I was then invited by the local paper - the Western Gazette - to provide a short Comment piece. This is my first draft:
Schools bound for the market-place
Have you had a letter from your child’s school about academy status? Secondary schools throughout the southwest (and some primaries) are queuing up to leave the control of the local authority. Odds are that, if you have children between the ages of eleven and sixteen, by this time next year they will be attending an independent school accountable only to the Secretary of State for Education.
Why the rush? Well, it’s money, of course. There’s a substantial incentive on offer – a sum per pupil for secondaries that are able to convert before September this year; about half of that for those that follow shortly after.
You may have recently had a letter from your chair of governors inviting your opinions on this revolutionary shift. But the requirement for schools to consult with the local community is minimal – they just have to consult whoever they think “appropriate”, and they don’t have to take any notice of what you say.
And what’s the reason? It’s to put education into the market-place. Like our National Health Service when the GPs take over commissioning, schools will be engaging private providers for all their services.
Our response as a nation to the bankers’ ruination of our country is to put the health and education services we need – and the money from all the taxes we pay - into the hands of private equity firms and hedge funds. Your school staff will be busy choosing between Capita, Cognita, Tribal and the notorious Southwest One to provide their support services. If you have a concern that the school isn’t dealing with, don’t go to the County Council – it won’t have any powers.
So here are some questions you might put to your school’s governors in this brief consultation period over the most significant change in the school’s organisation since it was opened by the County Council:
•Conversion to academy status is the single most important change to the school it opened. What’s the rush to do it before the autumn?
•Who is the school consulting? Parents? Future parents (what about primary school parents in the feeder schools)? Staff? Primary school heads and staff? The wider community - parish and town councils? Local voluntary organisations? The county council? Who matters? What difference will it make?
•Has the school already applied to the Department of Education to convert?
•What is so wrong with the way the school has been governed in the past that makes this move so urgent?
•Since the only extra money available for schools that opt to become academies will be taken from money the local authority holds centrally for support services, how might the movement of secondary schools out of the authority affect funding for primary and special schools and others remaining?
•Does the governing body intend to use its new powers to (a) no longer conform to the National Curriculum, and (b) no longer adhere to national Teachers’ Pay and Conditions? Why?
•What is the medium to long-term business case for this change? What will the new income be? What will be the costs of the new responsibilities the school takes on?
•What are the advantages, then, of this very significant change in the governance of the school, other than financial?
•If we have a concern about the school that the head and governors are unable to answer, who will we go to? To whom will the governors be accountable?
•Who currently profits financially from the school’s operation? Who will profit in the future?
•What hard evidence is there that our children, and others in the future, will benefit from this conversion?
•In the space of less than a year, the DfE and Michael Gove have made a mess of: Building Schools for the Future (affecting many Somerset schools), a U-Turn over the Educational Maintenance Allowance, the school sports system – and to the disgust of even Tory local authorities, he has just cut £155m to the fund used for free school meals and extra tuition for children with literacy and numeracy problems. Why should we trust him with our school’s future?
Welcome to the Big Society – controlled from the centre, unaccountable to the users, owned by the moneyed few.
Nigel Gann has been a school governor for twenty five years. He is an education author and consultant and has acted for the Department for Education, Ofsted, the British Council and many local authorities on governance issues. He received a National Teaching Award for governance in 2007.