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.

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