‘UnBritish’

There are many things to be said about the recent ‘Trojan horse’ furore in Birmingham. Was the original letter a hoax? Had there been a concerted effort to takeover schools? Was this a witch hunt? How well should OFSTED come out of this? And what of the spat between May and Gove?

There are conflicting claims and counter claims so I’ll stick with those where I feel competent to comment. Firstly, there certainly seems to have been something to worry about in terms of the governance of these schools and the influence of parents. Gove cannot escape the fact that the majority of the schools where there appears to have been a problem were academies where, by design, the local authority has no monitoring role and, evidently, Gove and the DfE are too far removed to have any impact. These sorts of problems, along with the money-making ‘conflicts of interest’ reported in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph (see link below) seem to me to be inherent in the set up of academies and ‘free’ schools. It seems barmy that one way being suggested for dealing with the problems is to transfer those schools to another academy chain, this time, presumably, one approved of by the Secretary of State.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10886821/Academy-chiefs-have-benefited-personally-from-schools.html

Therein lies one of the contradictions at the heart of the coalition reforms. Gove has claimed all along that he wants to give greater freedom to schools, their managers and parents, yet, as we have already seen, this freedom is only to be exercised in a way of which Gove approves. There are now many well-documented instances of schools faced with enforced academisation where consultation has been bogus and clearly-demonstrated parental wishes have been overridden. To badly paraphrase Henry Ford, ‘you can have any kind of school you like as long as Mr Gove agrees’. So, it appears from the Birmingham cases, that we can just swap ‘ownership’ around til we get a Gove-friendly lot to manage our schools.

Mr Gove said in his recent ‘Policy Exchange’ speech that children have only one chance at school education, yet in his actions, he shows that he appears to have forgotten that: how else to explain the cavalier approach to the way schools are run? Gove’s is quite clearly a neo-con,  ‘market forces’ approach, a touching faith that competition, choice and ‘the market’ will raise standards. Even if, in the long run, that proves to be the case (which I very much doubt), the logic of this approach is that some schools will suffer turbulence on the way and heaven help the children who happen to be in those schools at that time, getting their ‘one chance’.

Finally, in his response to ‘the Trojan horse’ revelations, Gove has announced that all schools will in future be required to promote ‘British values’. I could spend  several posts unpicking this one. In the first place, it sounds like one of those policitians’ phrases that appeals instantly to a certain type of voter, who believes he knows what it means: remember John Major’s ill-fated ‘back to basics’? This one will obviously tap into a resurgent patriotism, at a time of near-racist comments from UKIP which seem to have touched a nerve, and, of course, the early stages of the World Cup (ie before England leaves the competition!).

Leaving aside what we might interpret ‘promote’ to mean, several high profile people have explained what they understand to be ‘British values’ – I’ve already heard David Cameron’s and Baroness Warsi’s subtley different takes; but, if he’s going to issue an edict, Mr Gove will have to give a clear definition and what will emerge, I daresay, will be a ‘motherhood and apple-pie’ (to use a non-British phrase!) definition with which no-one can disagree – something along the lines of ‘democracy, justice, fairness, tolerance, equality’ which all schools will, with some justification, claim they are promoting  and have for many years.

Anyway, I’ll uncharacteristically give Mr Gove the last word. Here he is, talking to Prospect magazine in 2007: “There is something rather unBritish about seeking to define Britishness.”

 

 

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“You pay, we say”

How galling is it that a government which came in with tales of woe and plans to cut everything in sight because of the apparently dire state of the nation’s finances, has wasted so much on Michael Gove’s pet academies and ‘free’ schools projects? It is one thing to argue about whether they are effective or not (they’re not) but even if they achieved what is claimed for them, they would still be incredibly poor value for money.

Take the Nottingham Free School. This school, as regular readers will know, has been in the pipeline for well over a year and finally, about a month ago, announced that it will open this coming September  in part of an old factory building known as the Courtaulds building and which, for most of us locally, is familiar as the home of a factory shop. So far, so inexpensive, you would think. After all, they’ve shelled out for nothing so far, more than the cost of advertising and setting up a website: a few leaflets, the cost of hiring premises for open meetings in the autumn etc.

Yet, as always, someone (not me) has been burrowing away in documents and websites, statements of accounts and so forth and has found that the parent organisation, the Torch Academy Gateway Trust, and Toot Hill Comprehensive, the academy at the heart of this group, has received £180000 up to the end of January this year, that is, before any work has been done on the Courtaulds building since it hadn’t been announced then. (Maybe there had been a ‘feasibility’ study and an architect’s report to pay for, who knows.)

For greater clarification: Torch received £90000 on 17 September last year from the DfE in the expense area ‘free school group’; Toot Hill school received another £90000 on 28 January this year, again in the expense area ‘free school group’. Toot Hill is the  main school in the Torch Trust and on the NFS website, Toot Hill and its ‘outstanding’ OFSTED rating is heavily used as a way of suggesting the NFS will be excellent. The CEO of Torch has been quoted in the local press as confirming that the NFS and Trent Bridge Free School bid to the DfE, as it was at that stage (October 2012), was financially supported by the New Schools Network, although he didn’t say by how much at that stage. The New Schools Network, quaintly described as a ‘charity’ in the Nottingham Post article, is, of course, a government quango, supported by grants from government (that is, your money and mine) explicitly to support any group wishing to set up a ‘free’ school.

We don’t know whether, in the light of the announcement of the school’s location and the obvious need for refurb and equipment, further money will be forthcoming. We don’t know how many pupils they will start with – estimates vary between 70 and 90, which was the NFS stated aim (originally 120). Normally a school would not receive its per capita funding until the following year but for any new school, ‘pump priming’ is obviously needed. How much, no one at this stage knows but, you can be sure, someone will be doing their best to find out. What is clear is that, so far, without teaching one single lesson. NFS has cost us at least £18000, or, on the NFS’s own figures, £2000 per pupil.

And more on the Nottingham Free School website

I’ve kept looking at this site over recent months and was sure I had seen them describe the non-existent school as “outstanding” but couldn’t find that word used when I looked recently. It turns out I was right and someone had the bright idea (wish I’d thought of it) of challenging this with the Advertising Standards Authority – and won! Which is why the NFS site talks about aiming to provide an excellent education (excellent kind of  means the same as outstanding but doesn’t carry the implication that it’s a grade awarded by OFSTED).

All this is pretty galling because, back in the autumn, the Hands Off Our Schools campaign group distributed a leaflet about the NFS and received a snotty letter from the Torch Academy Gateway Trust, bandying about terms like ‘malicious falsehood’ and quoting obscure sub-clauses of the ASA code. It was, transparently, an attempt to frighten off the campaigners but, with no funding and no tame lawyer to advise them, HOOS backed off. They didn’t do all the things ‘required’ by Torch such as withdrawal, apology etc – they just ignored the threats and, sure enough, none of the threatened consequences ensued. No one  should be remotely surprised that Torch, it would appear, were ‘guilty’ of what they accused HOOS of.

HOOS and I have already made clear that we’re not accusing Torch of being misleading in using a PhotoShopped picture of the building which they will partially occupy in September, or by dressing ‘child models’ in NFS uniforms and photographing them in nice but anonymous  surroundings which can’t be NFS  but,  it might be worth checking what the ASA think.

NFS update

Well, sort of. One of my ‘followers’ points out that, if Torch are to appoint ‘experienced’ teachers for their Nottingham Fantasy School, they’d better get their skates on. The resignation date for teachers currently in post is 31 May so time enough. However, I can’t find any jobs advertised on the TES website so they’ve got to get their act together pretty swiftly after Easter as I think this would give them about six weeks to get applications in, short-list, interview and offer jobs. I’ll keep you posted.

Incidentally, whilst searching the TES site I discovered that Meden School (the OTHER Torch school) is looking for eight new staff including an Assistant Head, a Director of English and ‘Head of School’, that is, a Headteacher, basic salary of £80000. Wonder what’s the story?

A visit to the Nottingham Free School website

I originally posted this yesterday on the ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ website – more of this ilk to follow!

Now that they’ve finally got a building, and it looks increasingly likely that NFS will be able to open in some form or other in September, we need to monitor their progress, since nobody else will (remember, a ‘free school’ is only answerable to the DfE in London).

The first thing that strikes you when you click through the site is the photos, for, as any good PR person knows, a picture paints a thousand words. The images in the main are of happy, earnest children in the NFS uniform (a very practical light grey with light blue piping which screams ‘private school’) but, since there are currently no NFS pupils, who are the children in the pictures? Were they volunteers or paid models?

There are a few members of staff – the Executive Headteacher, an anonymous ‘science teacher’ and a caring ‘pastoral’ teacher – and, again, one wonders who the latter two actually are.

And, what about the settings? Since these pictures have been up for a while, presumably none was taken in or around the Courtaulds building so, where is that science lesson taking place, where is the library and where are the leafy environs where the children are happily playing?

Of course, we are not accusing Torch of trying to mislead by these staged pictures of pupils who are not pupils of NFS in surroundings that are not NFS. It’s just ‘artistic licence’, of course, which is nowhere in greater evidence than in the picture of the Courtaulds building, shown in classy black and white and, what’s this, they’ve already put up the Torch logo and NFS name above the door? Well, no, as they admit on their Facebook page, somebody’s been hard at work with Photoshop!

If you want to have a browse, here’s the link:

http://www.nottinghamfreeschool.co.uk/index.php

and, just to give yourself an incentive, see if you can find the inaccurate use of the word “complimented”. . (Picky? Well, they’re the ones who claim they’ll be an ‘excellent’ school – always check your work, we say!)

That’ll be three million quid, please!

The Discovery Free School, the first ‘free’ school to close, shut it doors last Friday, having been forced to close by the government who had to concede that the school had failed in its fewer than three years in existence. Accounts revealed that this little experiment cost taxpayers over £3 million. Don’t expect Gove or any of his minions to apologise for so recklessly wasting our money. Three million quid: appalling! (Source: Brighton Argus)

Torch salary

The Torch Academy Gateway Trust is the rather pretentious title adopted by the wannabe academy chain of the Nottinghamshire schools Toot Hill Comprehensive and The Meden School in May 2012. The erstwhile head of Toot Hill became the Executive Headteacher and Chief Executive of the Trust. Each of the two schools also has a separate head.

The company accounts reveal that in the twelve months ending 31 August 2013, this CEO was paid in the range £200-205 thousand. That’s for overseeing two schools. Admittedly, during that period he led the Trust in trying to set up two ‘free schools’. One of these, the so-called Trent Bridge Free School, was turned down by the DfE but the other, Nottingham Free School was approved and is going ahead to open this September so perhaps he is being rewarded for his work there.

In the current year, Torch has subsumed Nottingham University Samworth Academy, back in the autumn, just before Ofsted descended on it and found it to be inadequate. So presumably this CEO will be expecting a rise this year to reflect the additional stress. After all, £200000 is barely twice what a mere Headteacher of a large London secondary school could expect and the good citizens of Nottinghamshire lavished £143000 on their Chief Constable last year.

And, just to remind you, this is public money, yours and mine.

Sign this!

The news that Michael Gove, apparently against the advice of some at the DfE, approved the spending of £45 million (some say £40 million) on a selective ‘free school’ Sixth Form College in London, has outraged many, including Margaret Hodge and me. The school will be sponsored by The Harris academy chain which, in case you need reminding, was founded by, and is overseen by, Lord Harris (he of ‘Carpetright’ and ex-Tory Party treasurer and donor) and Westminster School, a private (as in ‘public’) school. Just to rub it in, Gove has overseen cuts to Sixth Form colleges around the country which, according to those who know, is resulting in teacher redundancies and cutting back on 16+ options.

Outraged enough, yet? I started to set up an on-line petition but then heard that the slightly more high profile National Union of Teachers had beaten me to it. So I went to their website and signed. You don’t have to be a member to do the same (although I am, personally). I’m just glad a national organisation is prepared to galvanise opposition to this travesty.

Here’s the link:

http://campaigns.teachers.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1721&ea.campaign.id=27110

Read this!

Invest ten minutes of your time in reading this summary of the excellent TUC campaigning report, ‘Education Not For Sale’. I was fortunate to get a preview of this from its co-author, Martin Johnson, at the AGM of the Anti Academies Alliance, in January and can attest that it is well-researched. Its title, I think, makes its subject clear.

https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Education_Not_For_Sale.pdf

Overwhelming support

Back in January I visited the website of the Nottingham Free School to see if there was any progress on the announcement of an actual site, and I spotted a tab entitled ‘Consultation’. It turns out they had to complete a ‘statutory consultation’ in order to ‘tick a box’ for the DfE and thus secure a ‘funding agreement’. At the time I assumed this was a paper exercise: a ‘consultation’ hidden on their own site (who but one of their supporters or obsessives like me would be looking at their site?), a ‘consultation period’ that spanned the Christmas vacation and which, I assumed, supporters, friends and family members, would be directed to so that the figures could look impressive.

They have now published the figures and it looks like I was wrong: 23 people agree that the school is needed in the area, and 13 disagree! The figures for some of the questions vary slightly, since some of them are blandly asking things like,  ‘Do you support our policy of only employing qualified teachers?’ but evidently no more than 36 people responded, of whom more than a third were actually opposed. So, presuming they have HAD to publish this material, and send it to Lord Nash for approval, what’s the response?

I intend to write to Lord Nash and ask him whether he thinks this consultation has been rigorous enough (good word, ‘rigorous’) and, if so, whether the figures justify his signing a funding agreement with Torch and thus committing large chunks of my money to it.

I’ll let you know if I receive a reply and what it says.