I have sent the following letter to Lewisham councillors today:
This week’s CYP Select Committee is considering consultation documents from the Leathersellers’ Federation governing body about Academy conversion. As their deliberations may form part of a single Local Authority response, I am writing to all of you on behalf of Lewisham NUT.
An irreversible decision with consequences for the whole Authority
In writing from the NUT, I know that the views below, and in the longer document from ‘Stop Academies in Lewisham’ represent the views of a broad range of parents and staff that are alarmed that the Prendergast Governing Board could be about to make an irreversible decision to convert the three schools into Academies when it meets on June 17.
That decision would not only be damaging for the Federation, but have serious implications for the whole Authority. Bluntly, if Prendergast converts, other schools could quickly follow suit.
Lack of proper consultation
We believe that Governors have failed to organise a fair and thorough consultation when proposals were still at a formative stage, have ignored requests for a parental ballot, and have issued a one-sided feedback form that fails to fairly put arguments for and against the proposal. As a letter quoted in today’s Guardian, from ITV commentator and local parent Ned Boulting, states: “The school management and governors have created a rift [with] parents, staff and students. This has undermined trust. It is unsettling for the students. And it will raise questions with good teachers as to whether they want to stay on at the school.”
Change to Governance structures
In contrast to the Governors’ claims, the proposed changes to a Multi-Academy Trust will lead to less accountability, not more. The current board consists of 18 governors – including a staff governor and 3 parent governors, with 6 Leathersellers foundation nominees. The new board would be only marginally smaller – with 14 governors – but with 8 (a majority) appointed by the Leathersellers. Staff and parent governors would be removed from the board altogether and have no say at this strategic level – only on school Local Governing Bodies.
A quote in the Parliamentary Select Committee Report on Academies sums up parental experience: ‘parents are sidelined from all important decisions, both over whether schools convert in the first place, and over how they are run once they become academies’. As the Select Committee also indicates, an academy conversion to become a MAT isn’t necessary, schools can also organise as a hard federation of maintained schools. It does raise suspicions that the reason for setting up this structure is to prepare for an expansion of a Leathersellers’ academy chain (see SAIL response).
No proven benefit to academy conversion
Governors are keen to say that their decisions are driven by educational considerations but the adage about just “doing what works” does not hold water in this case. As the Select Committee concluded, “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change”.
The Leathersellers’ Working Party’s own report states that “the policy of academisation and its impact on raising school standards remains ... controversial and unproven”. So why are they pursuing such an unproven policy, particularly when there is no way back to maintained status ?
Regrettably, as much educational research points out, one way for an Academy to ‘secure improvement’ is through control over its Admissions Policy. The Authority as a whole is changing from its banding policy to a distance-to-school policy. What’s not clear as things stand from the paperwork is whether the Federation is prepared to also change in order to follow a common admissions policy, to the benefit of all, or have a separate policy for its own benefit?
Curriculum – and Staff Conditions
The SAIL report includes a telling quote from the Chair of Governors of the non-academy Dartmoor Federation that answers many of the claims put forward in the consultation papers: "Why on earth should I go academy? What are the advantages? We already have a reasonable amount of freedom with the curriculum, the teacher unions are happy because their members' terms and conditions are unaffected, and the extra money that was given to academies has essentially disappeared."
A range of curriculum freedoms are available to schools, whether maintained or academies. Teacher unions and their members are also clear that, particularly at a time when a new Government may be cutting budgets, their best guarantee of protection is when their national conditions are guaranteed by law as a maintained school, not through relying on TUPE.
Finance – and PFI
We are all aware that academies will receive more into their budgets overall but they also have more costs to pay. The original Leathersellers’ Working Party Report honestly stated that: “Converting to a MAT should not result in a financial advantage or disadvantage to the Federation schools as pupil funding formula, staffing costs and capital allocation formula are the same and hence the overall impact is broadly neutral”. It is therefore disappointing to see that claims are now being made that academisation will result in significant financial advantages.
There are significant unanswered questions over whether the Federation would lose financially through taking full responsibility for PFI payments and perhaps “losing the rebate on the Ladywell PFI contract”. As the Authority is responsible for the negotiations over these matters, we hope that the Authority would be making sure that a school choosing to leave the Authority as an Academy would not be benefiting financially from PFI arrangements.
In conclusion, a wide range of local stakeholders believe that
1. There is no good reason to undertake Academy conversion of the Leathersellers’ schools
2. Academies are unproven and unaccountable and the spread of those academies in Lewisham risks the equitable provision of education across the borough.
3. By driving through change without proper consultation, the Governors risk alienating students, staff and parents alike – and damaging the education and ethos of the schools.
Lewisham NUT hopes that the Authority would reflect these concerns in its response and also assists in organising a parental ballot on the proposed Academy conversion to at least make sure that a proper indication of support for these proposals has been taken.
Martin Powell-Davies, Secretary, Lewisham NUT.