Thursday 29 January 2015

Still No Proof that Academies Raise Standards

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The Education Select Committee has reported on its year-long enquiry into academies and free schools and concluded that while standards have risen in the state school system, it is still too early to determine the impact of academies. Committee Chairman, Conservative MP Graham Stuart said “Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children”. He added “While some chains have clearly raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes creating huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools”. The report makes 20 recommendations about academies and free schools, and calls for more transparency in oversight, including creating a way for schools to leave academy chains and to develop a plan for schools when an academy chain fails. Kevin Courtney, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, said this was “an utterly damning report”. He concluded that “parents whose schools have been forcibly converted to academies, often against their wishes and those of the staff, will rightly question just whose interests the government has been pursuing in the last five years.” Mary Bousted, leader of the ATL teachers’ union, said the report showed: “Academy status is no magic potion to transform schools.”


Free School Free Market

The closure of The Durham Free School exemplifies much that is wrong in the free schools programme. Those setting up free schools were offered autonomy by one arm of government and when they took it – for example by recruiting key staff with particular religious credentials – another arm, Ofsted, came down hard on them, rating schools inadequate under the latest framework. The Education Funding Agency issued a notice to Durham Free School to improve its financial management and governance. Meanwhile the children got a terrible service with an almost unbelievable 18% of students subjected to fixed term exclusion in the school’s first year. Now 90 families are faced with finding alternative schools and the taxpayer left picking up the bill.

This is the third free school closure and former Secretary of State Michael Gove and his supporters will try and spin this as a success story. They will say that this is proof that the system works, that failing institutions will be closed and new providers will offer their wares. (Incidentally, one free school that has not been closed is Breckland in Suffolk run by Swedish for-profit company IES). Parents, pupils and staff in Durham are now caught up in the market maelstrom.

Other parents in the North East must be wondering whether their children’s school will survive.  Grindon Hall in Sunderland has been branded inadequate by Ofsted. The previously fee-paying independent school has been embroiled in a long running creationism scandal and has also been warned over its finances (they seem to share a Bursar with Durham Free School). According to Janet Downs of the Local Schools Network, public money was used to settle the debts of the fee-paying school. The money was lent to North Eastern Christian Schools Limited, a private limited company which changed its name to Chantry House Associates Limited on 7 October 2014. Chantry House Associates has one director: Christopher John Gray, the head of Grindon Hall Christian School. Now Ofsted says Grindon Hall requires special measures.

The free school programme leaves families vulnerable to market forces. In Sweden, 10,000 children were left without school places last year when one of the country’s biggest operators, J B Education, was forced to close after its investors suffered heavy financial losses in the global recession. And Sweden has seen its place in the international PISA tables slide – it is now below average in reading, Science and Maths. The recently elected coalition government in Sweden has now said that it will be removing the profit motive from education.


Key Note Speaker Announced for 7 February Conference

Linda Norrby, senior officer with Swedish teaching union Lärarförbundetat will be the keynote speaker at the AAA/ SERTUC conference on Saturday 7 February. Also speaking will be Natalie Bennett, leader of the Green Party, whose education policies were recently criticised by Labour Education frontbencher Tristram Hunt, MP. There are still some places available for this one-day event at Congress House in central London. Please book via email or call 020 7467 1220.


Money, Money, Money           

The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee could scarcely contain its bewilderment when taking evidence from Sir Greg Martin, Executive Headteacher of South London’s Durand Academy. Chair of the Committee Margaret Hodge MP said she found the academy’s financial arrangements ‘pretty gobsmacking’ and queried how a headteacher of an academy recently downgraded by Ofsted had time to run a school, a leisure group (built on land transferred from the school) and a dating agency! The MPs were surprised to learn that in 2012-13 Sir Greg earned £161,000 as the sole director of GMG leisure group on top of his £200,000 salary.

The National Audit Office has taken the most unusual step of issuing an ‘adverse opinion’ on the DfE’s accounts. It explained that the Whitehall department had not properly accounted for spending by thousands of individual academies. The head of the NAO said the DfE’s failure to provide statements that gave a “true and fair view” of the financial activity of its organisations meant it was not meeting the requirements of parliament.

Meanwhile Schools Week reports that individual academies have been bailed out with government advances, including £1m handed to millionaire Academies Minister Lord Nash’s own Pimlico Academy in Westminster.

On the other hand, Portslade Aldridge has received a financial notice to improve because it has not paid back £100,000 owed to the DfE. This is the same Brighton academy where Principal James Fox left last term following the mis-registration of GCSE entries. And in Bradford, the founding principal of Kings Science Academy has been re-bailed while police enquiries into financial irregularities continue. Bradford East MP David Ward told the Telegraph and Argus  “This investigation has been unbelievably long. I hope the length of time of this investigation means they are doing a completely thorough job” adding that “I have always been told by the Department for Education they can’t discuss it because of the police investigation”. The academy has since been taken over by the Dixons chain and has been re-branded as Dixons Kings Academy.


An unfortunate coincidence of circumstances

Solicitor Julian Gizzi, whose practice is contracted to provide legal services to Ofsted, has completed the second review into allegations that the Inspiration Trust had prior notice of Ofsted inspections of three Norfolk academies. Mr Gizzi found that, on the balance of probabilities, the academies were not given any more than the required notice. However Mr Gizzi reports that there was ‘an unfortunate coincidence of circumstances’ in which ‘the Ormiston Victory Academy server, containing all the emails from the relevant period, was replaced when the academy moved into their new premises in November 2013. I understand that the server is currently disconnected and so the emails are inaccessible. Furthermore, I was informed that the minutes of the Senior Leadership Team (SLT) meetings for May 2013 are missing from both the paper and electronic files held by the academy. Finally, I was told that all the emails contained on Dame Rachel’s Inspiration Trust email account, dating from March 2013 onwards, were irrevocably deleted by accident in September 2014.’ The Observer had alleged that Dame Rachel de Souza, Chief Executive of the Inspiration Trust, told her secretary: “14 and 15th May – please do not add any further appointments – I am expecting a late notice very important event on or around those days.” Ormiston Victory Academy was inspected on 14th and 15th May 2014. Apparently Dame Rachel’s secretary was not available to take part in the investigation.


Country Wide Campaigns

Secretary of State Nicky Morgan tells us she is ‘not a forcing type of person’ but there seems to be no let-up in the pressure on schools to become academies. Could this be because the newly appointed regional schools commissioners will be judged on how many schools convert?

When asked by the Eastern Daily Press whether he will try to convert as many schools as possible because he will be judged on this, Dr Tim Coulson, Regional Schools Commissioner for the Eastern region, said he told schools “just to become an academy for being an academy’s sake isn’t for me the be-all-and-end-all”. We shall judge him by his actions.

More than one hundred parents and school staff packed a public meeting on 17 January in Oxted, Surrey demanding a ballot over the local secondary school’s plan to convert to foundation status as a first step to becoming an academy. Parents and local campaigners argue that this has nothing to do with education and everything to do with property. As a foundation school the governors would own the freehold of some prime Surrey real estate. Read more at the campaign’s website.

Also in Surrey, Lightwater and Hammond schools have been benefiting from working together. Now Lightwater governors are proposing leaving the federation and joining an academy chain. Parents are demanding a ballot and have organised a petition.

Good news from South Shields on Tyneside where governors at Harton Technology College – judged outstanding by Ofsted in every regard – have dropped plans for academy conversion after taking account of the views of staff, parents, unions, the local authority and other stakeholders.

Parents in Kent are demanding input into the choice of sponsor for their children’s highly inclusive primary school. They argue that Twydall School in Gillingham is one of the few primary schools in Medway which has provision for a large number of special needs pupils. Parents lobbied Kent County Council over concerns that the preferred sponsor – Thinking Schools Academies Trust – does not have proven experience in this area.

Anti-academy campaigners in Norwich have submitted their petition about Hewett School. They’re waiting to hear whether the Interim Board put in place by Norfolk County Council will choose academy status or a future within the local authority.

It’s hardly surprising that parents and staff continue to campaign with passion and determination to prevent sponsors from taking over their community schools. The DfE even treats MPs with derision. Kevin Brennan MP asked in Parliament whether the DfE would publish their quality gradings for academy sponsors but he was met with a terse response: “The disclosure of this information would prejudice, or would be likely to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs.” Just a few days later Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan MP, wrote to the Chief Inspector at Ofsted appearing to concede that she would allow clustered inspections of chain academies but would not allow the watchdog to issue a judgement on the chain’s performance. It is a disgrace that school governors are expected to take informed decisions, following due diligence, without the most basic information about the proposed sponsors.


And Finally

One favoured sponsor Lilac Sky, led by former London headteacher Trevor Averre-Beeson who has recently published a book on school improvement – has suggested a radical approach at Tabor Academy in Essex by asking parents and students to come up with a new name for the school. Apparently this will mark the change with the ‘recent past’ when Ofsted judged the academy to require special measures.

The Anti Academies Alliance does not celebrate or crow over any free school or academy failure – of course not, we are governors, parents, teachers and school staff who want a good local school for every child – but as long as the DfE insists that academies outperform maintained schools and it forces schools to convert – we will report and publicise the shortcomings of the privatised system.


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