What on earth?

I’ve been quiet for a bit but the situation affecting education has been anything but. One could be forgiven for thinking that the skids are under Gove. Almost every day, information emerges that tarnishes the reputation of the academies and ‘free school’ project: Al-Madinah (dysfunctional according to OFSTED), Discovery (to be closed), Bradford’s Kings Science Academy (fraud investigations, head arrested and released on bail), an academisation halted in London following a high court injunction, are some of the headlines. But we have to remember that Gove is sponsoring a market revolution and the logic (?) takes account of failures along the way. Gove will plough on regardless.

The reform of exams hurries on chaotically with teachers at a loss, and Gove has redoubled his attacks on teacher unions, dubbing the NUT an “extreme left-wing” organisation, whilst urged on by those guardians of the public purse, The Tax-payers Alliance and Lib-Dem minister David Laws is encouraging schools to limit or cut out all together union ‘facility’ time. Quite why ‘expenses fiddler’ Laws is even an MP let alone a minister is a mystery,  as is why the Tax-payers Alliance has been silent about the massive overspend on free schools.

Meanwhile the recent excellent Guardian exposé on the apparently legal siphoning off of public money by firms running academies ought to have got more attention than it did (no Newsnight, nothing on the BBC at all: maybe a Panorama special is being made as I type!). There is actually a ‘snouts in trough’ story here to rival the MPs’ expenses scandal but I am not confident that anyone in the media has the will to pick it up and run with it.

The upcoming Education Select Committee investigation into academies and free schools ought to be interesting. The organisation for which I blog (Hands Off Our Schools) made a two and a half thousand word submission which has been published on the parliamentary website (click link and scroll down to name of organisation) along with many others from individuals and organisations. These committees have a reputation for fierce independence and, if they go for Gove as one hopes they will, the resultant publicity could bring the folly of his project to mass attention in a way that hasn’t happened up to now.

However, we mustn’t fool ourselves into thinking that Gove can be diverted from his purpose and so must start looking to alternatives. If the Conservatives retain power in May 2015, we can only look forward to a complete break-up of the state education system and more open profit-making from schools than we see at the moment. But what if there’s a Labour-led government from then? The signs are not good.

In the first place, it is probably expecting too much for them to reverse the massive academisation that will have taken place by May 2015. They have pledged not to allow any more free schools but these will be replaced with something that, on the face of it, looks the same. Tristram Hunt has attacked the employment of unqualified teachers in free schools but figures show very few of them have actually been taken on and in Nottinghamshire, putative free school providers are pledging to employ only qualified teachers, thus neutralising this point. On the other hand, Hunt obviously feels the need to ingratiate himself with the electorate (perceived to be at least suspicious of teachers) and edubusinesses by suggested that there are teachers who need to be sacked: his proposal for the licensing of teachers sounds reasonable but is probably angled at currying favour. It’s hardly a ‘big policy’ anyway. At the moment, the Labour Party could be going for the jugular on the massive and evident syphoning off of public funds by  educational pseudo-charities (read this excellent post by anotherangryvoice).  Why aren’t they?

The strategy now must be two-fold. Trying to argue with Gove is pointless – however much ‘evidence’ we come up with, he won’t budge. We have to go on informing the general public about what is going on as most people would be aghast at the criminal waste of money and the evident failure of policies supposedly designed to improve performance – if only they knew. Possibly, with a public outcry, Gove could be forced from office or Cameron brought to see him as an electoral liability. Unfortunately, the media are not interested in – or geared up to deal with – this sort of incremental scandal. They want a ‘shock horror’ for tomorrow’s headlines. This could happen (maybe there’s a juicy scandal at Bradford Kings Science Academy that could splatter across the tabloids)  but let’s not hold our breaths.

The second strand must therefore be to pressurise the Labour Party, who are the most likely to form a government in 15 months’ time, assuming the Tories don’t. Those, unlike me, inside the tent, need to be putting on pressure but I know the Labour hierarchy are adept at holding in check their left wing, terrified they might be labelled ‘socialist’. They’ll do anything that they think will receive support from the mass of the electorate, especially the so-called ‘squeezed middle’. That’s why they won’t nationalise or renationalise academies and free schools, where many of these people now have their children.

Probably the best we can hope for, then, is proper regulation and a role for the necessarily slimmed down local authorities in monitoring standards in all schools in their area. It’s far from ideal but realistic – and much, much better than the Thatcherite revolution Gove has wrought.

Sorted? Not quite…

So, Al-Madinah is being handed over to a tried and tested purveyor of academies : job done? Well, maybe, as far as the kids are concerned and, since the place was in dire straits, I can’t think of a better solution, the interests of the children always being paramount, in my book. But, as the old joke goes, I wouldn’t have started from here. Once alerted to the appalling state of affairs that had developed at A-M, the authorities acted pretty swiftly and have found a solution – but how come this school was allowed to open in the first place, given that the problems of inadequately trained, unqualified staff and even the issues with safeguarding, were apparent before it opened? It was obvious that the group setting up the school had no experience of setting up something as complex and significant as a school – after all, this wasn’t a couple of people opening a little shop on the high street.

In the pre-registration report by OFSTED in July 2012, before the school opened, no assessment was made of its ability to educate children! However, at this stage OFSTED did identify four regulations regarding child protection that the school hadn’t yet met and indicated that staff needed training. The DfE says that A-M provided evidence it had met the OFSTED requirements before it opened. Yet the school had to close after the first day of the inspection because the OFSTED team found basic safeguarding requirements were not being met. Whilst wondering what the Headteacher was doing not to have noticed this nor to have spotted that all teaching was inadequate and none of his staff even knew how to plan a lesson, since the governors were inexperienced enough to hold him to account, what outside body was there to monitor and support the school? OFSTED is the nuclear option but, dare I say it, a local authority would have fitted the bill perfectly?

Al-Madinah shows up in stark relief, the problems inherent in setting up free schools and all those who oppose them should be pressurising the government and educating the public by telling them about this, and similar, disasters. The problem is, by no means, ‘sorted’!

You heard it here first!

The government has appointed Barry Day and the Greenwood Dale Trust to run the Al Madinah free school in Derby, as predicted in my post 1 November. Day is the former Headteacher of Greenwood Dale school, an early-adopter of the old opted out/grant maintained status. Now CEO (or some such) he’s been quick to jump on the govewagon and his lot currently runs twenty or so schools in the Nottingham/Derby area. Most recently he was handed the nice new buildings of Sinfin School which was swiftly rebranded City of Derby Academy.

Having read the full OFSTED report for Al Madinah, I think it’s a safe bet that the kids there will be better off under Greenwood than the incompetents currently running it. However, there are challenges ahead for Day. There are no nice buildings to take over and presumably he’ll need to keep the Islamic ethos of the place.  Gove is a big fan and he must be counting on Day to get him and Lord Nash out of a jam.