Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Academies and Free Schools in the national press - the policy continues to unravel

The government's shock therapy attack on the schools system has continued to feature in the national press. A succession of stories have highlighted the nakedly ideological nature of the government’s programme and the risks involved in creating supposedly autonomous schools. Firstly, the New Statesman carried a story about the fate of the Sulivan primary school in Hammersmith and Fulham within the top 2% of schools in the country, which faces closure to make way for a Church of England Free School with close connections in the local Tory-run council.

Hot on the heels of the police getting involved in the King’s Science Academy investigation in Bradford, comes the news that an Academy school in County Durham is under investigation in connection with the disappearance of £162,000 of academy resources. As the ever excellent Janet Downs at the Local Schools Network points out, this sort of thing is more likely to happen in academies and Free Schools because they are less publicly accountable for the money they spend than community schools.

Last week also saw news that United Learning Trust who want to open a primary Free School in Waltham Forest, are trying to cut 30 jobs at their Salford City Academy. The suspicion is that this is part of moves by academy chains to use their freedoms to alter the pay rates and terms and conditions of their staff to cut costs.

Another example of this can be seen in the recent decision of the AET academies chain to privatise its entire support staff across its chain of 79 schools. As education expert Laura McInerny noted in last week’s Guardian, this exercise, undertaken in the name of ‘efficiency’ also enables them to create bigger surpluses (they can’t legally create profits or pay dividends at the moment) which can be used to pay obscene executive salaries, and, presumably certain other management charges. 

But perhaps the biggest news of the week and the most damning for the government’s programme to smash up the comprehensive community school sector, was the revelation that a major academy chain was to be stripped of 10 of its schools. E-Act is one of the biggest academy chains in the country and until today ran 34 academies. Last year it ran into trouble when it was accused of paying lavish expenses to its board and the Education Funding Agency raised concerns about its financial management. Now, following a number of problematic Ofsted reviews, E-Act is to hand 10 schools back to the government. The Department for Education will presumably try to find another academy sponsor, but this decision shows how chaotic a marketised education system dominated by chains like Oasis and Tauheedul will be. Chains are currently being inadequately monitored, as the Labour Party has argued. But even if problems are exposed in chains, rather than schools working collaboratively in their communities to raise standards, the chains and the DfE will simply look to ‘re-tender’ the management of the schools. The chains won’t want their overall results dragged down by difficult schools and the government will want to hand them to someone else to fix as soon as possible. All of which spells chaos for children, parents and teachers.

Friday, 21 February 2014

The collapse of Oasis’s Free School proposal – what does it mean for Waltham Forest?

There is still very little information about what led to Oasis‘agreeing’ with the DfE to withdraw its application. Our Community, Our Schools is trying to find out more at the time of writing as there are many unanswered questions and we believe that people in Waltham Forest deserve to know the truth.

One key question regards the DfE’s statement that they looked at the admissions figures and decided that there is no need for a new secondary school until 2018. We – and the Local Authority – could have told them that months ago. The figures have been in circulation since late spring last year. The idea that the DfE has just discovered this stretches credibility.

It could be that the government is on the defensive nationally over Free Schools in the wake of a damaging National AuditOffice report that accused them of pushing to open schools more or less regardless of public value for money. Perhaps they have decided to pay more attention to local need.

It’s also possible that the proposed Oasis school was in trouble with its admissions. At the moment, we can only be speculate. The Oasis chain is struggling with the results in its academies, which are significantly below the national average. Perhaps their astronomical growth and high profile was becoming a source of internal concern?

Whatever happened, this sorry story speaks volumes about the craziness of the Free Schools programme. This school opened its admissions process, attempted to recruit a headteacher, announced it was on the verge of signing a deal for a site only to then announce that it was delaying and then its sponsors withdraw their application completely, supposedly because the DfE suddenly realised there was no need for it!

What does this mean for Waltham Forest? For the parents who put months of work into their Free School only for Oasis and the DfE to pull the plug, all this will of course be pretty devastating.

For OCOS it is very welcome. We always argued that this school was neither necessary nor desirable. Waltham Forest’s community-school led secondary expansion can now take place with one fewer Free School to worry about. According to the local authority’s projections, the borough does still need a new school by 2016/17 and their options for addressing this issue are tightly constrained by the ridiculous and spiteful legislation put in place by the Coalition government. We will have to monitor how the council propose to deal with this very closely.

In the meantime, OCOS will be doing two things. Firstly, we will be focusing our attention on Tauheedul’s planned Free School, still forging ahead at the time of writing. More on this soon. Secondly, we will also be campaigning positively for our local community schools. 

Our community schools are improving but they also need our help. They need OCOS supporters to help combat the myths and prejudices current in the community, to help promote their strengths and to get involved. There are many ways in which you can support your local community schools and we will be featuring more on this in the coming months.
We would appeal to everyone, including those local parents who worked so hard to try to get the Oasis Free School set up, to now get behind our community schools.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Our evidence to the Education Select Committee

The Education Select Committee, a committee of MPs who are education specialists, is currently conducting an inquiry into aspects of the academies and Free Schools programmes.

Our Community, Our Schools submitted written evidence to this inquiry which was published on the Committee's website in January. Our evidence focused on the process for setting up a Free School.

We argued that the legislation enabling the establishment of Free Schools is deeply flawed and anti-democratic. The process is so thin that there are practically no levers by which communities can influence the establishment of a school, nor is it possible to hold the main actors and agencies to account. We characterise it as enabling and encouraging the establishment of schools at public expense on the back of crude marketing campaigns. You can read our full evidence here.

The rest of the written evidence submitted can be read on the Committee's website.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Oasis withdraw their application to set up a Free School

Local MP Stella Creasy has today passed us a copy of a letter from the Schools Minister, Lord Nash, stating that Oasis Community Learning have withdrawn their application to set up a new school in Walthamstow.

There are very few details in Lord Nash's letter but he does mention that the DfE has looked at the admissions data for the borough and judged that a new secondary school will not be needed until 2018. In view of this, the letter says, Oasis have agreed to withdraw their application to set up a new school in the borough. 

Coming barely more than a week after the news that Oasis were deferring their opening until 2015, this news begs many questions. We will be trying to get more details over the coming weeks. 

In the meantime, Our Community, Our Schools unequivocally welcomes this development. This news is a massive boost to everyone who has championed and supported Waltham Forests's community schools and everyone who has supported our campaign right from its earliest days.

As far as we know, Tauheedul's proposal is still on the table. However, today, we want to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has helped us to campaign on this issue. Today has been a big blow to the people who have been pushing Free Schools on communities across the country. Thank you to everyone for your invaluable support.