Annual Report 2015

Hands Off Our Schools

Annual Report 2015

We have continued to meet and discuss issues relating to local schools, especially academisations and ‘free’ schools. We have also conducted campaigns via direct action and through publicity.

  1. NUAST – We were very concerned at the stories we were hearing about NUAST, its numbers and its inner turmoil. We lobbied an open evening in February where we distributed leaflets, spoke to prospective parents and even to the Chair of Governors. Subsequent lobbies did not take place due to lack of numbers. Following a Freedom of Information tussle with NUAST, and some research, we were able to obtain and publish information that we believed to be highly damaging to NUAST; following an anonymous tip-off from a parent we were able to alert the local press to the sudden departure of the Principal; we fed information to the press but were unable to get them to publish the more damaging aspects of the information we received. A further FoI request is being sent to attempt to quantify current numbers at NUAST and examination outcomes. We plan to contact local schools potentially affected by NUAST recruitment and seek support in distributing literature.
  2. Beeston Fields Primary – We learnt part-way into the so-called consultation that academisaton was imminent. We wrote and used Freedom of Information to reveal the shoddy nature of the process which we then publicised. We tried to put pressure on the Governors and wrote to the Secretary of State – a contact which went unacknowledged. Once again, the press failed to pick up and publicise this story and we understand the school has become an academy under the ‘Flying High’ Trust.
  3. Edwalton Primary – Also to be academised with ‘Flying High’, this primary school appeared to be going through the same process as Beeston Fields. We once again wrote and put the case against and also supported a parent who became active but could not drum up enough support for a concerted opposition.
  4. We have kept track, as far as possible, with other plans and developments locally in the hope that, if necessary, we can react to potential academisations or new ‘free’ schools.
  5. The election saw a depressing result for HOOS as the Conservatives have vowed to accelerate the pace of academisations and increase the number of ‘free’ schools. The one ray of light was the change of heart of the Labour Party who now oppose ‘free’ schools and have talked about taking all schools back into democratic control. Groups like HOOS have kept the arguments for democratic control of state-funded schools alive and we must continue to do so.

CT

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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!

What now for education?

The election result was, for many if not all, in the field of education,  both a shock and a disappointment. Education did not figure greatly in the election campaign and it would be interesting to know how many people who voted Conservative knew very much about their policies on education, or for whom these policies were the deciding factor in casting their vote. Not that Labour’s policies in opposition had sounded that great, not a lot more than watered down versions of the Conservative ones, but I think we would have felt happier with a Labour-led government. With the Conservatives now in power in their own right, we know, from their manifesto,  something of what we have coming.

Interestingly, in defeat comes renewed support – look at the SNP post loss of the referendum – and I gather there has been a surge in membership of the Labour Party! I recall I joined the Labour Party when it was at a very low ebb, in the early eighties, following an incident where the local Conservative MP made a public, ill-informed and totally inaccurate complaint about what was being taught at my school. It seemed to me that, whilst I wasn’t entirely clear that I supported what Labour was proposing, I could be certain that I was against the Conservatives. Perversely, perhaps, I left the Labour Party in 1997!

Anyway, I am currently in email conversation with two people who are, as it were, ‘insiders’ in education, both ‘lay people’, who are unhappy with what is happening at their respective schools and where perhaps I and the ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ group can help and support them. Can’t say much at the moment – it may, or may not, come to something in the next few weeks. The reality is that, whilst the Conservatives can claim a mandate for whatever they do in education, there will always be those who ideologically, like myself, oppose them. There will also be others who are, so to speak, ordinary members of the public who have no especial axe to grind, but who dislike what they see in terms of process and practice. Those people can be better informed by those of us who have spent many long hours researching and digging and who know that what is being presented and said is not the whole truth nor, in many cases, true at all.

Sadly, it looks as though, with the current crop of contenders for leadership of the Labour Party, Tory education policy on such things as ‘free schools’ will be either accepted or allowed through unopposed. We will need to look to other groups to speak up for properly-funded schools that are rooted in and ultimately accountable to, their local communities. It is also clear that, we need to be realistic and accept that Local Authorities are withering away and there needs to be a different ‘model’ for community schools – academies and ‘free’ schools, even – for campaigners like me to promote and argue for (I may propose such a model in a future post).

So, although I have wider concerns about policies like housing, welfare and the economy, these are not my fields of expertise or experience. I will, however, continue to ferret away in the ‘education corner’, exposing, promoting and informing where I can.

Vote for … someone else

As speculation about the forthcoming election mounts, I just want to make it clear that I won’t be standing. Most of you will, I’m sure, be surprised to learn it was ever a possibility but, in fact, I did seriously consider it for several months. Why? Well, it seemed to me that no one was putting forward the kinds of policies which I, and I’m sure, many teachers, wanted to see. In the end, I came to realise that it would be an expensive vanity project. Without a party behind me, the cost would be several thousand pounds, to enable me to publicise the shortcomings of current political thinking about education, to a few thousand people, with the chance of garnering, at best, a couple of hundred votes and thus have zero impact.

I  did actually get as far as drafting a manifesto and, yesterday  morning I awoke to find that David Laws had, in the jargon, ‘run off with my clothes’. Coincidence, of course, since no one has ever seen my draft manifesto, an example perhaps  of ‘great minds thinking alike’, except that I am too modest to claim such an accolade for myself and I have always found Laws so obnoxious that calling him something so complimentary is a complete anathema. Still, ignoring the nerve of him attacking th very notion of politicians meddling in education (this from a meddling politician), I find myself in agreement.

I called the body I would set up a Standing Commission, and it would go further than Laws’ idea, to have a remit covering all aspects of education, not just curriculum. Laws has quite rightly seen that experts should be involved, who can look over a longer timeframe than the two or three years that a politician needs to operate within. I would go further. I’d have experts, certainly, but also representatives of employers, trades unions, parents, governors. It would be a massive undertaking and progress would, inevitably, be slow. As a commission they could ‘commission’ research and take evidence from anyone. This ought to eliminate the introduction of crackpot ideas that are flavour of the month, or systems that have been introduced elsewhere and seem to chime with the current political ideology (I’m thinking here of the Swedish ‘free school’ idea).

If any political party was far-sighted and statesmanlike enough to introduce this, in a decade or so I think we’d be the envy of the world as we would be running a system based on evidence not political whim or ideology.

Fat chance, I know, but we need to recognise that there is another way compared to the system that has left our schools in a bewilderingly chaotic state.

NUAST – the story so far

This post has also been published on Hands Off Our Schools:

As those following local developments will know, the Nottingham Academy of Science and Technology (NUAST) has actually opened, this September, though not on its brand new site, in the shadow of the Dunkirk flyover. They are claiming to have just over 100 students in Year 10 and Year 12 (‘lower Sixth’).

One of our members attended a recent ‘open evening’, intended to publicise and recruit for next year – again, not in their own building but on the University campus. However, the building will soon be available for these sessions and, presumably, for teaching. Once they are able to ‘show off’ their state-of-the-art facilities, they no doubt think they will find ‘selling themselves’ that much easier.

We remain mystified as to why anyone would sign up their child on a promise, even if the facilities are good (they ought to be, considering they cost £10 million of taxpayers’ money!) The school has had a turbulent few months leading up to a rather low-key opening, with students being taught anonymously (i.e. not wearing uniforms) in another Nottingham college. Famously, the first principal left under something of a cloud partway through the year. We certainly think she was pushed as the University started worrying about what they were getting into. She had fallen out with the Uni authorities over whether or not teacher unions would be recognised – jobs were advertised on basis they would NOT be, the Uni said they would be when made aware, but she insisted, at first, that this would not be the case. Part of the Uni’s panic was also probably down to getting their fingers burned at Samworth (the other ‘Nottingham University Academy’), judged ‘Inadequate’ by OFSTED last Autumn; one of their partners at NUAST, the Djanogly Learning Trust also had its Academy judged ‘Inadequate’ in the same sweep. So they called in The Torch Academy Gateway Trust, rapidly becoming ‘flavour of the month’ in this area.

It must be remembered that ‘Torch’ is effectively one school, Toot Hill Comprehensive, in Bingham, which has achieved an ‘Outstanding’ OFSTED rating and which, to its credit, also helped The Meden School out of ‘Special Measures’. How many Headteachers would find achieving and maintaining an ‘Outstanding’ rating, and helping another school in difficulty, more than enough to fill up their time? Most, we would think, but not the Head of Toot Hill who is now CEO of ‘Torch’ on well over £200K a year.

Last Autumn, ‘Torch’ was called in at Samworth and Djanogly to help out, whilst concurrently spending time and energy (not to mention buckets’ full of taxpayers’ money) on getting the Nottingham Free School up and running (79 students started this Autumn in parts of a converted factory in Sherwood!). ‘Torch’ was also ‘called in’ to ‘provide the education’ at NUAST. It’s not entirely clear what this means but, presumably, they effectively run the place since the Uni isn’t equipped to and the Djanogly Trust shouldn’t, because it was barred from opening any new schools (except NUAST, funnily enough!)

Questions remain to be asked of NUAST:

  • Where is all the money coming from? It obviously hasn’t currently got enough students to make it financially viable without subsidy, even though it is clear they will offer all sorts of courses but reserve the right not to run them if they turn out to be non-viable.
  • In which case, how many years before the taxpayer could be said to be getting ‘value for money’?
  • Unlike many ‘free schools’, of which this is one type, it will have an examination record pretty soon: students in both Key Stage 4 and Sixth Form will get full GCSE and A Level results in August 2016 – so, will they be any good? By what criteria should we judge them?
  • Why have four governors resigned recently?
  • What connection is there between the erstwhile Chair of Governors and the company which ‘managed’ the recruitment process to appoint the new Principal?
  • What effect will recruitment to NUAST have on local schools? As education insiders know, schools seek so-called ‘option choices’ from Year 9 students in January and, on that basis, ‘option groups’, a staffing plan and timetable are constructed for the next academic year. The loss of even just a handful of students could make some groups non-viable with a knock-on effect to staffing and budgets.
  • Will NUAST, based on the ‘university technical college’ (UTC) model, be any more successful than other UTCs such as Hackney UTC, which has closed?
  • More fundamentally, is encouraging children as young as thirteen to ‘specialise’ the right thing for them? A career in engineering or science, the prospect of working with a world-class university and employers with household names might sound alluring, but will the reality be different? These children will not be entering the workforce for at least 6 years (if they are currently in Year 9) or longer. Who knows what specific skills employers might be looking for in a decade’s time? Better, maybe, to keep their options open and make sure they have a firm grounding in ‘the basics’

NUAST is wrong because it has spent, and will go on spending, money we are told is in short supply, which could have been used to improve science and engineering facilities in schools that would NOT require the children to specialise. It is wrong because it offers children and parents an illusion of choice when it cannot guarantee any level of quality. It is wrong because it holds out a promise it cannot necessarily fulfil.

A million pounds a head – is this really the way to spend tax-payers’ money?

We all know how important the ‘hard-working families’ of this country are to the government, how important it is to spend their taxes wisely. As a country, apparently, we can’t afford welfare payments – including for those in work but very low paid – to keep pace with inflation; we can’t afford our public service employees to get pay rises that keep pace with inflation. So what do we make of a government that pursues a policy that is clearly ideologically-based, spending our money to set up so-called ‘free schools’ in areas where there are already enough school places? Whatever happened to ‘value for money’ (which used to be one of the OFSTED tests but it might be different this week)?

Trinity Academy in Lambeth is one of the starkest, daftest examples: the DfE bought the freehold of the land for £18 million, but only 17 pupils have enrolled.  Imagine being the head trying to come up with some sort of justification for your multi-million pound school that attracted just a handful of pupils. ‘Well, we’ve had another four apply and there were three more who haven’t shown up!’ (So, best case scenario, that’s 24 then? I feel much better now! That’s actually what he said, by the way, in so many words.)

It’s looking like education isn’t going to be a key battleground at the general election, which may be a good thing, given Labour’s half-hearted opposition to ‘free schools’, not to mention some of their half-baked ideas (‘parent-led academies’, for goodness sake!) but to most sensible people, the waste of money on these pet projects, which have shovelled money into the bank accounts of Tory donors,  is just one more piece of evidence that the Coalition has nothing but contempt for ‘hard-working families’ (and the rest of us) and, for all his show of righteous indignation over the NHS, Cameron will say or do anything to retain office.

Colours to the mast: however lack-lustre and dubious the alternative, we cannot give the Conservatives another five years to sell off and ruin our public services whilst pretending to ‘fix’ the economy. They’ve done nothing of the sort but they WILL complete their Thatcherite project if they get in again.

Democracy – or “passing the buck” – Coalition style

A fascinating press release from DfE just a week before the end of the school year (always a good time to avoid too much scrutiny). The newly appointed Regional Schools Commissioners (appointed by Gove, it must be said) will be supported by Head Teachers Boards (HTBs). Four members in each region have just been elected and the successful candidates announced. The DfE is trumpeting the 38% turnout as being an endorsement – it certainly beats most local government elections and easily trounces the pathetic turnout for the Police and Crime Commissioner elections last year. But, wait a minute, these are the headteachers of our most successful (allegedly) schools and, presumably, just had to fill in a ballot paper and post it off : is 38% such a ringing endorsement?

Most people, I guess, do not know  how these HTBs are set up and what they will do. As I said earlier, the RSCs are appointed – so far so very Gove – but then four members of the board are elected. In addition, the RSCs can appoint two more board members of his/her own choice and the Board itself can appoint two more to fill skills or experience gaps. So these boards are beginning to feel less democratic and more like self-perpetuating oligarchies. From an electorate of just over 4000, of whom more than half chose not to vote, 32 have been chosen, and, in theory at least, another 32 could be appointed by the Commissioners or the elected heads themselves.

So what are the Regional  Schools Commissioners and their Boards going to do? At first glance, it looks like they are going to deal with the growing numbers of academies and academy chains which are failing to live up to the hype, that they would maintain or improve standards. The language is nice and wooly and there must be questions asked about how they will ‘monitor’ the performance of schools, except via OFSTED, and how they will support schools in difficulties (by ‘schools’ they actually mean academies and, presumably, ‘free schools’ which are, after all, particular kinds of academies). According to the release they can take “informed decisions about when and how to intervene” but how will they know pre-OFSTED and what mechanism is there for them to intervene? This sounds like a function previously carried out by a local authority whose own staff would have kept in touch with schools and regularly assessed what OFSTED grade they were on course to achieve, and had the expertise and resources to offer support and intervention. What resources do  RSCs and HTBs have? What powers do they have? Who will be held to account if an academy ‘fails’?

There are many details unclear and questions begged but, in the end, this only affects academies and ‘free schools’ (albeit that, on the DfE’s  figures, nearly 60% of secondaries are academies and 12% of primaries are), right? Well, wrong, actually.

One of the RSC’s remits is to agree or reject new academies (nothing specifically about ‘free schools’ so, phew, John Nash still has a job!). So, whereas the Secretary of State, an elected politician and minister of the Crown, used to make these decisions, those same decisions will now be made by appointed heads and a group of heads chosen by other heads. Whatever one says about Michael Gove (and I for one have said a lot!) in principle, he was elected and was part of a government that should have been sensitive to public opinion. Indeed, it could be argued that Gove’s removal as Secretary of  State was, in part, due to pressure from many groups, including parents who objected to their views being ignored in respect of their children’s schooling. The new situation gives an unrepresentative group power over the future of state education in an area. These people will not be well-known and harder to campaign against: “Gove out!” had a snappy ring to it, “Regional School Commissioner, whatever his or her name is, and Head Teacher Board, out!” is going to be harder to chant.

To sum up, groups of faceless headteachers have quietly been set up to deflect blame from the Secretary of State when academies and chains get into trouble and have the power to make far-reaching decisions about local education without, as far as one can see, any influence from public opinion.

Certainly, there needs to be a ‘middle tier’ below Whitehall and above individual school level, monitoring and supporting schools, which should represent not the narrow interests of one grade of teacher in one type of school, but should take into account the views and needs of parents and the local community. I’ve even got a slightly snappier name for such a body.

We could call it a local education authority.

Same old, same old

Tempting though it has been to enjoy the political demise of Michael Gove, there is really only time for a little rejoicing. In my opposition over the last four years I have tried very hard not to focus on an individual but on policies. That was hard to do, of course, because Gove was so deliberately insulting to me and my former colleagues, unable, or at least unwilling, to engage in civilised and reasoned debate.

But, ask yourself, would you have found his policies any more palatable if he had been saying nice things about teachers (he did, actually, occasionally)? Gove was (is) an unpleasant, ideological bone-head but his policies – which remain intact – were (are) the policies of the Coalition government. Apart from an occasional spat with Wilshaw and Laws (and, no doubt, in the run-up to the General Election, we will hear about all sorts of extreme polices which, behind the scenes, the Lib Dems prevented or modified) I do not recall any member of the Government, or the Conservative Party, criticising or opposing what Gove was doing.

So, let’s not linger too long over our glasses of bubbly. Some of us are long enough in the tooth to be able to remember the delight that greeted the resignation of Thatcher but her policies continued long after she had left the stage. We have to ensure that the electorate aren’t fooled into thinking that by appointing Ms Morgan in Gove’s stead, Cameron has somehow reversed or halted the coup effected in our state education system. The policies are in place and they and their consequences will continue to unfold.

I for one will go on exposing  them, here and on other social media, as I know many others will. Let’s not attack Nicky Morgan – ill-equipped as she is, to run our state school system (privately-educated lawyer) – let’s continue to remind friends, colleagues, the public at large, of the wasteful and deliberately divisive policies of this Government. They (not one man) have undermined public faith in teachers and our public education system, in order stealthily to give away our state assets to faith and business groups interested in their own agendas. At a time of supposed austerity, they have wasted millions on tin-pot inefficient ‘free’ schools and grand vanity projects (university technical college, anyone?). It will be a long hard road back to a decent, democratically accountable state school system. Let’s not waste too much time revelling in the discomfort of one person (though it has been enjoyable, hasn’t it?)

‘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.”

 

 

“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.