The Harris Federation and Ofsted – What’s really going on?

 

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Last week the Anti Academies Alliance received an anonymous letter by post to our PO Box regarding the Upper Norwood Harris Academy. It makes some very serious allegations. As soon as we received the letter we contacted the Harris Federation’s head office. We were put through to a press officer who asked to see a copy of the letter. We sent this along with a request to comment on the allegations. We heard nothing from them.

It is not the first anonymous allegation we’ve had – indeed we got two this week and receiving whistle-blowing complaints has become a regular feature of our work. This is odd and suggests that the usual lines of accountability are being disrupted, but more on that later. The key question was what to do with the allegations?

It is clear that it is from a member of staff. We now know that the letter was sent to other individuals and other organisations. The tone of the letter suggests both fear and loathing. Whoever sent it does not like Harris, for sure. We believe it is a cry for help from a whistle-blower who fears that they cannot raise professional concerns. That in itself is good reason to publish.
There is another – educational – reason for publishing the allegations. The Education and Adoption Bill is passing through parliament. Central to the thinking behind this Bill is the government’s belief that sponsored academies are best way to improve ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ schools. The plan is to allow chains like the Harris Federation to take over more schools, more easily. Nicky Morgan seems to believe they have better leaders and better methods. This claim still needs to be tested and evidence presented to support it. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network has done an analysis using OFSTED data that shows sponsored academies are less effective at school improvement than local authority schools.
Only four sponsored academy chains are performing above average in terms of school improvement. The Harris Federation is one of the four. So its record is crucial to sustaining the government’s view that sponsored academies are better at school improvement. What if it is cheating on school improvement? The government, OFSTED and the general public really need to know. The government have put all their school improvement eggs in the sponsored academy basket. What are the implications if perhaps the most important chain in the country is cheating? As head teacher Tom Sherrington recently pointed out, Nicky Morgan needs to get her maths right and her facts straight otherwise she is merely promoting the ‘voodoo of academisation’. The future of school improvement rests on these issues.

But there also a third reason for publishing the letter. Public confidence in politicians has been declining for many years. The MPs expenses scandal and other things have brought the relationship between business and politicians under scrutiny in education too. In the 2006 there were allegations that former head teacher Des Smith had helped recruit wealthy sponsors for Tony Blair’s (City) Academies Programme by promising honours. Lord Harris – Tory party benefactor and owner of the Carpetright chain avoided any allegations, but his connections to the Tory Party continue throw up concerns. If the new Education Bill is passed, the Secretary of State will have even greater powers to hand schools over to sponsors. She will choose the sponsor and nobody will be able to question her decision. The system for selecting academy sponsors is already opaque. The criteria for selecting appropriate sponsors are secret. Under the new rules, could it be possible that certain business people might be able to influence the Secretary of State in the matter of which school they would like to take over? When Tory Party donors and CEO’s (Sir Dan Dan Moniyhan, CEO of the Harris Federation was knighted in 2012) knock on Nicky Morgan’s door, she needs to know if they are playing by the rules.

So, for three good reasons, we are publishing the letter today. We have also written to OFSTED and the Secretary of State Nicky Morgan alerting them to the allegations. We believe they need investigating and answering and that this should be done publicly and transparently.

The text of the letter we received on 26th June 2015 is as follows:

It may interest you to learn of the Harris Academy Chain’s approach to OFSTED inspections. Harris Academy Upper Norwood in South London is being inspected today. Virtually all the normal teaching staff have been sent home for two days to be replaced by a specialist team of Harris teaching staff from outside the school with pre-prepared lessons. 10% of the students who might be thought of as challenging have been removed for the duration of the inspection. Not really in the spirit of the inspection process is it? This is common practice amongst Harris Schools and just the tip of the “dirty tricks” they use to boost examinations and con inspectors.

Staff at the school are treated appallingly and 40 are leaving this year. The Harris model of education is a virus. Please help expose it.

 

We hope, for the sake of the children and parents, at the Upper Norwood and other Harris Academies, that these allegations are false. For too long, our children have been put at the centre of an experiment. Politicians, of all colours, have told us that the privatisation of schools – by turning them into academies under business sponsors – will improve education, especially for the most disadvantaged. After nearly 10 years we now know there is no ‘academy effect’. Hopefully, this letter will encourage the government to remove their ideological blinkers and start to engage in an evidence based approach to school improvement.

Edited to add:

The Federation did respond on 30th June. Unfortunately their email went straight into our email junk folder. We can only apologise for that. We re-print their response in full below.

There is not much more to say. Our readers can judge for themselves. We would however like to correct the misconception that our ‘sole purpose is to attack academies’. It is not. Indeed many of our supporters work in academies! And we have always acknowledged the dedication and hard work of teachers, including those in academies.

We exist to expose the lies and stupidity of politicians and sponsors who promote the myth that academisation is a better vehicle for school improvement.

After 10 years of playing politics with school structures as part of some neo-liberal grand strategy to roll back the state (Gove used the phrase ‘supply side revolution’ – we call it privatisation) it is clear the experiment has failed.

Unfortunately the poverty of political representation in the Westminster bubble means that this simple truth – based on evidence- is not being given sufficient attention.

We exist to ensure that it is. If there are any parents, staff or children unhappy about that please let us know.

This is the full text of the Harris Federation’s response

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Federation about the anonymous letter you received and for your courtesy in sharing its contents with us.

Given its anonymity, it is impossible for either you or us to tell whether the person who sent it is in fact a “whistleblower” with a genuine concern to raise. It could as likely be someone intent on damaging the reputation of the school and choosing the Anti Academies Alliance as the recipient of their ire in the belief that  you will give them the oxygen of publicity with the least amount of objective scrutiny.

The Harris Federation has a very strong policy on whistleblowing, however, and we believe that any accusations received need to be investigated appropriately. As we agreed on the phone, the correct recipient for accusations such as this is Ofsted and we would ask that you do indeed forward the letter to them so that they can choose what, if any, action to take.

We are likewise providing you with a full response to refute these accusations because we believe it is in the interests of the hard-working and committed staff at the academy that we do so. It would be completely inappropriate for their work, dedication and talent to be tainted by allegations that have no basis.  As an organisation whose sole purpose is to attack academies, you obviously have an agenda that you will fight to promote but we would hope that the strength of the answers we set out below would mean you would pause to think before publishing.

Therefore, to answer the points raised in the letter:

Harris Academy Upper Norwood did receive an Ofsted inspection last week. (For your information, the academy amalgamated with our South Norwood academy in September 2014 however, it retains its own identity and school number hence its Ofsted inspection but shares teaching staff and a 6th Form with the South Norwood site).
The school days during the visit were exactly as should be expected at this time of the school year including controlled assessments taking place in languages for Yr 10 and the new timetable underway to begin GCSE work now that current Year 11s and Year 13s have departed. These timetable changes are introduced at this time of year every year and allow students to get to know their teachers for next year, alleviate the need for Supply Teachers at both school sites, and allow next year’s curriculum to begin to be taught by the right staff. These changes were routine and the Ofsted inspectors were fully informed.

No members of staff were sent home for the inspection.
No lessons were taught by brought in Federation staff.
There were no pre-prepared lessons. As we are sure you will know, inspection now very much focuses on what is in students’ books. This means it is not possible to “hide” the work of students. All lessons had books available to the inspectors.

Students were not kept at home. All lessons had seating plans available to the inspectors who could track any absence and ask the school to account fully for any student not present. To have an absence rate of 10% would have rightly been raised by Ofsted had that been the case.

It is untrue that 40 of its staff are leaving the school this summer. When it was a stand-alone academy, it didn’t even have 40 teaching staff. Since being amalgamated with our South Norwood academy in September, the school has one staff across both sites. There are not 40 staff leaving the combined staff either this summer.

Cynics might argue that it is fortuitous that you have received this anonymous letter just as the Education and Adoption Bill is being debated. No credible journalist, for example, would publish these allegations without being able to confirm the veracity of their source or be able to get it substantiated by a second source.

You however seem very keen to publish the allegations on your website. You may have no reason, as you say, to doubt the letter’s “authenticity”. Likewise, we would suggest, you have equally no reason to treat it seriously other than your desire to generate publicity for the Anti Academies Alliance.

Should you choose, on reflection, to print the allegation you have received, we would request that you would display a similar courtesy and commitment to openness and accountability by publishing this response in full too.

 

 

 

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Join us to oppose the Education Bill

Houses of Parliament Monday 22nd June 6pm

 

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‘The government is privatising our school system – and disregarding parents, teachers and communities’

Ahead of the release of the government’s new Education Bill, education secretary Nicky Morgan has defended plans to turn more schools into academies, at a faster rate. Christine Blower, General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers, argues that the move will not benefit pupils.

The government’s drive to force yet more academies upon the education sector is another episode in a long saga of disregard for what parents, teachers and communities want.

A pledge to convert ‘up to 1,000’ schools is as irrational as it is impractical. Head teachers are already in short supply, so the promise to sack more of them will simply exacerbate the problem. Where does Nicky Morgan imagine that new teachers and heads will come from?

Nicky Morgan justifies this extended and accelerated privatisation of our school system by claiming that the government cares about standards. Yet there is now a mountain of evidence which shows that there is no ‘academy effect’ on standards in schools. Indeed, research by the Sutton Trust concluded that the very poor results of some academy chains – both for pupils generally and for the disadvantaged pupils they were particularly envisaged to support – comprised ‘a clear and urgent problem’.

Not only that but today’s education and adoption bill seeks to target primary schools in its attack on 1,000 schools deemed to be ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’. This is despite there being no evidence-base whatsoever supporting the idea that academy status is a positive good in the primary sector.

Even the Commons Education Select Committee agrees that ‘there is no convincing evidence’ on the effectiveness of the programme. Indeed, the Local Schools Network argues that there is in fact a negative impact.

There are well over 100 academies deemed ‘inadequate’ by Ofsted – some 4.4% of those already in existence, according to April 2015 figures. This compares to less than 1.8% of community schools. A change in structure is not axiomatically the path to school improvement. It is irresponsible to tell parents otherwise.

In 2010, the coalition government railroaded through its Academies Act with the minimum of consultation, and with a haste comparable to the Dangerous Dogs Act. The Academies Act made it impossible for new schools to be built unless they were academies or free schools. The promise was that free schools would be parent-led but in reality are predominantly the preserve of academy chains.

The coalition government was not shy about forcing and coercing schools towards academisation. Today, the Department for Education has even sought to further smear Downhills Primary, a school which was targeted for conversion despite the fact that it was improving and a poll of parents showed that 94% wanted it to remain a community school.

The Academies Act was driven by ideology, not evidence, and today’s Education and Adoption Bill builds on this by removing opportunities for consultation and legal challenges on academisation.

This is symptomatic of a government which is increasingly hostile to people’s democratic right to challenge decisions made in Westminster. For further evidence witness the attacks on legal aid, judicial review and the latest threat to the Human Rights Act.

Now Nicky Morgan seeks not just to ignore dissent, but to silence it altogether. This is an attack on parents and teachers as well as elected local councillors and the communities which schools serve. This is a threat to democracy which will be strongly opposed by campaigners.

Read more: http://metro.co.uk/2015/06/03/the-government-is-privatising-our-school-system-and-disregarding-parents-teachers-and-communities-5228512/#ixzz3cCnqJGAy

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Nicky Morgan is wrong – the evidence for academies doesn’t add up

Henry Stewart writes for the Guardian:

The education secretary Nicky Morgan has today launched a bill designed to sweep away any obstacles when as many as 1,000 “struggling” schools convert to academies. It is designed to prevent appeals and reviews, and will impose a new duty on councils and governing bodies, whatever they believe is best for their children, to actively support the change to academy status. Morgan justifies this on the basis that “a day spent in special measures is a day too long where a child’s education is concerned” and that it will allow education experts to help out poorly performing schools as soon as possible.

The underlying claim here is that academy conversion is a simple process that leads not just to improvement, but to that school becoming outstanding. Morgan may believe this, but it is hard to find any evidence to support it. The education select committee, chaired by Graham Stuart of the Conservatives, carried out a thorough review of academies and free schools and found no such evidence. “Academisation is not always successful nor is it the only proven alternative for a struggling school,” was one of their conclusions. Indeed, Morgan has ignored their recommendation that “the government should stop exaggerating the success of academies”.

Similarly, the National Foundation for Educational Research found that “no significant improvement is seen in the rate of improvement of GCSE results for academy schools over and above the rate of improvement in all schools”. The Department for Education itself, in a high court case last summer, argued only for “marginally higher” achievement for academies rather than the dramatic results that Morgan is claiming.

Our own analysis at the Local Schools Network has consistently shown that when schools are converted to academies their improvement is no better than similar local authority schools. Indeed, in last year’s GCSE figures, the results of sponsored academies consistently fell more than the results of non-academies.

After Ofsted inspections carried out since conversion, 8% of primary sponsored academies, and 14% of secondaries, are currently rated “inadequate”. It is not clear what the government’s solution is for children in these schools in special measures. The evidence would suggest the best solution might be to hand them back to local authorities, but this is unlikely to happen under this government.

When Morgan talks of bringing in “education experts”, she is referring to the academy chains that now dominate the government’s approach to education. Far from knowing exactly how to make a school outstanding, most underperform compared to local authorities. The Department for Education’s own analysis found that, of the top 20 chains, only three had performances, in terms of value added, that were above the national average.

 Ofsted is not allowed to directly inspect chains, as it does with local authorities, but has carried out mass inspections of the schools in specific chains. This has resulted in highly critical conclusions on several chains. In two of the largest chains, at least half of the schools were rated “requires improvement” or “inadequate”.

There have been successful campaigns against the conversions of schools. At Hove Park school in Brighton academisation was fought off after parents voted against it in a council-run poll. At Snaresbrook primary school in Redbridge, the DfE agreed not to go ahead with academy conversion after parents won the support of the Conservative-run local council. It now appears that such actions would be prevented under the new legislation.

The government’s claims about the effect of academy conversion are assertions based on ideology, not data. In this light it is especially worrying that councils and governors are to be forced to ignore both the evidence and their conscience. Instead of a duty to do what is best for the children, their duty now will apparently be to support government policy.

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/03/nicky-morgan-wrong-evidence-academies-bill

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Raising Standards or Privatising Schools? – The truth behind the Education Bill

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This article looks at the recent developments following the election, Nicky Morgan’s announcement of a new Education Bill and the recent victory in Lewisham against at a MAT (multi-academy trust) conversion. Martin Powell Davies from SAIL (Stop Academies in Lewisham Campaign) explains in detail behind the victory. National Secretary of AAA, Alasdair Smith, outlines the context, analyses Tory policy and discusses the implications of the Lewisham victory.

 

The unexpected election result has generated a whiff of Tory triumphalism. They believe they have a mandate on social policy and, although it was not mentioned in their manifesto, they plan a radical extension of the academies programme to include ‘coasting’ schools. Yet there is no evidence that their education policies are popular. Ironically, Lynton Crosby (Cameron’s spin doctor) argued a year before the election that Gove had to be sacked to detoxify the Tories.

But now the Tories believe they have the wind in the sails. Morgan’s announcement of a new Education Bill is pure Gove: More “failure”, more blame, more academies, and more privatisation.

This government only has one education policy – privatise everything. They seem oblivious to the fact that academy conversion doesn’t guarantee school improvement, social justice or more autonomy.

 

“If you are going to tell a lie, tell a big one and tell it often”.

The academies programme has always been short of evidence. But under Gove and now Morgan, the lies and misrepresentation have grown to Orwellian ‘doublethink’ levels. The press statement made on 3rd June 2105 demonstrates this clearly. This is what she said:

“Today’s landmark bill will allow the best education experts to intervene in poor schools from the first day we spot failure. It will sweep away the bureaucratic and legal loopholes previously exploited by those who put ideological objections above the best interests of children,”

First it is not a landmark bill. It’s a continuity bill following directly in the footsteps of the 2010 Act that created the framework for accelerating academies conversion by removing any shred of democratic decision-making and turning consultation into farce (The 2010 Act allows consultation to happen after the decision to convert had already been made).

The hollow rhetoric about ‘spotting failure on the first day’ and ‘allowing the best education experts to fix it’ is obscene. The implication is that heads, governors, teachers and parents are either too stupid or malicious to see problems in their own school. If Morgan had any understanding of what it means to run, or even work in a school, she would not make such a statement. This use of ‘failure’ to pursue ideological convictions is very damaging to school communities. It masks the real problems and encourages fake or dishonest solutions.

Finally, Morgan’s claim that campaigners have exploited legal loopholes for ideological reasons is a classic inversion of reality. There are almost no bureaucratic hurdles or loopholes to conversion. Trust me, if there were, the AAA would have used them. There have been hardly any successful judicial reviews and where successful they have only stalled the process temporarily, usually because the consultation arrangements were not followed properly. Academy conversion requires a simple majority decision of the governing in one meeting only. It can take place in a matter of 6 to 8 weeks. Perhaps the only exception to this has been events in Lewisham (see below) but this came as a surprise to us and is apparently the result of a drafting mistake in the 2010 Act.

All this fakery about bureaucratic and legal loopholes is a smokescreen to hide the widespread concerns by parents and teachers about the lack of democracy and honesty in academy conversion. Over the last 8 years we have supported hundreds of groups asking for help against conversion. They approach us. They are not motivated by ideology. In fact their usual complaint is that ideology (“academy conversion is good”) is being forced on them. There is a barely a week that goes by without another request for help, another complaint another group of parents frustrated that their views are not listened to.

Just this week, we have been contacted by a group of Somali parents in West London concerned about the lack of consultation in an Ark primary school. A teacher and governor in Medway in Kent contacted us about a scandalous cover-up of child abuse in an academy. A parent has written to us complaining of bullying by an academy head in Wolverhampton. People are contacting us because the normal avenues for complaints have been closed. Accountability is dying. It is being replaced by corporate dictat.

So while the ‘sweeping away of resistance’ may make for good headlines in the Tory press, the reality is very different. Injustice creates resistance. If there are no checks on a system, abuse will increase. This is exactly what is happening. Schools are now the victims of financial scandals, cronyism and outright corruption. They have also seen the growth of ‘fat-catism’ – as a minority of heads or CEO’s have chosen to pay themselves huge salaries (£365,000 is the highest we know of).

 

“One size does fit all, after all”

For years the proponents of academy movement claimed that local authority schools were straight-jacketed by a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Academies would bring diversity and innovation they said. So it seems a little ironic that that Nicky Morgan now believes that one corporate school improvement policy fits all circumstances. Schools in the newly invented category ‘coasting’ schools apparently require exactly the same treatment as schools in ‘Special Measures’. Whatever the problem, the only solution is academisation. Yet parents, teachers and head teachers know that academisation is not a magic bullet for school improvement. Morgan says that academy status will prevent children languishing in under-performing schools but 46% of sponsored academies are themselves judged by Ofsted as ‘requires improvement’ or ‘inadequate’, including a number in MAT chains.

  

What’s going to happen to failing academies, Nicky?

The Secretary of State has some important questions to answer. But perhaps the central question is what happens to failing academies? Are they taken over by other academies? Why can’t successful local authorities step in and support these schools? What happens if an academy wants to go back to the local authority? What happens if parents aren’t satisfied with their academy? And so on. These questions have been asked but the only answer that I am aware of is that other academies will take them over. In the long run this means the takeover of schools as big chains swallow up small chains and single schools. Michael Gove called it a ‘supply side revolution’. It is a nightmare scenario that has already been tested on public transport and increasingly in health. It leads to a concentration and centralisation of power in the hands of the few. The consumer – the parents and children –will be dominated by corporate power. No wonder, they talk about the need to sweep away resistance.

 

Opposition will continue

This Tory attempt to silence dissent and deny a democratic voice for parents and staff will backfire. In effect they are saying ‘we don’t care what you think, we know best. Forget evidence, our ideas are more important. Business is best and anyone who disagrees can get lost’. Such hubris breeds resentment and can create deep divisions. It creates a ‘them and us’ culture.

If school communities degenerate into head teacher and governors v parents and staff, our children will be the losers. The social fabric of our school system –already fraying at the edges – will unravel further.

Yet there are good grounds for optimism. Teachers and their unions are still fighting conversions, and in some cases resorting to strike action. Parents are demanding ballots on conversion and at Hove Park last year a particular controversial conversion was halted by united, parent & teacher action.

Although the Lewisham technicality may soon be closed, we should use the law as it now stands to halt any current proposals for MATs. We also need to target this new Education Bill – inside and outside parliament. And we’ll need to find new ways for parents and others to get justice within a privatised education system.

But there’s something else to watch. Schools will feel the full brunt of austerity measures in the coming months and years. Not only will the quality of our education system be threatened, the full force of privatisation – for profit schooling – maybe unleashed. For the proponents of GERM – the Global Educational Reform Movement – austerity provides the perfect opportunity for privatisation and an education world dominated by corporations such a Pearson and Murdoch’s NewsCorp. This is the real  Tory education vision.

 

Victory in Lewisham – by Martin Powell Davies

Anti-academy campaigners from SAIL, the Stop Academies in Lewisham Campaign, are celebrating after the Chair of Governors of the Prendergast Federation announced to parents today that they are stopping the ongoing consultation on their plans to convert their three federated schools into a Multi Academy Trust. Instead of being able to go ahead with a vote for academy conversion at the upcoming Governing Body meeting on June 17, they have had to defer their conversion plans in the face of a legal challenge made by a parent.

The challenge was based on Regulation 46 of the School Governance (Federations) (England) Regulations 2012. SAIL campaigners spotted that this Regulation stated that, at least when an Academy Order is being applied for “in respect of a federated school” (like the three schools in the current Prendergast Federation of three maintained schools”), the application must be made by specific categories of Governor. These include “the head teacher of the federated school”, “any parent governor or parent governors elected by parents of registered pupils at the federated school” and “any staff governor employed by the federated governing body or local authority to work at the federated school”.

When the Prendergast Governors met to vote for an Academy Order in February 2015, one parent governor was absent and the elected staff governor voted against the application. Clearly, the Regulations had not been followed and the Governors have therefore had little choice but to retreat.

While these Regulations remain in force, then other campaigners may want to make a similar challenge. Labour MP Kevin Brennan has also tabled a series of parliamentary questions asking how many other Academy Orders made on behalf of a federated school since September 2012 and whether they have complied with Regulation 46.

Of course, this is only a temporary victory as it’s clear that the DfE now intends to rewrite its own rules to prevent such a challenge being made in future. Sheila Longstaff, DfE ‘Project Lead, Academies South Division’ has written complaining that “it is disappointing that this issue has delayed the academy conversion of a school when the majority of the governing body voted in favour of the applications”. That sentence gives the game away as to how little the DfE care for genuine consultation – as they clearly expected the outcome to be conversion whatever was said by parents, staff and the local community in response to the academy proposals.

At least the current Regulations – introduced under the last Conservative Government after all – make sure that Governors can’t just force through academisation of a federated school but have to win the backing of a range of stakeholders. Even the Thatcher and Major Governments legislated for parental ballots before a school could take on grant-maintained status. For this Government, however, it seems that winning the support of the school community is just an awkward hindrance to their ideological mission to rip apart democratically accountable local authority schooling.

Pro-academy Governors may be angered by the legal challenge but parents, students and staff are delighted. That’s because this challenge was just one part of a deep-rooted community opposition to the academy plans that included meetings, strikes and local demonstrations. Governors had failed to convince the school community that academisation was in the interest of education – and how could they when the educational evidence simply isn’t there to support academies?

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