I am well aware that I keep an unusually close eye on education news for a non-professional. This has caused me on occasion to consider that I may be exaggerating the effects of the breakneck change that we have seen nationally, and locally, in the last couple of years.
As little concern seems to be expressed outside of the teaching profession, perhaps I have misunderstood the implications of the rise of “academy chains” and maybe safeguards have been introduced to ensure that public money is being used solely for the improvement of learning? It could be politicians are listening to experts and practitioners before deciding on their policies and it has just been misrepresented by the press that I read?
The news over the last week has reinforced my view that I am not deluded and that, if anything, we should shout louder than ever about real damage that is being done to the state education system that will take a concerted effort to halt and reverse.
Of course my interest began when a plan to open a new free school emerged in my hometown just as we prepared to close a school due to a significant number of surplus secondary school places. The group behind the proposal were an opaque private company calling themselves the “Russell Education Trust” (RET), a newly set up off shoot of the consultancy Education London.
Aside from the potential effect locally, what did their involvement imply about the direction of national education policy?
I had two main concerns. How could a group with no links to Brentwood ensure that their involvement caused no detrimental effect to a local community they knew nothing about and what accountability would they have to the taxpayer for the state money that they would be granted were they successful?
RET will be opening their third free school in September this time in Hove, Sussex. They are currently embroiled in controversy over where their new project will be located once the capacity of their initial site is exceeded in around three years time.
The Department for Education (DfE) have decided to recommend that a piece of common land, currently used by four other schools and local residents, should be used for that purpose. Last week, covered by the BBC’s Daily Politics on Friday 17th May, a petition of over 5,000 signatures was delivered to Downing Street asking that Bhasvic Field be protected from any such development. The Independent prominently covered it thus:
The DfE have been given the power to effectively compulsory purchase land or premises in order to set up new schools. It would appear that the interests of the community are not given great consideration in that process. It also seems odd when free schools were supposed to be driven by “local demand”.
Signs are also now emerging about the risks involved in the extraordinary increase in academy chains that we have seen in recent years. These are private “sponsors” of groups of new and existing schools who, on the face of it, are not currently allowed to profit from running them. Many are set up as “charities” and described as “not for profit” but this week’s news should make the concerned taxpayer look behind these terms.
This week the E-ACT chain, who already run 31 schools, were discovered by the Times Educational Supplement (TES) to have spent significant amounts of state money on what the BBC describes as “unapproved consultancy fees”.
Today’s Observer also reveals how parent companies can benefit financially from creating “not for profit” operations. The Aurora Academies Trust, that has responsibility for four schools at present, have paid £100,000 to its US based parent to use the curriculum that it devised.
As the article reveals, far from causing the current Secretary of State concern, the DfE have been critical of the local authority for “failing actively to pursue sponsored academy solutions”.
It has recently been stated that parents are really not interested in who runs their schools providing they are good but surely, as taxpayers, they should be concerned about this unaccountable use of public money?
They should also be worried that the teaching profession itself is unhappy with the direction of current policy as they don’t believe that it will produce the best learning outcomes for our children.
As a parent, I found yesterday’s appearance by Michael Gove at the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) conference deeply disturbing. The Secretary of State not only refused to accept any criticism for his refusal to constructively engage with the profession, he actually chided them for not being “constructive”.
It has clearly escaped Mr Gove’s notice that the people he was addressing were school leaders, those people he expects to effectively run schools on our behalf. He is like a deranged beekeeper who thinks that poking the hive with a stick will result in more honey.
The DfE claim that their approach will “raise standards” but this presupposes that standards are unsatisfactory at present. As we discovered this week, the evidence that the department present us to underpin this claim can be very dubious indeed. Following a freedom of information request, it was discovered that a speech by Mr Gove claiming that historical knowledge was unsatisfactory, contained quotes from surveys by UK Gold and Premier Inn. The full exchange is available here:
As current head teacher Kenny Frederick emphasised on yesterday morning’s Saturday Breakfast on BBC5Live, educational standards are far superior than when I was at school over 25 years ago. I am concerned that, far from promoting continual improvement, the new structure of state education actually threatens to reverse this.
But don’t just take the word of teachers, business leaders are not happy with things either. In the same 5Live piece, Neil Carberry, Director of Training and Skills at the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) states that the ever increasing demands on classroom time mean that there is less opportunity for the development of soft skills in young people.
The full interview is available on iplayer until 25th May (from 2:10:10) http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01shvdq
Only a week’s news but the implications for all of us of current education “reforms” are starkly illustrated. It is difficult to see who, outside of private education consultants, is benefitting.