‘Curriculum assessment and development for University Technical and Technical Academies (of which NUAST is one such) and in liaising with industry partners to develop successful business/educationpartnerships’.

So, in many ways, a good person for NUAST to work with and have on board, though not necessarily as the Principal. Mr White has developed loads of materials and provided in-service training. What is mentioned nowhere is any experience of teaching (it’s not clear that he even has Qualified Teacher Status) and, as highlighted earlier, he doesn’t appear ever to have had any experience of running or managing an institution as large as NUAST aspires to be.

Still, presumably he was available at what we assume was very short notice (no current post to resign from, no period of notice to serve),  he’s local and, as a consultant,  presumably can be hired on a contract rather than be appointed to a post. Incidentally, no question of the post of principal being advertised or equal opps being observed!

It remains to be seen now whether Mr White has what it takes but, in the meantime, we’d still like the real story of why Mr Sohel jumped ship so suddenly.

Flying High

‘New-kid-on-the-block’, the Flying High Multi-Academy Trust, suddenly looks like it is trying to rival local ‘trusts’ such as ‘George Spencer’, ‘Greenwood Dale’ and the burgeoning ‘Torch’. So, we  are going to take a closer look over the next couple of weeks, as the consultation at Edwalton Primary School continues and the process at Beeston Fields rolls on, with both schools set to join ‘Flying High’ by the start of the new school year.

Who are Flying High Trust, what do they believe in, what are they trying to achieve and how do they aim to go about it?

Already, their claims to emphasise close working with parents and the community look a bit hollow considering the less-than-transparent consultation processes at Edwalton and Beeston Fields. Concerns about this lack of transparency have been voiced elsewhere.

We will take a look at the publicly available information and try to make contact. Obviously, we’ll report back. If you are at Edwalton or Beeston Fields,  this will be of particular interest, but any staff or parents at any other primary school in the area that is not already an academy needs to pay attention as who knows where they’ll focus next?

[As ever, if you are involved with the Flying High Trust, or either Edwalton or Beeston Fields Primary Schools, we’d love to hear from you. Whatever your point of view, we will publish it (unless it is libellous or offends good taste!) as we want to encourage an open debate. If you wish to comment anonymously, use the ‘Contribute’ button on our home page – you will need to give your email address to show ‘good faith’ but we will not publish it or identify you if you don’t want us to.]

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.