I recently stood down as chair of governors at Stanchester Community School, Somerset, as I felt unable to continue to lead the school in its application to convert to academy status

Nigel Gann's picture
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.
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Jonathan Savage's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 15:21

Well done Nigel. A principled decision and a very good explanation of your reasons. I stood down as a Governor (not chair) having really enjoyed working at my local high school in that capacity. Like you, I felt unable to carry on as the school converted into an academy.

Like you, I have so many concerns that I won't recite here. The way in which Gove and his cronies are dismantling our state education system is absolutely outrageous.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 15:41

I think Nigel Gann's draft article for the Western Gazette should have a wider circulation. It confirms all the worries that many of us have aired on this site. Governing bodies are rushing like lemmings to convert urged on by the promise of money if they do so before September (and less if they leave it). However, as I said in my post about Lincolnshire County Council, the juicy carrot on offer might turn out to be a withered root.

Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 17:13

It looks to me as though the change to academies is unstoppable. Once a critical mass of schools switch, the remaining schools managed by the LA will be in effect paying for all the overheads that were previously paid by a larger group. They then receive less funding per pupil. As each school switches to become an academy the problem gets progressively worse for those who have not switched. Gove knows this, and most headteachers will have worked this out. Therefore headteachers are switching before all the special offers are removed. Headteachers who do not switch will be competing against schools with more funding. They will lose pupils as their curriculum offer will be poorer. Gove planned to make his changes irreversible. I'm sad that we are living by the rules of the jungle. I remember when the Tory Grant Maintained system came in and schools stopped working with one another for the next 10 years. We will see a repeat of this on a much larger scale.

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 18:37

Yet not all schools went GM did they? And even now, with all this pressure, there are only 600 academies out of around 23,000 schools. Primaries in particular seem to be staying put and in my LA area not one school has yet converted, although we do have one of the old Labour academies opening next year and a few free school bids. I think the picture nationally will be more mixed than people think ( and Gove hopes) in a few years time, although realise that in areas where a critical mass of schools are opting out, and the LA wants schools to go, deciding to stay maintained must be a difficult decision for governors.

Ian Taylor's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 19:23

I agree that not all schools went GM. This is what worries me so much this time. If you look at the list of schools converting to Academies here http://bit.ly/h7fgNJ I count about 600 secondary schools. There are only 3000 secondary schools in total. The majority of those converting are classified as Outstanding by OFSTED. This must represent the vast majority of Outstanding Secondary Schools. Primary Schools are less likely to convert as in the main they do not have the level of in-house management or financial expertise required. We are sleep walking as a country into a new world where primary schools will be looked after by underfunded LAs who also have to look after "satisfactory" secondary schools. What strategic planning will there be anywhere? Primary-Secondary transfer is not going to look good. With Free Schools added to the mix we have a recipe for chaos. People like Mr Gove will just buy their way out of the mess for their own children. Headteachers cannot raise their heads above the parapet because no-one wants to give their school negative publicity or appear overtly political. League tables put Headteachers and governors under huge pressure to find any advantage they can to climb the ladder. Can anyone save the system? Sadly I cannot hear much opposition from the Labour Party. We are going to divide our society even further. Although we are supposed to be "all in this together", the ministers creating this new world have no idea about how the poorer sections of our society live. Mr Gove has set us on a path that even he cannot reverse. Perhaps Labour are hoping for another U turn. They will not get it unless they step up the pressure and get a coherent message out to Middle England that spells out where this policy is leading to.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Tue, 12/04/2011 - 20:40

It's terrifying what's happening, it's becoming a dog-eat-dog world where schools are desperately fighting for the money. I don't see a lot of co-operation going on...

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 07:17

However, the schools parents in general move heaven and earth (almost literally: they grow religion and move address) to get their children into are those which enjoy a measure of autonomy from local authority control. Aside from church schools, which have some independence from the authority via their diocesan (or equivalent) funding and governance, and the various residual grammar schools often owned by foundations and again voluntary aided, popular comprehensives also have some autonomy. For example, William Ellis school boasts of "From 1990, the School gained greater autonomy under the Local Management of Schools scheme, and it spends a devolved budget of over 13 million per year for its 900 pupils. " --- perhaps a governor or former governor of the school could comment on why that's such an important aspect of the school that it's only one click from the front page? Indeed, "William Ellis is unusual in being an 'Aided' school. There are not many of these, and they are mostly attached to the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, a Jewish community or a Livery Company. We stand on our own, supported by the William Ellis and Birkbeck Schools Trust, a registered charity whose funds are solely for the purpose of assisting the School. Not a wealthy body, the Trust relies on the support of parents, past and present."

How does this differ from Academy status? How is this school, often claimed to be a successful "state comprehensive" and analogue of actual state comprehensives?

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 07:23

The difference is that William Ellis is a maintained school, not an independent state school. Its funding comes through the local authority, as it does for local C of E and Catholic schools. It is also bound by the law governing all maintained schools in areas like admissions, exclusions, SEN, in a way that academies are not, since they are only governed by their funding agreements. The school has always had VA status but also has strong links with the local authority and works closely with other local schools, as do the neighbouring church schools. Several members of the governing body are nominated by the LA.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 09:06

Actually Tokyo makes a very interesting point in this post, which is that there is considerable scope for schools to be more autonomous within the maintained system; VA, trust and foundation status all allow for this yet keep schools within the local family and funded on the same basis. It would be good to see some parent groups, in areas where there is a need for more places, testing the possibility of having a new aided, trust or foundation school instead of a free school or an academy. If the government really means what it says about giving parents power and a say in their childrens' schooling, there should be no reason why these different models can't be introduced ( apart from the fact that the Coalition is ideologically opposed of course)

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 11:07

Very sad to read this from Nigel Gann and I agree that it should have wider circulation. Tweet and alert media.

The rush is of course money but I think it’s also because this fragile coalition government wants to rush through as much policy and reform as they can before this first term runs out, either to begin the next on a higher note or to leave with a legacy in place, ready to be unpicked by the next government. The last time the Conservatives held power, they had a lot of time to do a great deal of damage – yes, they resuscitated the economy, but Thatcher also tore apart the social fabric of the country which Labour had to spend money and compassion to re-fix. Labour glued much of it back together – and we don’t have to repeat here what they spent and achieved in areas like education. This time round, the ConDems will ruin the economy AND society. Imagine what mess Labour will have to clear up.

The current government mantra is always the same – Clegg was it at again the other day. “Labour left us with a huge national debt. We have to do this to clean up the mess they left behind”. No. State coffers were emptied because feeble regulations of irresponsible banks allowed them to hold the government to ransom to hand over taxpayers money to keep the economy from collapsing. And the Conservatives would have done the same.

I see a lot of propaganda from the government about academies and free schools but I don’t see much high profile criticism from opposition politicians – where are they in the print media, on television arguing the case for LA maintained schools and warning of the risks of free schools? We are doing it here and it is debated on other sites and highlighted in newspapers but what are our MPs and shadow cabinet doing about it?

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 11:26

Testing, exclusion, inequality, competition between schools, self-preservation, profit, centralised, amateurism, accountable to no one bar the DfE’s capriciousness – this is what education will become. The elite are running public policy which does not affect their own children, just other people’s and people they don’t care about – those very people who have also lost benefits, libraries, charities, essential local services. Collaboration is not valued by this government – just competition and looking after your own interests. It is frightening that fake concern about education and children is all about dividing up education and profit-making.

I am amazed how teachers survive the relentless hostility towards their profession and the schools they teach in. Their work is being run down. Their achievements and reputation being destroyed. How can governments expect to improve education by demoralizing teachers, cutting pay, making them work long hours in these new schools? And relentless high stakes testing and competition – more demoralization for teachers, pupils and parents.

Teachers – write articles, blogs, letters to editors, explain what teaching is about and the problems you face. Explain that strike action if taken is protest about loss of educational standards, demoralization, pay cuts, job losses. You are the most qualified to talk about what needs to happen in schools and the communities must hear your voice. Everywhere, All the time.

Parents – support teachers and school. They are your natural allies. They want the best for your kids like you do. As Fiona has said, there are other ways of autonomy within the LA maintained system. Look at those as well as insisting on consultation and get informed about the downsides of free schools/academies. Schools don’t improve by competing with other schools, except in sports. They improve by collaborative culture – so don’t help dismantle your Local Authority. Profit and materialism is being allowed into schools – don’t let that be the new curriculum.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 11:39

I spotted an interesting quote in yesterday's FT from Nick Clegg about the health reforms in response to a suggestions that GPs should be allowed to choose whether they opted into the new consortia. He said it would have draw backs because ' you would get a very kind of mix-match and uneven approach within the NHS'. This sort of two tier system is exactly what the Lib Dems are happy to see in education however.
I think it will become clear over time that the new academies will effectively be government run schools with the Secretary of State having considerable power, via the funding agreements, to determine their futures, including who should run them if they fall short on any of the success criteria he/she sets. As this former headteacher from a Vardy academy told the Education Bill Committee recently, we may end up in a situation where schools within a loose local authority framework have more autonomy than those that are independent but run by a chain.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 12:10

Local authority control is misrepresented by those who want schools to opt out of it. It's presented as a dictatorial organisation. It isn't. Why, then, you may ask, is there opposition to schools opting out of LA control? First, democratic accountability. When schools opt out their governing bodies become self-selecting - there's no legal obligation to keep the same body as before conversion (although many do at the moment). There's no obligation to include local people or have staff members. If a parent has a complaint about a school which the school doesn't fix, then that parent can't go to a councillor but will have to appeal to the Secretary of State.

The second is: the administrative burden which will devolve to schools and divert attention from their main function: education. LAs perform useful backroom functions. A full list of these is here http://www.education.gov.uk/schools/leadership/typesofschools/academies/.... Of course, academies can buy these services back from the LA. But what happens when a critical mass is reached when more schools have opted out than are still with the LA? Will the LA stop providing them? If so, will the academies then have to buy in to an academy chain which is not democratically accountable?

Tokyo Nambo says that parents fight to get their children into faith schools and the like because of greater autonomy. In fact community schools (62% of all schools)*, voluntary controlled (3.3%) and foundation schools (16/6%) are all LA funded. Voluntary aided schools (16.3%) are funded by LAs and the foundation. All of these share the same degree of autonomy although they may have different admission criteria (faith, for example). Academies (1.4%) and free schools are funded from central government.

The main difference between academies/free schools and the rest (besides funding) is the ability to opt out of the national curriculum. This is trumpeted as a huge plus by the government. In which case the government should give this freedom to all schools.

*Figures related to 2006/7 and appear on page 94 of OECD Economic Surveys: United Kingdom 2011. The number of academies has increased since then to 407 in January 2011.

Tokyo Nambu's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 12:16

"there is considerable scope for schools to be more autonomous within the maintained system; VA, trust and foundation status all allow for this yet keep schools within the local family and funded on the same basis. "

Quite so. But all of those statuses (and grant-maintained) have had their fair share of complaints made about them by people who assume that LEAs exist in a state of grace and any attempt to lesson their influence is inherently sinful. I doubt that ten years ago you'd have found many advocates for comprehensive schools who were also advocates of trust, foundation or grant-maintained status, because they were too busy arguing for the inherent advantages of LEA control.

If offered the stark choice between what is presented as "letting head teachers and governors run the school" versus "faceless men at the LEA", parents tend to opt for the former, and if a false dichotomy is presented then the outcome will be pretty well a foregone conclusion.

What Birmingham is doing is moving its educational support services into a separate trading arm, which can sell music provision, SEN provision and so on into a mixed economy of schools (controlled, aided, academy, etc). The experience of schools able to make their own decisions, largely VA, has been that the central services are not economic because the overhead that is charged is not realistic: the cost of services is burdened (in its technical, and indeed metaphorical, sense) by a huge LEA infrastructure which more agile competitors don't carry. It will be interesting to see if the educational services business can manage to split the difference, and provide both the economies of scale a large city can deliver without a huge topslice for rather amorphous benefits. The VA schools are currently able to offer more music (etc) for the pound, because the music budget is not being recycled into an LEA slushfund --- very high overhead recovery is otherwise a means to vire ring-fenced money into local authority budgets for other purposes.

As Fiona says, it would be interesting were parents to press for these "intermediate" forms of governance. In a straight debate between academy and controlled, controlled will suffer from very poor perceptions of value, interference and quality which --- true or not --- are very hard to displace in the timescales involved in taking a decision. Admission that LEAs don't need to buy the soap might go some way towards finding a third way that satisfies all interests.

But I regard it as significant that when examples are held up of best practice, which William Ellis appears by general acclamation to be, they turn out not to be LEA controlled schools but to have extensive autonomy both in terms of finance and in terms of staffing. I doubt that's a co-incidence, and a campaign to apply that model to more schools might have a lot more traction than a campaign to retain existing LEA control.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 12:26

My experience is that parents move heaven, earth and even adopt a religion, certainly at primary school time, to get their children into faith schools because there is the common, unresearched assumption that they are "better".

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 12:35

I have chaired two governing bodies over the past 18 years - one VA and one community school - so think I am in quite a good position to comment on some of these myths. Firstly it is not the case the VA/foundation schools are inherently more successful , popular and efficient. Many of our local community schools are hugely oversubscribed, have excellent results and outstanding Ofsted reports. Some VA schools have not done so well. Nor is it the case the community schools are run by 'faceless men at the LA' who buy the soap ( this is a completely ridiculous example of the sort of myths that exist about local authorities and schools). Since LMS community schools have had considerable freedom and in my experience nearly all decisions are taken by the governing body, NOT by the local authority. The tiresome forms of control mainly come from central government.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 13/04/2011 - 12:47

Tokyo - Rampant educational reform in the United States has seen many Charter Schools using American tax payers money bequeathed from Washington to contract out essential school services to for-profit making rganizations.

The result in far too many cases has been a chronic loss of control by school boards over the running of the school - staff, curriculum, ownership of school premises - and when these have had a detrimental affect on the teaching of children, litigation has ensued. The school is blamed for the failures of the service provider, who can just pocket the cash with no accountability. It becomes a court case not about the quality of teaching children, but a breach of contract where the service provider sees it's profits shrinking.

Nick grant's picture
Thu, 14/04/2011 - 15:16

A good friend of mine also resigned from a primary school governing body in Somerset where the head teacher was duly rewarded with a dame before her name!

On a slightly different tack the publication of dfe lacseg figures per local authority yesterday will shock a few secondary and primary schools who thought they might be getting what last july's ready reckoned promised them.@

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 14/04/2011 - 15:49

Yes will be interesting to see what the long term holds for the schools that have converted for the money.

tokyo nambu's picture
Fri, 15/04/2011 - 10:03

"A good friend of mine also resigned from a primary school governing body in Somerset"

I really struggle to see why people are so proud of this. Does resigning as a governor stop the thing you're upset about? No. Does the governing body thereafter start every meeting with a minute's silence in memory of the brave self-sacrifice of those no longer present? No. Does resigning as a governor remove a critical voice from the governing body that may be able to influence events later, and can at least act as a credible link between the governing body and dissatisfied parents, teachers and other stakeholders? Yes.

I never understood noisy resignations from voluntary bodies as "matters of principle". If you genuinely find it unconscionable to be party to a particular course of action, leave quietly. But the only reason for a noisy resignation is that you were unable to get your own way, and somehow think that people will now change their minds to stop you from leaving.

My wife's a governor of a large foundation school. She opposes academy status. She lost the argument: you do, sometimes, in democracies. She's now working hard to mitigate some of the problems, ensure that admissions and other policies remain just, and carrying out her duties as a governor elected by the parents. She could instead have noisily resigned, leaving there one less critical voice on the body. Which is better?

Nigel Gann's picture
Mon, 18/04/2011 - 14:30

Tokyo - I quite agree with you. You have not read my article correctly. I stood down as chair when the governing body passed a resolution I would have been unable, in principle, to lead on. I remain a governor - and a vocal one - fighting, along with three other governors who also voted against, from "the backbenches".

Michael Tully's picture
Wed, 20/04/2011 - 11:15

The last two comments on whether to resign or not to resign from a difficult situation leads me to suggest a book which I found invaluable when dealing with this of all too common situation (espcially in my former career, 'Higher Education').
'Exit, Voice and Loyalty' (1970) Albert O Hirschman, Harvard University Press.
It gives few easy answers but contains great wisdom.

Graham Whiting's picture
Thu, 21/04/2011 - 10:19

If we all stand down on matters of principal who will be running our schools? I may not agree with this as the best way forward, but if all of us who really care about education stand down, who will take our places? Resignation is an easy way out and leaves the door open for people who see this way forward as a good thing. Stay and fight.

Michael devaney's picture
Thu, 28/04/2011 - 21:11

I respect the decision made by Mr Gann to resign from the governing body which after all is not a paid vocation.
Academies are the future or a mistake made by the government ?

As a school that I have served as a governor faithfully for the last eight years we are currently in consultation with parents to convert to an academy. As a governing body we feel that we have explored all areas of concern and have had lengthy disscussions with a number of other Academies and schools that have decided that the Academy route is not correct for them.

We feel it is not about the extra money it is about bieng able to employ staff on better terms and conditions than we are currently able to. Recruiting Teachers who are inspirational who can make a significant difference to the students and take them on the journey they deserve, a first class education.

As a school that has recently had an Ofsted and rated Satisfactory we feel that the benefits of joining a school that is already an Academy with two Outstanding judgements in recent years. We believe that the parner ship will enable us to devolp the curriculum and to utilise the expertise of both schools.

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