A story about the pre-election conversion of a small village primary school in Somerset serves as a warning about the DfE’s willingness to bypass its own procedures and ignore any pretence of democratic accountability – a somewhat premature foreshadowing of the Education and Adoption Bill.
The Education and Adoption Bill 2015-16 will enable the secretary of state, through regional schools commissioners, to require ‘coasting’ schools to convert to become sponsored academies. Governors who oppose these measures will be removed. In practice, before the passage of this bill, a number of schools, academy trusts and DfE academy ‘brokers’ may have ignored the provisions of the 2010 Academies Act, which required all schools proposing to convert, forced or not, to consult parents. The DfE further demanded that those schools needing a sponsor had to consider a choice of trusts. The schools’ governing boards, naturally, retained control over decision-making until the date of conversion.
In the autumn of 2014, one of the newly-appointed Regional Schools Commissioners declared to a conference of school governors and academics that “We don’t talk about forced academisation at the DfE anymore.” The DfE continued to force schools to convert to academy status, even though they wouldn’t talk about it. With a much wider brief to create unaccountable academies than her predecessor could have dreamed about, it is now open season for the Secretary of State on all remaining maintained schools, initially on those defined as ‘coasting’.
The DfE gave notice to to convert Castle School to a sponsored academy in the early autumn of 2014, by reason of one Ofsted inspection grade of inadequate, after a history of ‘good’ outcomes. The LA did not dispute the ruling, and warned the governors that it would be replaced by an Interim Executive Board which would oversee the transition if they didn’t accept it.
Since 2010, the process of academy conversion, including ‘forced’ sponsor conversion, has required the governors to consider more than one potential sponsor; to conduct a consultation with interested parties on the decision to convert; and to continue to take all strategic and operational responsibility for the school until the designated conversion date, at which point – and only at which point – the sponsor trust takes over. The section on consultation from Section 3 of the DfE document “Convert to an academy; guide for schools” reads:
Your governing body must consult formally with anyone who has an interest in your school about plans to become an academy. This will include staff members and parents. The consultation must be completed before you sign your academy funding agreement, so we suggest you begin the consultation at this point to allow time for everyone with an interest to respond.
At Castle Primary School:
There was no discussion with the governors about potential sponsors
The governing board was told that the choice of sponsor had been made shortly after the decision to require conversion was communicated to them, in the autumn of 2014. A potential sponsor with whom they had arranged to have a preliminary discussion was instructed by the DfE not to meet with them. As minutes show, “governors were prevented from pursuing alternative sponsorship opportunities”.
Despite explicit promises to the contrary, the governors were not involved in the appointment of the new headteacher
As Christmas 2014 approached, the governors had negotiated with the interim headteacher they had appointed with the agreement of the LA to remain in post until Easter 2015. Out of the blue, the GB Chair was ‘advised’ by the LA to appoint a deputy head of the sponsor school as interim head with effect from 1st January, 2015, and to send the incumbent back to her substantive post at another school. He was allegedly told that he had the authority to do this without consulting with his colleague governors, and did not need their consent. There was no legal basis for this action. A chair can only bypass his governing board where failing to take action may be ‘seriously detrimental’ to the school – unlikely in this case as the governors had already agreed that her work was having very good effects, and expected her to continue through until Easter. Was the new interim head properly appointed? Almost certainly not. Indeed, the minutes of a meeting of the board held on the 14th November show that the local authority adviser (Mr Neil Chislett) and the executive head of the Redstart Trust (Mrs Suzanne Flack) promised to involve the governors – indeed, “urged [them] to start the process of headteacher appointment with the sponsor whilst in the process of conversion”.
Would the headteacher appointment be a fair process?” asked the governors, of the DfE broker, Mrs Wendy Woodcock. “Yes”, she replied. “It would be a fair process, the most suitable person being appointed.”
Despite these promises, the chair was told, within a matter of days, to use his (non-existent) executive powers to appoint the executive head’s deputy to the post.
To whom was this man accountable for his management of the school and its performance during the school’s continuing existence as a local authority school: the existing governing board or his line manager head and trust at the sponsor school elect?
There is no evidence of a parental consultation meeting the legal requirements
There is no written evidence of any consultation with parents. Governors were told to approve the conversion before the end of February 2015. They complained that the consultation period appeared to be meaningless (supposedly from the 14th November 2014 to 26th February 2015), but Neil Chislett said that it was “just not possible to put a selection of potential sponsors forward for discussion” – despite the governors having found a possible alternative.
But did any actual consultation take place? Efforts to retrieve any copies of a letter to parents explaining the options, inviting opinions, and giving opening and closing dates for comments have proved in vain. The school website contains no information about a consultation prior to conversion. Governors appear to have been told that one parental meeting constituted the consultation. This letter, dated 16th January – more than two months after the consultation supposedly began – invited parents to a meeting to hear “the process of converting to an Academy” and to receive “information on how the Multi Academy Trust will work”. The minutes of this meeting, held at 9.00 am on the 30th January, however, contain no reference to any consultation, either before or after the meeting. The conversion to Redstart Trust sponsorship, based fifteen miles away in Chard, is presented to parents as a fait accompli. And the meeting was conducted, not by the governors (who may not even have been present), but by the aspiring executive principal and the ‘new’ head, already in place. No other interested parties were informed. An ‘advertisement in the local community’, like the ‘letters sent to parents’, has not been forthcoming, despite requests under the Freedom of Information legislation. Similarly, no written copy of the required report back on the consultation is available – it has been a statutory requirement that governors show they have taken such a report into consideration.
Information for parents seems to have been confined to this meeting and to the website. Newsletters to parents on the website dated February and March 2015 make no reference to conversion or any other structural issues.
Representatives of the DfE, Somerset County Council and the Redstart Trust acted with undue haste to put the trust in control of the school.
A letter dated 9th February, 2015 to parents (just 10 days after the parents’ meeting and after a GB meeting) shows ‘Suzanne Flack’ as ‘Executive Principal’ and ‘Jeremy Handscomb’ as Head of School. These designations appeared even though the school was still an LA school under Somerset County Council responsibility, and the ‘consultation’ by no means finished. To whom, we might ask, were they accountable for any leadership decisions during the two months between the start of the year and the formal conversion on 1st March?
Were governors’ potential conflicts of interest declared?
The website at 6th April 2015 showed the local governing board with seven members. It is interesting that the staff governor and head of early years at the school throughout the conversion process was the wife of the chair of governors. Did the chair declare this?
Was this conversion an illegal process?
What was going on here? The process for conversion was breached in at least three respects:
the governors were given, and were therefore able to offer to parents, no choice of sponsor. The DfE and the LA agreed between them who the sponsor would be, and the governors were prevented from exploring alternatives. Secondly, a public consultation must meet certain legal requirements – the governing board must agree who it is appropriate to consult; the consultees must be given sufficient and accurate information to make a reasoned judgment; there must be a clear timescale, and the report must be considered by the governors. There is no evidence of any of these fundamental democratic and legal protections being met by the school. Thirdly, the governors were promised a meaningful role in a fair headteacher appointment process, which within days was overruled by the combined forces of the DfE, the LA and the Trust.
Exploring as I have done all the documents that have been made available to me, and responses from the DfE, the Regional Schools Commissioner, and the Executive Principal, I believe that the department and the local authority may have breached statutory requirements both in the spirit and the letter of the law. The facts above have been presented to the Redstart Trust, the DfE and the Sir David Carter, the Regional Schools Commissioner.
All this is now in the past. The school converted, and local villagers lost control, on March 1st – just in time to avoid ‘electoral purdah’ – a major driver, it seems, in this helter-skelter dash to shed local democratic accountability. Extraordinarily, the fact that the school sits in the constituency of the then schools minister, David Laws, did nothing to help its cause. The local newspaper, owned by the Mail group, reported about angry parents in the summer of 2014, but no more was heard from them after that, and efforts to get them to cover the story, or even print letters about it, were in vain. The democratic shutdown was complete; the key players could claim – as I am sure they will continue to do – that the parents were in favour, that the governors could have kicked up a fuss if they’d disapproved.
But the authorities are cleverer than that. They said, and governors and villagers in their innocence believed them, that there was no alternative – here’s the sponsor you’ll have: “There is a limited choice in a rural community and it is just not possible to put a selection of potential sponsors forward for discussion’, said Neil Chislet from Somerset County Council – even though the DfE had already forbidden one such potential sponsor to meet with the governors. ‘Would the headteacher appointment be a fair process?’ asked a governor of the academy broker, Wendy Woodcock (who, by the way, was paid £2250 for her role in this). Within a few days, the chair had been told to appoint a member of staff from the sponsor school as the new head, over the head of his own GB. Even with the process well down the road of completion, one of the governors asked the new executive principal if her trust’s ethos statement would incorporate Castle School’s emphasis on meeting the needs of the whole child, with a focus that was not just academic. The new principal’s reply:
“Suzanne (Flack) is not aware of the Castle ethos or what it looks like in practice.”
There will be hundreds, probably thousands of such conversions forced on ‘inadequate’ and ‘requiring improvement’ schools in the coming months and years. The government, at the time of writing, is passing a bill to unshackle local authorities, regional schools commissioners, DfE brokers and academy trusts from the very few tedious demands of local democracy and accountability. This sad history suggests that such a bill is unnecessary. Rules will continue to be ignored, due process will be flouted, downright lies will be told, time-servers and the politically and professionally ambitious will have their way. The facade of democratic school governance accountable to the community will be shattered. Shame on those who perpetrated this fraud on the community of a Somerset village and took away from them the school they had governed for 150 years.
18th September 2015
Nigel Gann is the author of “Improving School Governance”, the 2nd revised edition of which was published in October 2015. He is an education consultant and has been governor of eight state-funded schools over a period of 30 years.