A school near us, Beeston Fields Primary School, is going through a sham ‘consultation’. The ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ group, of which I am currently Secretary, submitted the following letter in mid-April as an unsolicited contribution to the ‘community consultation’. I have sent it again today as there has been no acknowledgement, although a colleague who lives in the ‘catchment’ wrote in similar terms and got an acknowledgement. The process ends this Friday – we have been outmanoeuvred as we didn’t hear about it until after the consultation meetings for parents, (both) held on the last day of term.
“Dear Headteacher and Chair of Governors
I write on behalf of ‘Hands Off Our Schools’, a group campaigning against ‘free’ schools and the conversion of state schools to academies, in Nottinghamshire. Many of our members live, or are based, in Beeston and I should be grateful therefore if you would accept the following as part of the ‘community consultation’ regarding the proposed academisation of Beeston Fields Primary School, and will copy its contents to all members of the governing body.
In the light of my opening paragraph, it will not surprise you to learn that we are opposed to your proposal to convert the School to an academy as part of the Flying High Trust. The only information which we have on which to base our arguments are the Headteacher’s letter and three FAQ documents on your website. It would appear from these that you have not considered the arguments against conversion, or, if you have, you have chosen not to acknowledge or give this information to parents.
I will briefly rehearse these arguments – there are of course many places on the web where they can be fleshed out – I would recommend you start with the Anti-Academies Alliance or the Local Schools Network.
1. There is no convincing evidence that converting to academy status has any positive effect on educational outcomes for children, despite the misuse of data by Michael Gove, Nicky Morgan, David Cameron and the Department for Education in asserting that it does;
2. There are no financial advantages for schools converting unless they choose not to provide some of the support services available from a local authority. There are many issues that a school outside the local authority has to deal with, ranging from building insurance and legal services to payroll and human resources. Have the governors considered what they would do, for example, in the event of serious damage to school buildings as a result of fire or other emergency?
3. The decision to convert to academy status, once made, cannot be reversed, ever, unless and until there is a change in legislation; similarly, there is no mechanism for a school to leave one multi-academy trust and join another one, except by a decision taken by the Secretary of State. This may seem irrelevant at the moment, but it means that you, as a small group of people, will make a decision that will bind a, perhaps, completely different set of people (once you have moved on, resigned, moved out of the area) in the future.
4. There is little doubt that the process of academisation and the setting up of ‘free’ schools is part of this government’s agenda to break up the state school system and, in effect, ‘privatise’ it. There have already been a number of instances of individuals using this system to ‘syphon off’ public money, either through additional or excessive salaries, the charging of unjustified ‘expenses’, the charging of ‘consultancy’ fees and the awarding of contracts to companies connected to those on boards of directors of these ‘charitable trusts’. Of course, I cast no aspersions on anyone currently on the board of Flying High Trust or on your governing body. However, this has happened even whilst ‘trusts’ have had to operate within ‘charitable status’. How much worse could it become if, as certainly Mr Gove wanted, the law was changed to enable businesses openly to make a profit? Are the governors of Beeston Fields happy to be part of this ‘market forces’ project by the Conservative Party?
5. If you doubt the assertions in (4) consider that the process of academisation, sometimes enforced against the organised and clearly-expressed wishes of local parents, and the setting up of ‘free’ schools, has cost a lot of (our) money, at a time when we were being told money was very tight. Given that there has been no proven benefit, why has the Government done this? It seems very clear to us that it has been for ideological reasons.
You need further to consider the effect of joining the education market place. The Flying High Trust may, in the future, by taken over by a bigger ‘chain’. That chain could be owned, as some already are, by a company based abroad. Are the parents aware that, if they are dissatisfied with the Head and Governors, their recourse is not to an elected representative at County Hall, but to an unelected CEO, currently in Cotgrave, and perhaps, in future, abroad (in the USA or the Netherlands, for example) and, ultimately, to the Secretary of State in Whitehall?
6. I assume you have carried out ‘due diligence’ on Flying High Trust. You will therefore be aware how much the CEO is paid (I have no idea but judging from local examples such as Greenwood Dale and Torch, where the CEOs get paid in excess of £200000, it may well be far more than any Headteacher could aspire to); you will know whether any members of the Board are paid as ‘consultants’ or have any interest in companies providing legal, educational, ‘consultancy’ or other ‘services’; you will know what capacity a four-school (soon to be five-school?) primary trust has to support the School, and that this is much more than an entire local authority; I assume you have discussed this with the Authority.
All in all, there is much to be considered, apart from ‘the advantages’, and I sincerely hope you have had someone on the Governing Body at least, playing ‘devil’s advocate’. If you have, why have these considerations not been shared with parents?
I now turn to our second area of concern: the process of ‘consultation’. We do not consider this has been genuine consultation. If it were, the Head, in her letter, would have acknowledged that there are ‘cons’ to academisation, she would not have implied that schools are more or less obliged to move away from the local authority (even though many other Beeston primary schools have not and one of the three secondaries has not). In fact, the contents of the letter are highly ‘slanted’ and make no acknowledgment that any parent could possibly object; nor does it suggest what such a parent should do. There is no inkling of any sort of ballot or even a show of hands at the meetings. The whole process is framed in terms of the governors having made a decision and the parents being able only to ask questions, certainly not to affect the decision.
Our concern over the consultation process is deepened when we consider other aspects. The Head’s letter was dated 5 March and the consultation period began on the following day. I presume this is the first parents knew of the move and perhaps the FAQs were in response to some emailed or written questions. Yet the parents had to wait three weeks for a meeting at which, perhaps, they could raise objections. The meetings took place at the very end of term so there would be minimal chance of parents discussing the issues at the school gate – on return to school, they will now have barely two weeks before the consultation period ends. There appears to have been a carefully choreographed process aimed at minimising the chance that an opposition ‘group’ might form and scupper your plans.
So much for the rather scant ‘consultation’ of parents. What about staff? According to the FAQs, they “have been involved in the process to date and no objections have been raised by them in relation to this proposal and in fact they recognise the benefits”. Forgive me for being cynical, but I am aware of the way some small schools work. Did this ‘consultation’ perhaps consist of an open staff meeting, addressed by the Head and Chair of Governors, where no-one felt able to voice an objection?
Whilst you acknowledge the requirement to consult parents, staff and the community, I am not aware what efforts you have made to consult ‘the community’. Of course, you would need to define what is meant by this phrase and identify those who might be thought to represent the community. That is why we are writing to you. I do not claim for one moment that we represent what ‘the community’ as a whole thinks, but I do hope you have approached other local schools, user groups and community groups in your immediate vicinity.
So, to summarise, we fear you have not properly considered all the issues involved in becoming an academy and we further fear that your ‘consultation’ is based on giving highly partisan information, using a process that is neither transparent nor democratic.
We therefore call on the Governors to:
1. Extend the consultation period until after the outcome of the General Election is clear (we suggest until 1 June 2015). This will also enable you to
2. Publish on your website some of the ‘cons’ of academisation, and/or the web addresses of organisations that can give this information;
3. Publish the results of your ‘due diligence’ carried out on Flying High Trust;
4. Conduct a secret ballot of parents, and publish the results on your website;
5. Conduct a secret ballot of staff and publish the results on your website;
6. Consult properly with local schools and representatives of the local community, and publish a list of those consulted and a summary of their responses.
Unless you are prepared to do these, this group has, and will continue to have, grave concerns about the quality of the process by which you propose to turn Beeston Fields Primary School into an academy as part of the Flying High Trust, and we will consider undertaking a campaign of awareness-raising amongst staff, parents and the community.
Secretary, ‘Hands Off Our Schools’
NB Please note, ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ is a group of parents, teachers, governors, councillors and members of the community, which does not have a political affiliation.”