No such thing as a ‘free’ school

Is this the sort of thing Mrs May means?

https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/feb/22/government-spending-billions-on-free-schools-while-existing-schools-crumble

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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.

NUT’s Louise Regan speaking in Nottingham

Notts Momentum’s next meeting is on July 5th at 7pm at the Mechanics Institute and we will be discussing what a Labour Education policy should be, with Louise Regan, Vice President of the National Union of Teachers.

Venue – The Nottingham Mechanics Institute, 3 North Sherwood St, Nottingham NG1 4EZ
http://www.nottinghammechanics.com/find-us.htm”

I’ve contacted Momentum to say we are trying to get Hands Off Our Schools activities up and running again and to see if Hands Off Our Schools members could attend this meeting. They are happy for us to come along and contribute to the discussion – you don’t have to be a Momentum supporter.

I thought this would be a good opportunity for us to catch up on NUT activities/campaigning against current government policies/debate around influencing Labour’s education policy.

I don’t generally like meeting in pubs, but we could perhaps have a quick HOOS meeting after this meeting eg in the Orange Tree pub around the corner from the mechanics?

Please let me know if you think this is a good idea. I’m going to go to this meetings but am happy to organise a HOOS meeting in Beeston later in July if people aren’t generally happy with suggestion to meet fairly informally on Tuesday 5th after Momentum meeting.

 

Andrea

A NUAST student comments on NUAST

We recently received a comment apparently from a NUAST student, in reply to a post back in November.

As a rule we tend to publish comments without amendment but in this case we have ‘redacted’ the names and subject specialisms of some teachers to whom the student referred, along with two ‘typos’. We have no reason to believe this comment is not genuine. The student is commenting on a post where we quoted a parent who was critical of a NUAST Open Evening she attended with her husband. We recommend you read that post first to get a sense of what the student is commenting on.

“I could not agree more! With me being a current Year 11 student at NUAST, I regret my decision attending. There is no independent learning, and we are often given no choice whether to attend on Saturdays. There are some good teachers though, such as the [subject] teacher [name] and both [subject] teachers. Break and lunch times are short, and the GO-Cart project is not likely to continue.

It is fair to say that me and most of Year 11 and 10 will not be staying for Year 12 and 13.”

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

…and what about 2016?

No predictions – or even ‘resolutions’ – but a few intentions.

During the last couple of months of 2015, we decided to start using social media a bit more so that longer, more thoughtful or detailed pieces can appear here, on the website, and be ‘posted’ on Facebook simultaneously (and on Twitter as well). In addition, some snippets or brief comments will appear directly on our Facebook page. If you’re not following us there, simply click here and ‘like’ so that all our posts will appear in your timeline – and feel free to comment on and, in particular, share our posts so that all your Facebook friends will see them too.

We also have a ‘closed’ Facebook page where supporters can discuss information and tactics. You have to go there and request to join. If one of the administrators recognises you, they’ll let you in (all very ‘cloak and dagger’!)

We intend to try to spread the information we manage to obtain – either from specialist on-line sites or regional newspapers, for example, as well as from our own FoI requests. We hope you will want to spread that information a bit further – indeed, we urge you to do so. The more people know what is really happening in education, the more opposition to this government’s policies will grow.

In the New Year, we have some information about NUAST – obtained via FoI – to share. Look out for it!

 

At the turn of the year…

It has to be said right from the start that 2015 has not been a good year for those of us who defend publicly-accountable education. Obviously the election was a big blow and, although a Labour victory would hardly have heralded the end of campaigning, the Conservatives in government on their own, spells real trouble. The recent election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader has led to a change of heart in the Opposition who have finally come out unequivocally against ‘free’ schools and academies but that will be of little consequence if the Conservative ‘project’ is fully entrenched by 2020,  before any conceivable Labour-led administration can begin to undo the mess.

‘Mess’ is undoubtedly the right word. It has been obvious to many of us from the word go – back in 2010 – and should be crystal clear to everyone else by now, that the Conservatives are intent on changing a publicly-funded and publicly-accountable state education system into a fragmented and privatised (albeit ‘quasi’ privatised) one, but still supported entirely from the public purse. Gove and now Morgan have ignored and brushed aside any objection or evidence-based argument against their relentless drive. We have said many times before but it is worth stating again, in the most straightforward of language: there is no evidence that turning schools into academies makes them any better, or that ‘free’ schools perform better than their Local Authority equivalents. 

The Conservatives are running a two-track policy: on the one hand, teachers and other education professionals are attacked and undermined, not just for their opinions or attitudes but at the most basic level in terms of funding, salaries, pensions and so forth, leading  not only to public confusion and apathy but also to the diversion of union energy from the existential fight over the purpose of our education system. The Conservatives therefore present themselves and their policies as improving so-called under performing schools and teachers: a crusade against children having to languish in failing schools. Meanwhile, their policies stealthily remove schools from local and parental accountability and effect changes to the GCSE syllabuses, even the exam’s grading system (from A* to G to 1-9) and the abolition of the use of National Curriculum levels (chaos and confusion now reigns as no-one seems to know how to communicate attainment to parents or fellow professionals). As so often with any recent government, and certainly with one headed by Cameron, PR is high on the agenda. The most important consideration is, how can we make it appear to the general public? Hence, for example, Troops to Teachers, the approval of the Sevenoaks ‘grammar school’, The National Teacher Service.

Over at OFSTED, Wilshaw appears to plough an independent furrow and occasionally to contradict government policy. Yet his and his organisation’s malign influence is fundamentally assisting in the whole scheme. The changes in the criteria for inspecting schools and judging good from bad have led to caricatures, whereby schools everyone locally knows to be perfectly OK, are damned. Perhaps the cleverest, but most nefarious, move was for Wilshaw to start talking (in his annual report) of the numbers of students in schools that were ‘failing’. In a simple stroke, having reclassified ‘satisfactory’ as ‘requires improvement’. Wilshaw was able to give the impression that hundreds of thousands of children were being badly let down.

Locally, we have campaigned against two local academisations of primary schools (Beeston Fields and Edwalton) and, with the use of Freedom of Information, tried to expose their scandalously pitiful ‘consultation’. The fact that they can so easily get away with this means that, right though campaigners were to rail against Morgan’s removal of even this skimpy veil from the new measures to fast-track academisation, in reality, it makes little difference. We have got the evidence but no-one in the media seems interested – even our local paper didn’t pick it up. Even worse, when we thought we’d got a proper ‘scandal’ (the hasty departure of the Principal of the Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology just before the end of the academic year), the local press – despite requesting and getting our FOI information – let them off the hook.

So, is it all doom and gloom? It does look that way – the only prospect we can see of anything changing soon,  is if the wheels start to come off the ‘Gove-Morgan Project’. There has been a steady stream recently of stories about teacher shortages from a number of sources that are hard to argue against, as these represent the real experiences of head teachers in real schools. The DfE response – that there are more teachers now than ever – seems pretty thin. How long before the shortage raises practical problems and impacts on real students and their parents? In addition, some time in the next two or three years, GCSE results will start to appear in large numbers from enforced academies and ‘free’ schools so that campaigners will be able to demonstrate trends – though these will be hotly contested and ‘spun’ by government apologists – to replace the anecdotes of poor practice we mainly have at the moment.

As 2015 ends, a story reaches us of a mother and son in the teaching profession. The mother loves it so much she was planning to keep going beyond what many would consider a sensible retirement age. That was until a new head arrived in September. Within weeks, all staff had been told they weren’t good enough (they were ‘Good’ at a recent inspection!) and everything is being changed (even an internal wall is being knocked down, courtesy of one of the Head’s builder mates). She apologies to friends that she had barely had time to write Christmas cards in the last few weeks, so busy had she been re-writing schemes, plans etc. Needless to say, she’s retiring at the next available opportunity! Meanwhile, her son, at the start of his career, and into his second year, simply handed in his notice and left at Christmas with nothing else to go to. He cited the mountain of paperwork and a culture of bullying in his highly successful academy as being to blame. There it is, in microcosm: good people being chased away or burned out for the sake of ideological dogma.

Local head on teacher recruitment

One of the many problems our leaders should be dealing with is the looming teacher recruitment (and retention) crisis. Here,  Head of Chilwell School, Ian Brierly, writing in the Nottingham Post a few weeks back, assesses the problem:

http://www.nottinghampost.com/Ian-Brierly-Recruiting-teachers-hard-sell/story-28054823-detail/story.html

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?