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.

Nottingham University: what IS it playing at?

Here’s the text of a letter I have just sent to the Nottingham Post about the new Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology:

Dear Sir

I’m wondering why a world-renowned institution like Nottingham University has got into bed with the Djanogly Learning Trust to promote a new ‘academy’ of entirely unknown quality.

The Nottingham University Academy of Science and Technology (NUAST) seems to have been conceived in response to the 2011 Wolf Report into vocational education, the thrust of which was that children shouldn’t specialise too soon and should ensure a thorough grounding in the ‘basics’ of literacy and numeracy. NUAST’s published curriculum will have children from 14 specialising in either an ‘Engineering’ or ‘IT’ pathway, to the detriment of a broader, balanced curriculum: in order to achieve the English Baccalaureate children will study geography (the only ‘humanity’ offered, no history) and, as their Modern Foreign Langauge, German or Chinese (and, it must be doubtful whether, with no previous experience, children will be able to achieve a GCSE ‘pass’ in Chinese after two hours a week for two years).

As for English and Maths, students will only get three hours each per week. One of Professor Wolf’s most eye-catching proposals in her report was that children should be required to resit Maths or English if they ‘failed’ at 16 – I wonder how much of that will be going on at NUAST!

However, there are some more basic questions to ask of NUAST. Will the wonderful building envisaged in glowing graphics on their website actually be reality in three months’ time? (Pop down to the Dunkirk Roundabout and have a look, then place your bets!) Will they have appointed well-qualified specialist teachers or will some, as I have heard rumoured, have to teach outside their specialism? How many students will they actually have in September? Oh, and, who’s paying for all this?

I really can’t see what is in this for Nottingham University. Surely their undoubted expertise should be used to assist all schools within their area rather than ‘sponsoring’ one that will, if successful in recruiting, draw students away from those schools and cause real problems for their curriculum planning.

No, I still don’t get it.

“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.

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

Nottingham heads’ salaries exposed

Hop over to the ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ website where I’ve just posted about the article in today’s Nottingham Post which gives embarrassing details of the salaries paid to academy heads, Executive Heads, Executive Principals and ‘edubusiness’ CEOs in our local area. We hope this will influence the decision-making parents are involved in surrounding the proposed new ‘free school’ in Sherwood. I’ll be handing out the leaflets at their ‘open evening’ tonight! If you want to go direct to the Nottingham Post article, click here.

Chancellor ‘protects’ schools’ budget so Michael can have more ‘free schools’

A true friend to our schools

A true friend to our schools

To hear in today’s spending review that the government is ring-fencing money for education is supposed to make us all breath a deep sigh of relief. Of course, it’s the usual sleight of hand. We should be deeply concerned that money for the ideologically driven ‘free schools’ programme will get a massive boost at the expense of what the country really needs. Schools are still crumbling in the wake of Gove’s decision to axe the Building Schools for the Future plan but we can apparently afford to fork out to refurbish a disused warehouse to make it into a ‘free’ school where no new school is needed. What about the looming crisis over primary school places? Maybe the market will sort that out! And interesting that George Osborne knows in 2013 that in 2015-15 exactly 180 of these schools will spring up in response to consumer demand!

Oh good, the ‘pupil premium’ is still with us which, as everyone knows, is used creatively by schools to make up for short-falls elsewhere. Local Councils lose out big time in the ‘spending review’ so schools will have somehow to compensate for the services they used to get. And now all those civil servants will be in the same boat as teachers and will lose their annual increments. Repeat after me “public service bad, private enterprise good”.

Cuts in the Business Department budget will mean student grants will stand still at £3387 and the further education budget is being cut by £260 million. Not all good news then.

“Only connect…”

At it again: OFSTED chief, Sir Michael Wilshaw

Barely a week goes by that we don’t hear about how our (state) schools are failing us, their pupils, the economy, the nation: take your pick. The latest has OFSTED turning up ‘evidence’ that state schools are letting down bright children. Apparently, they fail to make the progress they should in the secondary phase and the clinching proof is that not enough of them get to top universities like Oxford and Cambridge. This government, which seems so laissez-faire in many respects, is being told by Sir Michael Wilshaw, Head of OFSTED,  that they should be “encouraging secondary schools to identify bright children in the final year of primary education and track them between the age of 11 and 16 to make sure they fulfil their potential” and, in addition (according to The Telegraph of 26 May) “schools may be told to ensure able pupils sit the toughest A-level subjects that are currently seen as a route into top universities.” Further, a lot of this namby-pamby ‘mixed ability teaching’ is apparently also to blame: more streaming is required, so it seems.

So, time to unpick. Firstly, why do we assume that the grades children achieved in their Key Stage 2 SATs are a perfect indicator of their potential to go on to get As and A*s at GCSE? We know the system is open to abuse and that ‘hot-housing’ at the end of the primary phase is often found by secondary teachers to have over-estimated this potential. Secondly, in my experience, the core subjects of Maths, English and Science are streamed virtually throughout the two secondary key stages. The fact that others aren’t is down to funding: where students have opted at 14+, there will probably be too few students to allow a cost-effective division into enough groups for ‘streaming’ to be viable. Of course, in the private sector, maybe they can afford penny numbers in teaching groups…

Finally, Wilshaw also assumes that, per se, the attainment of a top university place is the be-all and end-all. The fact that such a small proportion of state school students — compared to private school children — go on in this way is proof positive that their state secondary schools have failed them. Well, is it?

Turn now to the Guardian last Thursday, 30 May,  and a report by the Sutton Trust. A survey conducted by Ipsos Mori on behalf of the Trust, an educational charity aimed at increasing educational inclusion, shows that more and more young people are put off university by the cost. Over two-thirds of those polled said they had significant concerns about the costs of higher education and, in the current climate, they must be weighing up the dubious benefits of a university education against long-term debt. Of course, that’s not the full story but before Wilshaw and his media mates sound off yet again about ‘failing teachers’ or ‘failing state schools’ he needs to join the dots between the information he has bidden his cohorts to gather — with, no doubt, ulterior intent — and other data that is out there.