Friday 13 February 2015

Prendergast Governors' claims - open to challenge

A failure to consult

For months, the Governing Board of the Leathersellers’ Federation of Schools has failed to keep the school community properly informed of its deliberations. Just days ago, letters were being sent to parents accusing the NUT of acting prematurely in taking strike action because “The Governing Board has not yet received or considered the working party recommendations and therefore no decisions have been made”. What they failed to mention was that they were proposing to take a decision to apply for an Academy Order on the day of the strike!

The vote to apply for an Academy Order has been taken before any proper consultation has take place. The common law duty of consultation set out in the Court of Appeal states that “Consultation should be undertaken when the proposals are still in a formative stage”. The National Governors’ Association (NGA) has issued advice to schools to say that “The NGA remains of the view that consultation should take place at an early stage of the process before governing bodies have applied for academy status”. It seems that this advice hasn't beeen heeded by Governors.

Now let’s have full and open consultation, including a binding ballot of staff and parents

Only now, have the Governing Board posted documentation on the school website and written to staff and parents outlining the proposals in any detail. It states that “the Governing Board, in the event of being granted an Academy Order, has been advised to postpone consultation until after the general election”. However, Unions and Stop Academies in Lewisham certainly cannot afford to delay in campaigning vigorously against these damaging proposals, and in demanding full and genuine consultation with parents, staff and students.

There needs to be a full and meaningful consultation begun at the earliest possible opportunity. Will there be open meetings for parents and staff where there are speakers both for and against academy status? If the Governors are being told to delay consultation until after the election, then shouldn’t the academy application be also withdrawn until after the election? Otherwise, this appears to be a delaying tactic to curtail discussion.

Academy conversion is an irreversible process with far reaching consequences for pupils, staff and the wider community. It is not a decision that should be taken lightly by a small group of governors acting without the support of key stakeholders in the school.   

Will the consultation conclude with a full ballot of parents, staff and other stakeholders? Will the Governing Board abide by the views of these stakeholders so that, if they reject academy status, it will not go ahead? If not, why not? Or are Governors afraid that their arguments might not be so convincing to the school community after all?

An initial response to the Governors’ claims

The letters to parents and staff make a number of claims that are open to challenge. Here are some initial points that I hope can be refined and expanded upon in further campaign materials:

· The Federation would be founded in law as a charitable education trust, complementing Prendergast School’s Charitable Trust.

It will also be constituted as a Company Limited by Guarantee with Directors – so it will operate like a private company

· The Federation would benefit by being an organisation of the same status as 60% of secondary schools in the country and 13% of primary schools in England.

It remains the case that 80% of state funded schools in England are maintained. Just 20% of schools overall are academies – of these, while 60% of secondaries are academies, 40% remain LA maintained. In Lewisham, of course, it’s even greater.

· The Leathersellers’ Company would take even greater stewardship of the Federation, which would become a key element in its long-term education strategy.

What does this mean in practice? What actual benefits would accrue? Is this just confirming that the schools would now be largely controlled by the Worshipful Company of Leathersellers?

· The multi academy trust structure, with its main board and local schools boards, would ensure greater accountability to the community and staff.

How can this be the case? Stakeholder governing bodies in maintained schools are by far the most accountable and democratic. They allow for elected governors and there are guaranteed places for staff, parents, representatives of the LA and the local community. In an academy, governors are appointed by the academy trust.

The all-party Education Select Committee published a report on academies and free schools in January 2015 following an 18 month inquiry. It said that there is an ‘absence of parent voice’ in academies and recommended that a more transparent and independent complaints’ procedure must be established.

The proposals suggest that the Federation would be run by a Board of 12 to 15 members appointed by the Leathersellers’ Company and that parent and teacher representatives would only find a place on a second-tier of school committees.

· The education of the students in the schools would be enhanced and strengthened with more effective sharing of resources.

How? The point of the Local Authority family of schools is that resources can be shared through funding arrangements agreed by schools themselves at the schools forum. This should mean that the schools that need the most support are given it.

· The financial structure of the Academy Funding Agreement would allow more effective financial management, resilience and capacity.

Again, what does this mean in practice and what is the evidence from other MATs? The Education Select Committee said that there was a lack of proper oversight of academy governance and financial arrangements. It also said that “conflicts of interests are common in academy trusts” and it recommended strengthened governance and stronger rules around “related party transactions”.

· The financial structure would allow resources to be applied more efficiently and immediately at student need, directing resources more effectively and particularly at vulnerable groups.

Shouldn’t this already be happening?! Why would Academy status make a difference?

· Ofsted has recognised the impact of the Federation’s capacity to secure better outcomes for children.

A federation offers all the positive collaboration opportunities argued for the MAT without any of the disadvantages of academy status.

· Academy conversion would facilitate further improvements in outcomes.

How? Where’s the evidence? Again, the Education Select Committee inquiry report concluded that: “Current evidence does not prove that academies raise standards overall or for disadvantaged children.”

The Ofsted annual report for 2013/14 also noted that there was no relationship between school type and performance and that the rate of improvement in KS4 attainment (5 A*-C in English and Maths) between 2010/11 and 2012/13 in LA maintained secondaries was twice that (at 2 percentage points ) of converter academies (1 percentage point).

· There would be greater employment security for staff.

No, the opposite is true, staff who want to leave an academy and transfer back to working in an LA maintained school may find they have lost their continuity of service for benefits such as non-statutory maternity entitlements, sick leave and other entitlements negotiated at local authority level.

· Any future change of status for the schools would include a commitment to offer terms and conditions in line with STPCD and national conditions for support staff.

That’s good but how long will this parity last? The academy trust has discretion over pay and conditions for all staff and isn’t bound by any national agreements – what’s to stop them changing this in the future? The best guarantee is to stay as things are.

· TUPE arrangements would offer all employees enhanced employment protection.

But, as unions know from experience, many academy trusts have sought to vary these once a period of time following transfer has elapsed. TUPE arrangements do not apply to new staff or when new contracts are issued after ‘reorganisations’.

· There would be no loss of entitlement to or change in pension arrangements.

That’s because academies are in the Teachers' Pension Scheme.

· There would be no change to the admissions code, inclusion or gender intake of the schools within the Federation.

There can be no guarantees about this. The academy trust can determine its own admission arrangements and even if they don’t change in the short term there can be no guarantees about the future.

· The Federation would continue its partnership with key groups, the LA, union groups and other stakeholders.

So what is the point of changing status? In fact the more schools that become academies, the harder it is for the LA to facilitate and support such partnerships.

· There would be no threat to the unique character and ethos of each of the three schools currently in the Federation; their inclusiveness, their individual character and their service to their specific communities. Furthermore, the ability of each to serve their individual communities would be enhanced by the greater resources of the Federation.

Again, this may be so in the short term but the academy trust can make whatever changes it chooses to in the future. Without an accountable and representative governing body to steer the direction of the schools there can be no guarantees over what decisions the trust may make in the future. Unfortunately, the governance proposals suggest that the voices of parents and staff will be excluded.

· The Governing Board has taken this decision in due process and mindful of the representations made to it. The Governors are determined to maintain the highest standards of inclusive education within the Federation and believe this application is part of the process of securing the best possible outcomes for the young people we serve through education.

It seems that the Governing Body has taken this decision despite the representations made to it and the opposition so clearly demonstrated by the school community on Thursday. So what hope is there that parents and staff will be listened to in the future under academy arrangements where there is less voice for parents and staff?

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