The Flying High Multi-Academy Trust

Just published this post on the ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ blog:

http://nottsantiacademies.org/2015/06/05/flying-high/

There does seem to be a distinct lack of transparency, something we’ve seen all the way through this sorry saga of academies and ‘free’ schools, from 2010 onwards. 

More to follow!

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A local academy conversion

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.

Yours sincerely

Colin Tucker

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.”

OFSTED’s use of data is rubbish, apparently (who’d have guessed?)

Head on over to http://physicsfocus.org and read a post by one Professor Moriarty, from down the road at Nottingham University. He tells how, on becoming a governor at Middleton Primary School, he received some training and was aghast at what he heard. In brief, he demolishes OFSTED’s use of data.

This way for rigour…

It’s one of those words we didn’t use very much ’til four years ago but the Education Secretary is all for it. Whether you agree with his methods or not, you can’t fault him for his aim: more rigour. So why, I have to ask, is there less rigour in one fairly obscure but important corner?

The ‘rigorous’ judgement of secondary schools is now based largely on the extent to which they manage to move their children on ‘three levels of progress’. For the uninitiated, this means from the end of Key Stage 2 (that is, at the end of the primary phase) to the end of Key Stage 4 (that is, 16+, end of Year 11 and what used to be the end of compulsory schooling), schools are expected so to teach, motivate and encourage (or, if you’re Gove and Wilshaw, bully and threaten) students that they add three National Curriculum ‘levels’ in that time.

A few moments’ thought will reveal several problems with this. Forget for a moment that the end of KS 2 is measured as a ‘level’ but the end of KS 4 is measured largely in GCSE Grades (so we need some equivalence and conversion) and that a ‘level’ is quite a broad band so that there is a significant difference between a ‘top’ Level 4 (i.e.  nearly Level 5) and a bottom Level 4 (i.e. only just better than Level 3), so much so, in fact, that after the inception of the National Curriculum back in the eighties,  ‘sub-levels’ were devised so that children and teachers could see some indication of progress during a school year, although the reporting of gradings at the end of KS 2 is in whole levels. Forget all that. Clearly, it is absolutely vital that we can have confidence in the reliability of the Key Stage 2 result. I have talked about this before and discussed the pressures on Junior schools to do whatever they can (sometimes ‘gaming’, as Mr Gove might say) to maximise the KS 2 result because, after all, they are judged on how far they have moved children on from Key Stage 1, at the Infant school. I have to remind you that KS 1 levels are based solely on teacher assessments with a very light touch moderation regime and that the pressure on Infant schools and KS 1 teachers is also great.

Given all that, can we rely on the KS 2 results? After all, they are based on externally marked SAT examinations, aren’t they?. Again, I’ve suggested previously that a looser examination regime will have allowed some ‘manipulation’ but at least they are externally marked papers, right? Well, no, actually. The KS 2 Writing Task is, since 2013, internally marked. I have it on good authority (i.e. a current serving primary head teacher, who also reported what fellow heads admit to doing) that schools are now quite deliberately and consciously pushing through some students at a higher level than they know the child should receive, in order to achieve an overall ‘pass percentage’ that will keep them out of ‘Special Measures’. Teachers in the secondary school will look at the reported level, look at the first few bits of work from that child and be horrified, recognising that their task is now much greater.

It is, of course, unprofessional and I cannot condone it, but I can understand. If you set up a system that threatens livelihoods, reputations and communities unless certain benchmarks are reached; if the school would be ‘academised’ and given to a chain owned by a Tory-supporting carpet magnate (Lord Harris, do you recognise yourself?) and the head sacked if a second poor OFSTED grading is given,  and if you leave open a ‘loophole’,  then it is human nature for people to, well, frankly, cheat. Yet no one seems to have noticed. Secondary heads are castigated for legitimately giving students a second chance at achieving a decent grade: this is called ‘gaming’,  but primary heads can get away with it because of a loosening-up of the system.

But, maybe, just maybe, there’s something more sinister going on here. Gove is keen to have as many schools as possible in his little (well, not so little) band of state funded independent schools (academies or ‘free’ schools) for ideological reasons I’ve discussed elsewhere. Most of the good or outstanding schools will, for their own reasons (either connected to money, ego-mania or a combination of both), have voluntarily converted, leaving a few ‘community’ or ‘LA schools’. Some of those are struggling around the ‘Requires improvement’ mark. They need a good set of results next time round to avoid the ‘drop’. Why not make it just that little bit harder for them? True, the over-graded Year 7s currently in secondary will take a few years to feed through, but it’s all making the job just a bit harder and a trifle more demoralising.

So, Mr Gove, where’s your rigour at Key Stage 2? If we have to have this farce, at least make the playing field, if not exactly even, at least not riddled with potholes.

Opposition?

Finally, it’s good to see opposition to Gove’s madness being promulgated by, well, the Opposition. It is, of course, difficult for the Labour Party to talk meaningfully about things like academies and they seem to have given up counter-arguing when their record in office is trashed, so I understand why new opposition spokesman, Tristram Hunt, has focused rather narrowly on the unqualified teacher issue, albeit this has been around for well over a year (it was announced at the end of the school year 2012, always a good time for governments to reveal unpopular policies, doubly so that year as the Olympics festivities were just kicking off). Still, better late than never and this is likely to be a policy that will resonate with people who will think it mad that their children should be taught by unqualified staff.

This has made me acutely aware how vigilant we have to be about almost everything. Who would have thought a few years back that we’d be having a public debate about this? It was back in the late seventies that teaching was made a graduate profession and not long ago that there seemed to be cross-party agreement that teachers should acquire a second degree. This is the case in some Nordic countries, you know, those ones that do better than us in OECD tables!

I was never convinced, actually. My experience has been that some of the best teachers I’ve come across haven’t necessarily been top class academically and those with doctorates and the like haven’t always been brilliant teachers. It’s the sort of equivalence politicians like to make when they are trying to convince the public they’re serious about ‘standards’. But it’s definitely the case that everyone should go through a proper training course. It’s probably true that the full four-year BEd. route taken by primary teachers is better than the PGCE one followed by secondary teachers and I’m not entirely convinced about the ‘on the job’ schemes like Teach First and the old GTP (though I can think of at least one excellent example of the latter). However, as I said, who would have guessed this would have to be defended?

Hunt has also been trying to ‘mix it’ with Gove over the narrowness of the proposed new English Language GCSE and it is very amusing to see a role reversal, with Gove trying to micky take over Hunt’s public school education, posing as the champion of the oppressed masses!

There’s a surprise!

Apparently, if you are 27 and have no teaching experience, you can’t be the Headteacher of a primary school.

Some things you know, some things require research and impirical evidence to determine. I would have put this fact in the former category, but the governors of Pimlico Primary, a ‘free’ school, due to open at the start of September, apparently thought  it a sufficiently open question as to be worth testing out by actually appointing such a person. Just a few weeks after the school opened, it turns out they were wrong and she’s resigned. Oh well, worth a try, eh? Of course, they can’t admit that Annaliese Briggs (for ’tis she) can’t hack it so some mealy-mouthed excuse appears on the school’s website and, lucky for them, she’s going to continue as a governor. Phew! Thought her expertise might be forever lost to the world of education. That was a close one!

In case you don’t recall, Ms Briggs, having taken a degree in Eng Lit, joined a right-wing think tank and somehow (!) ended up advising Mr Gove on the new primary curriculum, for which she was, um, totally unqualified. When she was appointed Headteacher in Pimlico, she announced she wouldn’t be applying the new National Curriculum, on which she had advised (a true case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’) but would be learning how to be a teacher (the words ‘cart’ and ‘horse’ spring to mind).

The Pimlico Primary School is an adjunct to Pimlico Academy, overseen by ‘Future’, an edubusiness founded by a venture capitalist, one John Nash, who is now Lord Nash, education minister in charge of ‘free’ schools and academies, a job for which he is as well qualified as, er, Ms Briggs was to be a head. Don’t you just love the way these things all join up?

How many more?

An excellent piece in today’s Guardian by John Harris, exposing and then critiquing the case of King’s Stanley Primary School, Gloucester. Staff, governors and parents are up in arms about an OFSTED report, published in July, grading them Inadequate, placing them in Special Measures and opening the door to academisation. This case is well documented – it’s worth reading the comments following the article on line where someone has bothered to read and pull apart the actual report, and following the links to the ‘Save King’s Stanley’ website for lots of ‘on the ground’ details. It is very hard not to come away with the conviction that OFSTED are acting as Gove’s storm troopers with the cynical aim of taking over what is essentially a good school, in a leafy village setting, with brand new buildings to boot. I’m worried that, although I keep my ear to the ground, I’m only picking this up more than two months later and that, as far as I’m aware, there hasn’t been a squeak from the Opposition’s Stephen Twigg, who seems to be giving new meaning to the title  ‘Shadow’ Secretary of State.

Roke Primary, Downhills : how many more of these cynical and transparent manoeuvrings must there be before the mainstream media pick up what’s happening and force it into the public consciousness? Let’s have a ‘Dispatches’ or ‘Panorama’ with discussions on Newsnight or Andrew Marr.

And the winner is…..

Commiserations to any of my serving teacher friends who, enjoying their last leisurely start to the day, tuned in to BBC Breakfast TV only to catch our beloved Education Secretary giving another Oscar nomination-worthy portrayal of someone who actually gives a damn about children’s education.

The occasion that dragged him to the studios was today’s trenchant criticism by the Local Government Association of the government’s response to the looming crisis in primary school places. According to Gove, that’s all the fault of the last government, who were apparently warned by Gove when in opposition. That may be true but, if that was the case, why has he wasted billions on his academy project when he should clearly have been focused  on this issue? And what of the very obvious disparity between the creation of surplus places in secondary via the ‘free school’  project and this shortfall? Well, predictably, we were treated to the usual nonsense about ‘choice’, ‘parental demand’ and ‘creation of high quality’ places.

At the risk of boring you I’ll repeat the common sense refutations of these. ‘Choice’ in the system is not ‘choice’ for individuals in a specific location and, in any case, what everyone says and knows is that parents don’t want more choice, just to be sure that their local school is a good one. Very few if any ‘free schools’ have been set up because parents clearly wanted them.  They’re mostly kites flown by charitable trusts or edubusinesses. As for ‘high quality’, how can anybody know until they’ve been running a couple of years what the quality of these schools is?

As if unconvinced by his own performance on education, Michael attempted a bit of emotion at the end of the interview when answering a question about his much publicised reaction to the Syria vote. Not sure, after all, he’s in the running for an Oscar.

End of term…(2)

A trip down memory lane, of sorts, with a ‘last day’ visit to a primary school in East London.

It’s just round the corner from where I grew up, though it wasn’t there when I started school; my mum helped out there for years and ever since,  my dad has been giving a little money every year for book prizes. With his passing last Autumn, the family decided they wanted to continue this tradition and so, on a very warm July morning, I’m sitting in a school hall whilst little children and their mums and dads and teachers file in. The head is a friendly, decent chap, with a delightful, quiet manner and a twinkle in his eye. The event is relaxed, low-key and, for everyone concerned, mercifully short. I say a few words, hand out some books, the leavers sing something sentimental, a retiring deputy head is thanked,  and we’re done.

Looking around, it’s hard not be impressed. The school is in an anonymous back street, its entrance guarded by fencing and an entry phone. Inside, the staff are friendly, the school clearly well-cared-for, the atmosphere calm and orderly. I checked in advance: apparently they got a ‘Good’ in OFSTED last year – no doubt under the new regime someone will find an excuse for them to ‘require improvement’ next time. For me, it’s exactly the sort of school I want to support and celebrate. It serves its diverse community well, with staff dedicated to doing the job they trained for to the best of their ability. Long may they stay under the radar and continue to get on with it.