Following the public pound, or not, as the case may be.

Fiona Millar's picture
Earlier this year I wrote this post about the Prime Minister's claim to Margaret Hodge, Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, that academy funding was as transparent as funding for maintained schools. Mrs Hodge, also a member of the House of Commons Liaison Committee which interrogates the PM from time to time, had asked how it was possible to "follow the public pound" in academy schools.

Mr Cameron replied: "The parent/teacher /local community knows how much follows the pupil into the school and can then see the results. We need to see how much money going into the schools and the results coming out. This will produce results for very transparent amounts of money that are going in."

Actually he got his facts wrong, because academy funding wasn't available at the time,  nor did it form part of last year's performance tables for  schools, which showed funding per pupil for all maintained schools, but I subsequently learned that the PM had written to Mrs Hodge to say that this would be rectified.

This still hasn't happened. Checking the performance tables for my own local community, I was both very proud to see that Gospel Oak, where my children were at school, has performed extremely well this year with over 90% of children getting level 4 in English and Maths, in a school with over 40% of the pupils eligible for FSM and over 50% of the pupils eligible for the pupil premium (eligible for FSM in the last 6 years).

It was also interesting to be able to see how much money per pupil goes into the school and how much is spent. So I thought I would have a look at a few of the early primary converter academy schools to see how their funding compared. The most obvious one being Cuckoo Hall Academy, regularly drooled over in public by both Mr Twigg and Mr Gove. One article by Mr Gove here ,first published in the Evening Standard, was considered such a fine piece of journalism that it was republished on the DFE website.

It is an provocative  article for several reasons - firstly it makes disparaging comments about two founders of this site, myself and Melissa Benn, claiming that people like us (opponents of his policies) tend to be "well connected media types from London's most privileged circles" and implying that we were far removed from those well known crusaders for poor children, the founders of free schools, including Patricia Sowter, the head teacher of Cuckoo Hall Academy.

Now the Cuckoo Hall Academy is clearly an excellent school, but it actually has fewer children eligible for Free School Meals than Gospel Oak, where I was chair of governors for ten years. Like the PM , Mr Gove needs to do more homework. I did ask the Evening Standard for a right of reply at the time, but they refused.

And that isn't the only piece of misinformation peddled by the DFE in relation to the Cuckoo Hall Academy  . Mr Gove's article, and the school's website appear to suggest that the school was in special measures when Ms Sowter took over. In fact this isn't true. The school came out of special measures in 1999, she started at the school in 2002 and in 2001 Ofsted said Cuckoo Hall was a very effective school and could come out of special measures thanks to the leadership of  her predecessor.

And its performance in 2012, according to the DFE tables published this week, is almost identical to that of Gospel Oak, an LA community school which which was also  performed very poorly in the 1990s. So more proof that it isn't  necessary to be an academy to improve. In our case, good leadership, governance, teaching , supportive parents and a good local authority did the trick.

However there is one important  difference  - apart from the fact that no one from the government writes articles about our schools. The per pupil income and expenditure of the Cuckoo Hall academy is not plain to see in the way it is for Gospel Oak or any other maintained school. Nor does it appear to be for the other primary converter academies. See here for another primary converter, the Green Lane Primary Academy in Leeds, which also appears to be performing less well than both Cuckoo Hall and Gospel Oak with far fewer children on FSM.

On the Cuckoo Hall page of the DFE tables, the schools Annual Report and Financial Statements are included, although these would be barely comprehensible to the average parent wanting to make a quick comparison. The Green Lane Academy doesn't even include this information.

Much is being made of the wonder of academy status but as Henry Stewart has proved repeatedly on this site, most recently in his post yesterday, the data provided by the government doesn't support these claims. And without much clearer evidence about their funding so , as the Prime Minister said, parents can see how much money follows the pupil into the school, and then compare the results, it is even more difficult to judge both their effectiveness AND whether they are a good use of the public pound.


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Leonard James's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 04:37

"In our case, good leadership, governance, teaching , supportive parents and a good local authority did the trick."

How does the good leadership and governance manifest itself at Gospel Oak?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 10:24

I am not longer a governor at Gospel Oak, having stood down in 2010. I am also not quite sure what your question means as I would have thought the improvement in both outcomes of pupils, and Ofsted judgements, are the primary evidence of whether any school has improved.

In the case of Gospel Oak I would add that the school is now popular and attracts parents from all backgrounds in the local community, who contribute greatly to its success. It also values the creative curriculum ( every child in Years 5 and 6 learn a brass instrument for example), has excellent PE and all the surveys of parents and pupils ( at least when I was there) were very positive in terms of the children's well- being and inclusion.

The most important thing that any governing body can do is to appoint the right head and I believe this is the key to school success. It is clear that this is also the case at Cuckoo Hall, although as I hope my piece makes clear, academy status isn't really relevant.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 10:42

Congratulations to Gospel Oak and the thousands of other primary schools which have improved results since 1995. And this week it was revealed that 10 year-olds in England have improved their relative position in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). 10 year olds in Northern Ireland did even better.

I’ll post about the success of England and Northern Ireland in PIRLS later.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 10:56

Fiona raises two important points:

1That success doesn’t rely on the status of a school – community schools, airbrushed from the Department for Education’s website, are doing as well as academies. And it should be remembered that primary converter academies, although small in number, converted from schools that had been judged good or outstanding. It is, therefore, wrong for the Government to suggest that enforced academy conversion is the only way to raise the results of primary schools judged by the Government to be "failing" (even, as in the case of Downhills, the Sat results were above the benchmark and Ofsted had judged the school to be improving before, of course, Ofsted obliged the Government by revisiting the school less than a term later and reversing its earlier judgement)

2That it isn’t easy to find information about the finances of academies despite what the PM said. The School Performance Tables show how money is spent in each community school but this information is missing for academies.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 12:53

Fiona raises a third point – the hype surrounding Cuckoo Hall School is misleading. It is widely reported that the Principal, Patricia Sowter, turned round a failing school but this is without foundation. The school was already improving and had received a positive Ofsted report one year before she arrived.

There is no doubt that Cuckoo Hall is a successful school – Ofsted has judged it outstanding in two “proportionate” or “reduced tariff” inspections. These light-touch inspections take place when a school is not causing concern. An earlier Ofsted inspection of Cuckoo Hall in 2001 said:

“This is a very effective school. Pupils enter the school with standards well below expectations and by the end of Year 6, their standards have risen to be at least in line with those in similar schools. Teaching is good and leadership and management are very good. Pupils make good progress."

According to the script, however, Cuckoo Hall was in special measures and underperforming a year later when Ms Sowter arrived. But the positive 2001 Ofsted shows that it wasn't in special measures. And the school wasn't underperforming. The 2001 Sat results were as follows: Level 4 English 86%, Level 4 Maths 75%, Level 4 Science 95%. The school’s results had risen quickly following its removal from special measures in 1999. It was, therefore, already improving when Mr R Allen was head.

Cuckoo Hall has recently amended its website. It no longer says the school was in special measures in 2002 when Ms Sowter arrived but says that the school had been in special measures “14 years ago.”

But the myth about Cuckoo Hall being an underperforming school in special measures and failed by Ofsted before Ms Sowter arrived will no doubt prevail.


david hencke's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 16:05

I am not at least surprised to see that there is not proper scrutiny of public money on academies - one aspect of this was picked up by the National Audit Office earlier this year over redundancy payments to staff. I wrote rather a trenchant piece on my own website and for the Exaro News investigative website and was amazed at the Department for Education's response, which was to dismiss the requirement for any accountability for academies. The link to my own website is

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 17:01

Thanks David. Have now tweeted this article. The Local Schools Network recently went to give evidence to the Public Accounts Committee about academy funding. Severance payments beyond contractual obligations turned out to be one of the most contentious issues. Even the Tory members were up in arms about the inability of the DFE perm sec and the CEO of the Education Funding Agency ( which replaced the YPLA) to account for the situation adequately. See Henry Stewarts post here

Henry Stewart's picture
Sat, 15/12/2012 - 20:09

Good points, Fiona. Academy funding remains a mystery and one that clearly baffled the Public Accounts Committee at the session I attended two weeks ago. I've not yet met anybody, myself included, who understands how academy funded is calculated - and the mystery of the "LACSEG" grant.

The primary place on the DfE site for finding information on your local school has financial information for maintained schools but not for academies. This is where parents will look. There is a spread-sheet available from which you can see all school budgets, and expenditure for some academies. But, as the House of Commons PAC was shocked to find out, academy chains do not need to publish expenditure by individual school.

And even for those academies for which spending is published (the ones not in chains), it is impossible to compare with maintained schools, because the DfE does not explain how it calculates the extra the academy receives for services normally provided by LAs.

I feel I am fairly numerate and have spent some time trying to calculate a comparison but have, so far, given up. The idea that most (or indeed any) parents would be able to use the information publicly available to compare funding going into schools - as Cameron suggested - is nonsense.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 09:08

Addendum to above post re Cuckoo Hall Primary Academy (15/12/12 12.53): The 1998/99 Ofsted annual report listed all schools which had made “very substantial improvement” and had, therefore, “been REMOVED FROM SPECIAL MEASURES” (caps are Ofsted’s).

Cuckoo Hall was on this list. This shows that the school was substantially improving in 1998/99 to such an extent that it could be taken out of special measures. This improvement continued and was recognised by the 2001 Ofsted full inspection.

Yet the Cuckoo Hill website still says:

“In special measures 14 years ago, it was turned round dramatically by Headteacher Patricia Sowter and her team, with greatly improved educational outcomes for children.”

Ms Sowter didn’t join the school until 2002. The statement on the school’s website is, therefore, misleading.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 09:29

Does anyone else find a primary school having four deputy heads as well as an assistant head odd?

A typical large secondary (say 1200 pupils) only has 2 deputy heads round here.

Fiona I thought AC did really well on Any Question on education. Did you hear the crowd when Gove's name came up! (45:30)

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 11:27

I think all those self centred twits who have no idea of what teaching actually is and who think you can incentivise people to be better teachers should be sat down and forced to watch this and then told to draw up the criteria by which PRP should work:

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 16/12/2012 - 11:38

Rebecca - Cuckoo Hall is one of the three primary schools (two of them are free schools) which make up the Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust (CHAT), a small academy chain which has been given the go-ahead ot open a secondary free school next year.

According to Duedil, CHAT had a turnover (accounts filed 31 August 2011) of £7,105,000. Pre- and post-tax profit was given as £3,240,000. £2,879,000 was paid out in salaries (this would include the salary paid to the Marketing Manager). £351,000 was paid out in director "emoluments".

Ms Sowter is the Executive Principal of the primary schools. She is a director of CHAT (as is her husband). The head of one of the free schools, Kingfisher Hall, is also a CHAT director. Both of the free schools have secured funding for two new buildings. That said, there is a shortage of primary places in Enfield - this is a rare example of free schools actually being established where there is a shortage.

Ms Sowter is also a director of FASNA (now renamed the Freedom and Autonomy for Schools National Association). I describe FASNA's rebirth here:

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