For years, the proponents of school privatisation have tried to put together an educational justification for academisation. They have failed.
The results of this imposed experiment in applying the 'free-market' to schools are now all too clear. Academies have not improved education. School students, their families and their teachers have not benefited from academisation. However some of the Executive Heads and CEOs put in charge of Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) certainly have profited.
|Ealing NUT (now NEU) members striking to oppose an academy transfer earlier this year|
If you need convincing - here's some more research
As the 'EduFacts' on the NUT website puts it "there is no credible evidence that conversion to academy status improves pupil attainment in national tests and exams, supports pupil progress or leads to school improvement. Even Schools Minister Nick Gibb has conceded that: 'This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.' "
There's now volumes of research backing up this conclusion. The 'EduFacts' signposts anyone who wants to read more to some key articles but some headlines from the July 2017 study from the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the London School of Economics (LSE) makes the case against academisation pretty clear:
- In relation to primary converter academies it concluded that “there is no real change to the primary school test scores of incoming pupils once the schools become converter academies.”
- The LSE research for the report found “no evidence of a positive effect on GCSE attainments of converter academies which were rated as ‘good’ or ‘satisfactory / requires improvement’” prior to conversion.
- The study was unable to identify any improvement related to schools becoming sponsored academies since 2010.
- The report also compared the performance of local authorities and MATs. It concluded that “the variation within MATs and local authorities is far greater than the variation between the two groups” but also that MATs are “over-represented amongst the lowest performing school groups.”
- A longer NUT document explaining why 'a move to a MAT is not the answer' can be downloaded here.
So who has benefited from academisation?
The Government stopped short of full-scale privatisation, never going so far as to allow private businesses to openly declare profits from their running of academies. However, as the latest revelations in The Guardian from the collapsing Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) show, even where there is no evidence of fraud, the unaccountable nature of MAT Governance leaves plenty of scope for what are, at best, dubious practices.
The Guardian reports that WCAT "stands accused of 'asset stripping' after it transferred millions of pounds of the schools’ savings to its own accounts before collapsing". WCAT is alleged to have taken control of funds raised by parents and surplus funds in individual school budgets.
Was the money well spent? The article states that a draft DfE report "raised concerns that the chief executive, Mike Ramsay, had been paid more than £82,000 for 15 weeks’ work, despite the fact that the trust was facing a large budget deficit ... The previous month, it had emerged that the trust had paid almost £440,000 to IT and clerking companies owned by Ramsay and his daughter". Who benefited - the students or the CEO?
Of course, this is far from an isolated story. The latest NUT Privatisation Update lists a number of similar stories, including:
- The Government has warned academy chains about “ratcheting up” MAT Executive pay. Sir Dan Moynihan, chief executive of the Harris Group, was awarded the largest salary of £420,000, with Toby Salt of Ormiston Academies Trust the next biggest earner on £205,000.
- Durand Academy Trust has appointed two new directors following the resignation of its controversial former head teacher Sir Greg Martin. The school was criticised by MPs in 2015 after it emerged that a proportion of Sir Greg’s £400,000 salary was made up of management fees from the company that runs school’s leisure facilities on a commercial basis.
- Swale Academies Trust, which runs 10 schools in Kent, Bromley and East Sussex, has defended its decision to provide its senior leaders with company BMWs costing tens of thousands of pounds.
- A Government review has found that the Enquire Learning Trust, which runs 27 academies in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber and the North West, ran up “high costs for hotels and overnight stays relating to school improvement and residential events”, and the four SMT members all held a trust credit card despite only being employed as contractors.
- The DRB Ignite MAT, which operates eight schools in the West Midlands, has received a financial notice to improve ... In 2015-16, £310,000 of the trust’s £372,000 central office costs went to other DRB group companies, and in 2016-2017 the figure was £109,000. The ESFA found that no formal procurement process had been followed.
It's no surprise that these stories - and many other similar tales - exist. It's a danger that is unavoidable because academies are unaccountable to their local communities.
So why are schools still academising?
Despite all the evidence of the damage being caused by academisation, some Heads, Governors and local Councillors are still arguing that schools have to academise. It's just not true!
There is absolutely no requirement on most schools to convert to an academy. The last Government was forced back from its plans to try and academise every school. Only a small number of schools - those deemed by Ofsted to be ‘inadequate' - have no way to avoid 'forced academisation' under the latest legislation.
Far from full academisation being inevitable, there is the prospect that a future Labour Government night reverse existing legislation and allow schools to be returned to local democratic control. A 'reference back' was overwhelmingly carried at the 2017 Annual Conference asking the National Policy Forum to make this Labour Party policy.
It's also false to argue that academisation is a way to avoid the school funding crisis. A search through the school cuts website will confirm that many academies are facing significant cuts. Conversion to an academy offers no protection against financial austerity.
London NEU members campaigning - and winning - against their employment being transferred to a MAT
Of course, as the NUT website page on academies explains, the National Education Union is "committed to supporting and protecting its members who work in academies. However, we utterly oppose the Government’s aim that all schools in England should become academies. The academies programme has resulted in the fragmentation of the education system while undermining the local accountability of schools. It has also undermined the national pay and conditions framework for teachers as well as local collective agreements".
Conditions under threat in Charlton Park
One clear example of this threat can be seen at the dispute over sickness policies between Charlton Park Academy in Greenwich and the NEU and GMB.
Staff are often falsely assured by Heads looking to academise that TUPE legislation will protect them against harmful changes after academisation. However, TUPE doesn't apply to new staff or staff changing to new contracts - and the new contracts at Charlton Park Academy have removed the Burgundy Book and Green Book sick pay rights that most school staff are able to rely on, significantly cutting rights to sick pay for staff requiring a long-term absence. Both unions are due to give notice for further strike action on four separate days in November, starting on Tuesday 7th.
Winning Victories in Ealing
These threats to terms and conditions are why, alongside the educational arguments against academisation outlined above, the NEU is supporting members willing to campaign up to, and including, strike action to oppose their employment being transferred to a MAT. What's more, those campaigns are winning victories!
Stopping academy conversion is certainly not an unwinnable battle. In the last 6 months there have been 5 attempts by Governors at academy conversions in Ealing. The NEU (and previously as the NUT) has been successful in stopping four of these conversions and the campaign is continuing in the remaining school. The experience shows that given the right circumstances, and the right tactics, academy conversions can be stopped.
London NEU will be producing more detailed advice based on these successes but here are some of the key pointers:
- Get in early - before conversion becomes a 'fait accompli'. Ealing NUT held members' meetings in each school as soon as there was a rumour of the Governing Body considering academisation, and before the start of formal consultation.
- The school rep is key. They are the people who can win the argument on the ground. Make sure that you know and can answer the specific arguments being put by Governors.
- Argue for basic democratic demands. Firstly, that the NEU be invited to address Governors' meetings. Secondly, that there should be ballots of all staff and parents on any conversion proposal.
- Get parents on board. In most cases, most parents had not heard about the proposals, and were furious that decisions might be made with little or no consultation. In each case we held meetings which ranged in size from 30 to over 100. In primary schools it was simply a case of leafleting school gates. Secondary school parents can be harder to reach but leafleting the catchment area and feeder primary schools proved to be successful tactics.
- The pressure exerted by parents on governors was a significant factor in getting them to reconsider decisions, as was the contact they made with councillors and MPs who, in turn, put pressure on Governors to reconsider. Most importantly the support from parents was key to giving members the confident to take action themselves.
- Divide the governors. Ealing NUT quickly discovered that it was usually one or two governors who were driving the academy agenda. When we engaged with the GBs as a whole we found that many governors had little concept of what conversion involved and in particular the downsides.
- Finally, and most importantly, the threat and reality of strike action works! Strikes, or the threat of strikes, were the catalyst for parental involvement and splits within Governors.
Ealing is not the only borough where staff and parents are uniting in a campaign to oppose the threat of academisation.
Requests for strike ballots for action to oppose a change of employer have come in from NEU groups at Royal Docks in Newham and the Village School in Brent.
Indicative ballots have already been sanctioned by NEU Action Officers for members at Avenue Primary and Keir Hardie schools in Newham. Of those eligible to vote, a tremendous 81% voted YES to strike action at Keir Hardie School and 90% at the Avenue! Based on these excellent indicative results, requests for formal strike ballots are now being made by the London Regional Secretary.
These ballots are part of growing community campaigns against academisation in these boroughs. For example, over 60 parents and staff attended a Lobby of the Avenue school Governing Body last week, following on from a successful public meeting building opposition to academisation threats across Newham. After all, staff, students and parents all have good reason to prevent more schools being taken over by MATs!
In conclusion, there are no good arguments for academisation. However, regrettably, arguments alone are too often insufficient to oppose damaging academisation plans being voted through by Governing Bodies. That's why the NEU in London will be building on the successes shown in Ealing and elsewhere. We are determined to oppose any further damage being inflicted on NEU members, and on the children we support, through this failing Government policy.
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