The Kafkaesque Nightmare of Forced Academisation

David Ward's picture
It happened so suddenly and so brutally, like being plunged into a nightmare beyond even Kafka’s vivid imagination. Overnight, we were invaded, occupied and treated as voiceless serfs, trapped in a murky world where everyone was working against us and no one was accountable for their actions. And it all happened in a quiet corner of Norwich.

A little over a year ago, our school, Cavell Primary and Nursery in Norwich, was put into special measures. It seemed a very harsh outcome from an inspection that came at a time of transition, and it didn’t reflect our experience of the school, but in response, the governors put together a plan to form a Co-operative Trust with other nearby schools. This would formalise and strengthen existing relationships for support and sharing good practice, and it gained the approval of Ofsted, parents and the wider community. Despite the circumstances, it was an exciting time.

We only knew there was a problem when the schools went back after the autumn half term. Before the holiday, the school had been days away from confirming the Co-op Trust, but we returned to find that while we’d been away, the governors had been summarily dismissed and replaced with an Interim Executive Board by Norfolk County Council, under orders from Michael Gove.

Whatever the governors and parents thought was in the best interests of the school and its children, Gove had his own plan – he wants schools to become academies, one way or another, and he wasn’t about to let us “get away” with anything else. So the IEB were appointed to see that he got the right result. If the manner and timing of their appointment weren’t enough of a clue, they were all current or former employees of Norfolk County Council. They knew what was expected of them.

We complained to the Council, who ignored us. Officers and elected members justified their actions with ever more desperate contortions, before eventually resorting to blaming Gove. Privately, we were told that the Council was under pressure and had to do what Gove wanted. Publicly, the school was trashed in the press, in terms that became ever more detached from reality. The Eye of Sauron had fallen on us, and we were to burn under its gaze.

Despite the insistence that there was no alternative, we were told to discuss our concerns with the IEB, as the responsible body – easier said than done. For one thing, we had no idea who they were or how to contact them. Even when we found out, only making contact thanks to the intervention of our councillor, they would commonly ignore communications or present a dead bat in response to crazy suggestions like following the will of the majority.

There were brief meetings for parents to be kept up to date, which showed how things were going to go. Parents were angry, while the IEB made non-committal noises and tried to put a positive spin on both academies and the proposed sponsor. They even hinted that the school should become more enthusiastic about the academy proposal as Gove would sign an academy order anyway, and may make an example of us by handing us over to an entirely unsuitable chain if we caused too much fuss.

Just when it seemed that our fate was sealed, Ofsted returned, and after two days, the school was taken out of special measures. In an instant, Gove had no power to force anything on us. The school was safe!

But that was reckoning without the IEB. Their justification may have been melting away, but they still had a job to do, and their employers wouldn’t take no for an answer. So they hastily met again, and agreed to ask for an academy order anyway. You won’t be surprised to hear that Michael Gove was delighted to help out. He also came up with a special “fast track” process to get us out of the way in record time – how considerate!

As the Easter holidays approached, we began to wonder when the statutory consultation period would be. We were due to become an academy on 1st July, so it seemed odd that there was no rush to get it done. We were also curious about how it would be run, and how the IEB would spin their obvious lack of interest in our views. So I asked them.

The response was strangely evasive – I was asked what else I would like to be considered. I said I wanted to be able to tell people about it, to ensure that parents’ views were adequately represented – still no answer. I was told the IEB would discuss it at their next meeting. On 1st May!

Meanwhile, we heard rumours that the IEB had no intention to consult us at all. That has the ring of truth, but why didn’t they just say so? Maybe because the law requires a consultation, or maybe because the IEB had promised us in a previous meeting that there would be one once the sponsor was confirmed, as they were unable to answer many specific questions at that point. In any case, there certainly isn’t enough time from 1st May to arrange a meaningful consultation process from scratch and still hit their target date.

We’ve been mistreated and misled throughout. The IEB have used our school’s resources to promote their version of events to the point where it’s become propaganda. The Council have abdicated responsibility in public while backing the IEB behind the scenes. And the DfE have always been in the shadows, pulling the strings, keeping everyone in line. Against such an unholy alliance, our only hope of justice prevailing is judicial review.

And the punchline to all this, the final insult, is this: According to the definitions used for the DfE’s recently released academy “mythbuster”, we aren’t being forced to become an academy after all! The IEB are taking the decision on the school’s behalf, and Michael Gove is merely granting their request.

Slavery is freedom. From Kafka to Orwell. Except it’s not fiction, because we’re living it.
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Neil Moffatt's picture
Mon, 07/04/2014 - 14:15

Gove is acting ever more like a dictator.

This is brutally unfair - a total failure to embrace any sense of democracy or fairness.

The DfE are no longer acting as representatives of the people.


The big question, of course, is how?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 07/04/2014 - 14:29

David - this is a disturbing story. There is, of course, no excuse for enforced conversion. The Ofsted report, published at the end of February, said:

"Leadership and management have improved since the last inspection report. The school has a united and committed staff team who subscribe to a shared vision of school improvement and better outcomes for pupils. The headteacher and senior leadership team have led significant improvements in the quality of teaching and pupils’ achievement in mathematics and reading."

It seems the school fitted the category of a "punished failure" - a school deemed to be in need of intervention because of a run of poor results or a poor Ofsted. But the most recent Ofsted shows the school is improving.

This, of course, makes it an even more enticing prospect for a sponsor to take it over - a sponsor can take the credit for any future improvement which had actually already begun.

I would suggest the head contact her union if she hasn't already done so.

David Ward's picture
Mon, 07/04/2014 - 15:00

Janet, the school was taken down as part of an Ofsted blitz of the county, clearly expecting to put lots of schools in special measures, if not under instruction to do so. Reading the narrative of the March 2013 report, it doesn't sound all that far from our experience, but it's quite hard to connect it with the stark verdict that the school's inadequate. The school also recorded its best ever SATs results in June 2013, and was clearly on an upward curve after a bumpy transition from being a First School.

One thing I missed out is that the Council and IEB have tried to claim credit for every recognition of improvement, which was clearly well underway and directly praised in November's report at a time when the IEB had yet to set foot in the school and the Council had been neglecting the school almost entirely for the previous six months. When the school came out of special measures, the IEB Chair's letter to parents didn't even acknowledge the contribution of teaching staff, much less thank them.

I'm sure the staff are all in contact with their respective unions. Frankly, it's a miracle that they're managing to focus on teaching our children. The Ofsted report rightly mentions that this whole business is a major distraction which is getting in the way.

Robert Hill's picture
Mon, 07/04/2014 - 15:53

Who is the proposed academy sponsor?

David Ward's picture
Mon, 07/04/2014 - 20:17

Robert, the proposed sponsor is called Rightforsuccess, a local sponsor with no previous experience of running a normal primary school. They seem pleasant enough, but we've barely met them, and we haven't seen (nor have we been allowed to see) anything to indicate that they'd improve the school one bit.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 07:59

David - here's the link to Rightforsuccess website.

The Trust was previously Eaton Hall Academy Trust but changed its name on 16 October 2013. It appears on the DfE list of approved sponsors as Eaton Hall School, Norwich. Download approved sponsor list here.

David Ward's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 16:31

Yes, the Rightforsuccess website is interesting. From our point of view, the snippet on the home page about them being in an exciting phase of expansion feels rather oppressive. There’s also a lot of slightly misleading content where they talk about the schools they're working alongside in terms that make them sound like they're sponsoring them. Even worse, many of those schools are in the Co-op Trust we want to join.

The only contact we've had with them directly was a beauty parade at a meeting for parents before they were confirmed as the sponsor - the same meeting when we were promised a proper consultation that never happened. They described our situation as being like a forced marriage, but showed no concern about the ethics of being a party to such an arrangement.

… a post was published this afternoon telling the horrifying story of what it’s like to have your school forced to become an academy. “Read it and weep” was never a more appropriate …

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 23:10

Thanks for sharing David. So sorry to hear this. Good luck with it all.

David Ward's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 11:30

Thank you. I think it's important to show what this policy means in human terms, not just as an abstract concept. Hopefully, this will help. And publicity for our fight is always welcome.

John Mountford's picture
Tue, 08/04/2014 - 23:24

This is just the latest, but possibly the worst indication that this government and its allies is engaged in dismantling the state system of education in the most brutal and undemocratic manner. Where were we told that our schools were going to be forced, against the will of local people, to convert to academies? When was a mandate sought for this?

Neil is, of course, right when he asks how this kind of behaviour is going to be stopped? My answer is simple. It will come a step closer when the campaign at gains the support it needs to change the way strategic decisions are made in our education system. It is essential that education is planned and managed as a long-term project for the benefit of the whole nation, especially for its young people and in order that it more appropriately helps safeguard our economic well-being in the new global future. This will not happen if politicians retain their stranglehold on education policy.

Those who have already expressed their support for the ordinary voices campaign, on-line and at the school gate, are not alone in calling for a fundamental change in the governance of education. An informed report, published by Pearson Education Ltd. under the chairmanship of Professor Sir Roy Anderson calls for major reform of education policy making.

The report makes it abundantly clear that we are being held back as a nation because education is subject to seemingly endless short-term interventions. I believe it is being treated like a game, to be played by a few influential politicians who display open indifference to the views of ordinary people and professional educators alike. The Pearson report, with its links to earlier reports by organisations like the CBI and its references to substantial, ongoing research from across the globe, makes it clear that we need to tackle this issue urgently.

David, thank you for bringing this disturbing account to LSN where I am sure it will be received with incredulity. You have my support and admiration in refusing to let the process silence you. Keep telling your story because it has to reach as wide an audience as possible if we are to rescue the education service for ALL our young people.

Visit the ordinary voices website and encourage others to do the same. If you feel able, spread the word and support the campaign. Good luck for the future.

David Ward's picture
Wed, 09/04/2014 - 11:36

John, are you aware of Parents 4 Education? They're quite new, but it sounds like you have a lot in common. There’s clearly a substantial body of opinion that things need to change and fast. The trick is to harness that into a coherent campaign with a single voice.

I'll definitely be taking a look at your website.

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