Monday 19 January 2015

Uproar in Oxted

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There are already very many good reasons why academies need greater democratic oversight and accountability. The shocking news about academies stockpiling taxpayers’ cash at the expense of community schools – and therefore the majority of our children – ought make politicians of all parties realise that this programme has to stop.

Had it been the case that academy conversions brought unprecedented and substantial school improvement then, perhaps, the billions spent could have been justified. But the truth is there is not a single scrap of evidence on the planet that demonstrates this.

Everyone who works in education now knows this. Even some politicians know. After all, isn’t that why Cameron sacked Gove? His spin doctors sussed that outside of the Westminster bubble, the boardrooms of edu-businesses and few hyper-ambitious head teachers, academy conversion was not actually popular at all.

Anyone who doubts this should look at the uproar in Oxted, Surrey, a solid Tory area. Over 150 parents and their local community met at the weekend to discuss proposals to turn their local school into an academy.

You can find out the full story on the parents Facebook page and from the BBC report. But the essence of the matter is that, having promised two years ago not to convert, the school leadership is now proposing to do so. Furthermore, there is a murky issue of changing to foundation status prior to the change to academy status. Is this to ensure the trust has complete ownership of the land? Who knows?

The parents certainly don’t know what is going on. But of course there will be the ‘consultation’ and maybe all will be revealed. But it is only a consultation. The Academies Act 2010 – Gove’s shameful legacy – means consultation in this context is utterly meaningless. It matters not a jot what is said, when it is said and who says it, unless you are in favour of conversion.

Indeed, the poverty of the academy conversion consultation and decision making process is one of the main reasons the programme is so unpopular. It has created a such climate of suspicion and distrust that even in Tory heartlands, parents are asking questions like: Is this academy trust after the school land? Are they after our school so they can build their business and top slice the budgets to pay fat cat – sorry market rate – salaries to the directors and CEO?

Maybe Oxted is an exception? Not at all. Just before Christmas a vicious dispute broke out at Bisham Primary on the banks of the River Thames near Maidenhead. The local MP is Home Secretary Theresa May!  I spoke at a parents meeting chaired by a former Senior Executive of IBM! These parents wanted a say in the future! They are still outraged at how their school has been treated.

In neither the Bisham nor Oxted meeting did anyone speak out in favour academy status. Only one person offered a critique in their defence but only on the premise that it was a done deal because that is the ‘direction of travel these days’. I suspect this was a Tory Party activist who could no longer bring himself to articulate in public the free market- privatisation – ideology that underpins the whole academies programme.

It was this same issue that enraged the parents of Hove Park School last year. They used ‘people power’ to reassert their democratic right to have a say in the future of their school. They forced the LA to hold a ballot, whilst not binding on the school, it created enough to win.

If the uproar in Oxted is not an exception, why are politicians of all the major parties – except the Greens – so wedded to the academies programme?

Despite sacking Gove, the Tories remain 100% committed to the academies programme. They just hope that Nicky Morgan’s soft soap approach will do enough to hide this from the electorate. Austerity and privatisation are the blood and sinews of the Tory Party.

Fortunately Gove’s sacking has marginalised the lunatic education right-wing, at least for the moment. We will have wait a longer to see their manifesto pledges, but the die-hard academy ultras like James O’Shaughnessy, xxxxx and others connected to Policy Exchange want the Tories to push on to a full privatisation model either through vouchers or ‘for profit’ schooling after the election.

Austerity and privatisation are the blood and sinews of the Tory Party. What is much harder to understand is the approach of Tristam Hunt and the Labour Party. He has targeted the lunacy of  free schools but he remains quiet on academies.

It is not yet clear if education will be a key area of debate in the election. It should be. But all the major parties – again apart from the Greens – appear to rely on the academy programme as the central plank in their school improvement strategy.

They should listen to parents in Oxted. They are not all anti academy but they are heartily sick of been told what is best for them by politicians and businessmen who claim to know best. The parents want a ballot on academy conversion. How any politician can resist this is beyond comprehension.  Schools need their parent community to be engaged not enraged. Academy conversion by diktat is a disgrace in democratic 21st century Britain.

Fiona Millar has rightly suggested that the big education election idea should be for politicians to trust teachers and school leaders.
Whilst this is necessary, it is not sufficient. Tragically, far too many school leaders have disgraced themselves and the profession by seizing on academy ‘freedoms’ to enrich themselves, to resort to cronyism or corruption, or to become CEOs and edu-business entrepreneurs. If you loosen the ties of regulation and allow individuals or small cliques to control huge budgets you increase the risk of malfunction. Isn’t that what happened in the banking sector in 2008?

This brings us back to the need for accountability that the Oxted parents and many others demand. Academy trusts are apparently accountable to DfE. This is not good enough. Regional School Commissioners are not good enough either. The accountability framework has to be democratic and local if it is to be credible.

A sensible route would be to repeal the Academies Act 2010. But failing that there is a need to legislate to ensure that academy conversion should only happen after a majority vote of stakeholders. It might be complicated and costly to organise such ballots but the prize of restoring trust and accountability is worth it.

However, the real test for the credibility of our politicians would be to legislate to enshrine the right of every free school and academy to ballot to return to the Local Authority.

The issue that really enrages the Oxted parents is that they want the right to have say in the decision. They voted unanimously to demand a ballot over academy conversion. It looks like they will fight to secure that right.

Meanwhile the bond of trust that exists between schools and parents is being undermined by academy conversions. Any politician who wants to secure the future of education, who wants to strengthen school communities should take notice of the uproar in Oxted.

 

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