An extremely well chaired and politely conducted meeting took place last week in a library in Hackney, organised by a group of local people opposed to the setting up of a Free School. The driving force behind this Free School is Andeas Wesemann, a financial services professional whose career appears to have profited from extensive experience in brokering deals in which the private sector acquires public owned assets and public sector contracts.
Some people came to hear about the objections to Free Schools because they did not understand what they were, or how their existence would effect existing schools. Some came because they were confused about how Free Schools would offer more “choice” in a borough which already has excellent schools. Some came because they wanted to share their views about why they were opposed to Free Schools.
Were there left wing liberals there? Yes there were. We also had parents and teachers who were members from the NUT and we had a speaker from the Anti- Academies Alliance. Was the agenda hi-jacked by the “loony left”, “Trots” and politically motivated individuals masquerading as parents but representing the views of unions? No it was not. Were they rude to Andrew Tetlow, who came to the meeting representing the Hackney Free School steering committee? No they were not. Instead, they listened to his comments and arguments and challenged them fairly, politely and without attacking him personally.
Andrew Tetlow, who apologised that he was not a parent or teacher and had no experience of schools, read out from his mobile phone the mission statement of the Free School, which is essentially that it wants to provide quality education and to give aspiration to the underprivileged. He also made the point that Hackney doesn’t have enough school places but a teacher present reminded him that her community school has places and that it was primary schools that faced a shortage. He had no response when he heard that Free Schools in Sweden and America had failed to raise standards overall, contributed to social segregation and to the privatising of state schools but gave the impression that passion and sheer alone will was going to establish the school and make it successful.
Tetlow gave no indication that they had any strategy beyond appointing an excellent head who would lead the school. There appears to be no plan for the infrastructure of the school - hiring staff, contractors, building, hiring or refurbishing buildings, legal processes – and currently no sponsor or guarantees from the DfE. The Steering Committee are digging into their own pockets to fund the project. He refused to tell the audience how much they had spent so far but presumably the committee members don’t have bottomless pockets. His justification that the school would be accountable to the local community rested solely on the fact that parents would be invited to join the governing body.
When questioned about privatisation, Tetlow seemed not to understand that no one was accusing the Hackney New School of itself making a profit, but that, when the committee were no longer able to fund the campaign out of their own pockets or were defeated by the sheer scale of work and planning involved, they would be forced to hand over the school to the control of an Academy education chain. He did not seem to acknowledge that companies are preying on the contracts for services now up for sale because the government has cut Free Schools adrift from LA support and thus empowered private companies. He ought to know, though – his colleague Wesemann has stated that they have been getting advice from Zenna Atkins, former Ofsted Chief, now Chief of Wey Education, which aims to run a for-profit chain of Academies and Free Schools in the UK.
It might have been a better idea if Wesemann had come to this meeting, if only to reassure the audience that his extensive connections in profit making companies had no bearing whatsoever in his commitment to found a Free School.
According to his personal profile on the website of his employers, Ashcombe Advisers, Wesemann worked on the acquisition of Northern Rock by Virgin Money, a transaction that resulted in a loff of £400-£600m for taxpayers, helped Virgin Healthcare to take advantage of the shake-up of healthcare provision in the UK and worked on the acquisition of the Lowell Group, a debt purchasing business, by TDR Capital. His altruism when it comes to helping poor children might be more persuasive if his achievements don’t ring overwhelmingly of decisions that tip the world into an economic slump whilst making a few individuals a fast buck out of the misery they have engineered.
Perhaps it is his way, though, of giving something back to the poor when the financial services industry, upon which he has enriched himself, has done so much to impoverish them further. Yet Wesemann has links via his former employers in profiting directly from schools. When he was employed at Quayle Monro, they “invested equity in Argyll & Bute schools project” on behalf of PFT Infrastructure Company plc. This 30-year deal will cost taxpayers £370m, for buildings worth £87m.
A banner on the Hackney Free School website proclaims that their “vision for Hackney New School is to provide students with access to the widest range of opportunities in life by fostering academic excellence and instilling self-belief, intellectual curiosity and responsibility towards others in society” as if this were not unique to them and not, in fact, the mission of every single school in the country. Wesemann has fallen into the trap of portraying his altruism as being under attack by politically motivated organisations such as unions and the AAA, but he and his group have not adequately explained why Hackney needs another secondary school and neither have they dispelled the suspicion that a profit motive lurks somewhere not too far down the line.
Perhaps they find public scrutiny unpleasant but they should remember that accountability in community schools means the passing of the buck ends with them, so more transparency from their side would make the whole enterprise look much more honest and democratic.
The meeting concluded with the panel inviting Andrew Tetlow, The Hackney New School Steering Group and its supporters to join us in a public debate. The debate will be organised so that speakers from each side can put their case, and facilitated by an independent chair. We hope they will accept.