Saturday, 6 April 2013

Beware the carpetbaggers!

Posted 15th January 2013

There has been an incredible increase in the number of secondary schools converting to academies: from 203 academies in 2010 to an incredible 2619 this week.

When asked by journalists headteachers wax on about the greater freedoms schools have as academies and how we can design our curriculum to suit the individual character and ethos of the school. This is nonsense: it was the money that did it!
The average secondary school picked up over £250,000 to become an academy and none of us could refuse our students that resource. In case legal costs frightened us, we were given £25,000 to soften the blow. Lawyers have done very nicely thank you out of academy conversion.

The government used to pay Hertfordshire Local Authority (LA) all the money to run education in Herts. The LA top sliced for their salaries, support for small schools, music and library support, curriculum advisers and the like and then each school got a formula-devised share. Whether my school used them or not we contributed in advance for all these services. So now we don’t pay for things we don’t want.

Academies get the money direct from central government. We can buy back the services we want and do this in a competitive market. We like Herts Human Resources but other private companies have signed up Hertfordshire schools to their HR service. LA’s are declining and the services they can now offer have become “traded”, which means a small school can pay £480 for a single day’s support.

The cost to the government of the academy drive is an unbelievable £8,300,000,000. That’s £8.3 billion – enough to build at least 900 brand new secondary schools.
£8.3 billion was £1,000,000,000 over budget, and that is what we call a government success story? Well, it is if your intention was to destroy LA’s and ideology is more important than the deficit reduction mantra that has justified wage freezes and reduced living standards for most working families. I guess we can be pleased we haven’t found a new war at which to throw money. (Oops! Mali begins)

Over half of secondaries are academies but only 5 per cent of primaries. The government agenda is to extend academies, creating independent schools in the state sector. With LA’s in decline,  Mr Cameron announced  that more than 400 of the weakest primary schools will have their leadership replaced, turning them into so-called “sponsor academies” run by private groups. To speed up the process Cameron also offered a £10 million sweetener to “big organisations” such as the Harris Group (whose owner is a personal friend of Mr Cameron, a major financier of the Conservative Party and the Labour Party nominated Baron of Peckham).

The Ofsted endorsed future is for Academy Chains to run schools and our Education Secretary of State, Mr Gove, has encouraged academy chains to grow "at the fastest sustainable rate", with sponsors granted freedom to manage curriculum, budgets and staffing. In 2012, sponsor E-ACT announced its plan to run 250 schools within the next five years. The state will withdraw from a unified education system and give the schools to private companies. Gove said in 2010: “I have no problem if any of my proposed academies make a profit,” well, why else would you take on 250 schools?
The accountancy costs of academy status are beyond the budget of an individual primary school so unless these schools get together to buy accountancy services they will be sitting targets for the chains who will do it all for them. Primaries beware and take care. Accountants are doing very nicely out of this.

By the way, academies do not necessarily provide a better education for children nor are academy chains cost effective providers and here’s the evidence.
The well-respected Sutton Trust warned against academy sponsors contracting services out to one of their own companies. In 2010, The National Audit Office, said: “Some academies felt they were being pressurised into buying central services from their sponsors” with 25 per cent of these schools reporting that sponsors did provide paid services.

The National Audit Office described this as “a conflict of interest,” and worried that academies in chains could lose significant control over their budgets which could result in schools receiving services which they did not want and did not represent good value. At present, there appears no restriction upon those Federations imposing services of their own choosing and paying for them from the unilateral top-slicing of their schools’ funds
A 2012 study, led by Ofsted's former chief inspector Christine Gilbert, warns that the government's push to boost the number of academies is not leading to a consistent rise in standards. A number of academy chains are seemingly more focused on expanding their empires than improving their existing schools, her report concludes.

The Academies Commission, led by some of Gove’s favourite people, found  that some academies seem to be taking advantage of the ability to set their own admissions criteria by cherry picking more able pupils. This, says the report, has "attracted controversy and fuelled concerns that the growth of academies may entrench rather than mitigate social inequalities".

The Academies Commission concluded that “overall, research provides that there is no academy effect but considerable variability, and that disadvantaged young people generally do no better in academies than in other schools”.

Whenever they talk about bridging the gap between rich and poor the rhetoric gets shafted by the thirst for private profit.

Dennis O'Sullivan

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