Don’t take my word for it, academy chains are showing us their flaws already

I have lost count of the amount of times that I have written about my concerns regarding the rapid increase in privately run chains running schools in the state system. I wrote about it throughout the period leading up to the opening of Becket Keys Free School and I wrote about it most recently in May (Going private – who is really benefitting from education “reform”? http://wp.me/p2dr6s-fx )

While I had stated my concerns from the very inception of Educating Brentwood, even I could not believe that the flaws in the Academisation drive would be exposed so quickly.

An article in today’s Observer (“Revealed; money-go-round in UK’s top academy chain” http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/jul/20/education-school-academies-michael-gove) further demonstrates that the cat is well and truly out of the bag.

AETThe article focuses on the Academy Enterprise Trust (AET) and shows that employees, and trustees, of “the country’s largest taxpayer funded academy chain” have financially benefitted from their involvement in state schools despite being a registered “not for profit” charity.

If, as we are told, parents really “don’t care who runs their school”, then this story should change their minds, indeed every taxpayer ought to be concerned.

This story starkly illustrates that “not for profit” charity trusts can still make money for their members and their parent companies.

When converting to academy status, or when establishing a free school, an “academy trust” must be formed to control the assets of the school. Where academy chains are running schools they usually form the majority on the academy trust.

Legally the chain cannot (at present) make a profit on their activities but there are no limits on the salaries that they can pay themselves. They can also use the money provided by the state to engage consultants or pay for services. Even if those they engage have links to the not for profit company. This is what AET seem to have been doing.

“In accounts for the year ending August 2009, AET also records “two trustees and one governor” receiving unspecified payments for “consultancy services”.

It is also not uncommon for profit making companies to set up “not for profit” vehicles to “sponsor” academies and free schools. The “sponsors” of Becket Keys Free School in Brentwood are the “Russell Education Trust” (RET) which was set up, and shares directors with, the private company Education London.

Amazingly, there is no bar on “not for profit trusts” procuring services from their parent company. The Aurora Academies Trust, that has responsibility for four schools at present, paid £100,000 to its US based parent to use the curriculum that it devised for example.

When reading about these chains, it always amazes me how recently they have been set up and how many state assets they have been given. AET came into existence in 2008 and in September it will have over 80 schools in its chain. RET was formed as recently as November 2011.

By definition, the motivation of private companies is to make a profit, so we should not be surprised that those who have sold services into the education system over recent years have spotted an opportunity in the breakneck academisation and free school policy. The apparently “relaxed” attitude of the current Secretary of State to future profit making offers the chance of further jam tomorrow.
Cash
The reason it should matter to all of us is that this is taxpayers money and it has also involved transfer of state assets into private hands. Buildings, school grounds and staff that they have not had to pay to train have been passed to companies whose primary purpose is to make profit for them and their shareholders.

Perhaps if there was any evidence that educational standards rose as a consequence we too may be “relaxed” about it. But the article indicates otherwise:

“In a statement, the DfE said it was concerned about AET’s performance. “DfE representatives have visited AET academies that are not making the necessary improvements,” it said.”

Very worryingly for the overall programme, “A spokesman for AET, which last week hired a public relations firm, said that there was evidence that the academy chain was among the better performers in the sector.”

The story raises further concerns about this extraordinary situation.

On procurement and recruitment:

“The chain, which was formed in 2008, also encourages its academies to use recruitment firm Synabor when hiring teachers. David Triggs, who was paid £214,535 in 2012 to be chief executive of AET, was also a director of Synarbor until April this year.”

“The payments were for services ranging from “project management” to “HR consultancy”, according to the academy chain’s company accounts. AET, which is based in Essex, has not provided further details. In all the cases the services had not been put out to competitive tender.”

On the motivation behind the rapid academisation programme:

“The spokesman also denied that AET had overstretched itself. He said: “The expansion of AET was at the request of the current secretary of state and his ministers.”

An on the continuing concern that increased private governance equals decreased transparency:

“AET cited a confidential and publicly unavailable report from the DfE’s Education Funding Agency (EFA), the regulator for academies, which it said stated that “generally the opinion was [from its academies] that AET provided better services than the predecessor local authorities”. AET would not provide a copy of the report.”

Frankly none of this surprises me, the only shock is how quickly the truth is revealing itself. I was very struck when attending the recent Brentwood County High School (BCHS) consultation meetings about the amount of parents who were worried about any risk of takeover from a private chain. It is not a popular model which is why forced academisation has been so strongly resisted by parents across the country.

We are told that free schools are run by parents, teachers and community groups. A glance at the list of current and future free schools shows this is nonsense. ARK had eight schools approved in the last round for 2014 opening.

As a recent Guardian article covered ( http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2013/may/13/free-schools-innovation-education-policy ), few apparently innovative free school proposals are being approved. Groups interested in forming their own school appear to be reliant on hooking up with a private “sponsor” to ensure they pass the DfE test. While many reconcile this compromise as the price for providing the school they think they want for their children, the longer term effect of this deal may not provide what they wanted.

Don’t forget, most of these companies have no track record of running schools, particularly state ones. As we have seen, most have been formed in the very recent past.

In my view, as stories such as this, (and on E-Act, and Aurora…), continue to emerge fewer informed parents will be willing to risk their children attending a chain run school. The scales are beginning to fall from people’s eyes.

But don’t take my word for it, this is the view of a Coalition MP:

“Liberal Democrat MP John Pugh said: “We have had enough of overleveraged, overstretched and overpaid organisations in the financial world. To bring them into the world of state education is reckless stupidity.””

Stephen Mayo

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