Education not a priority for voters?

The Conservative Party seems to have calculated that because education in general and schools in particular didn’t feature prominently in the 2015 general election campaign parents and voters generally were content with the direction of travel. This means Tory policy-makers think voters support the move towards a school system that deprived local authorities of most of their remaining functions regarding schools and required all schools, including all primary schools, to become academies.

The forthcoming local elections in May are an opportunity for many voters to prove the government spin doctors wrong. As this blog has asserted, primary schools should remain under local support and direction as part of a national system. Schools are an important part of their local community, indeed in many rural areas they are the only manifestation of the community other than a village hall. The pub, shop, church and all other services have disappeared. Many Tory councillors recognise this point. Indeed, I suspect than some even entered active politics in support of their local school.

Announcing the policy that all schools must become academies just before Easter and both the teacher conference season and local election campaigning was either an act of supreme self-confidence on the part of the prime minister – for he must have sanctioned the Chancellor telling the world about the policy in the budget – or a staggering lack of understanding of the feelings of voters for their local school and its place in the community. Why the Tories would want to offer opposition parties a campaign against wholesale nationalisation of schools is beyond my understanding.

So far, despite their important as operators of primary schools, the churches and other faith groups seem to have bene relatively silent on the announcement about academisation. Easter Sunday sermons would be a good time for the Archbishops to convey to the faithful whether they back the government or will support those that want local authorities to retain an interest in schooling.

The honourable way out might be for Mrs Morgan to announce that in the first stage all secondary schools will become academies and that the policy will then be reviewed in the light of how MATs are working before moving on to the primary sector if the policy has proved successful. After all, we live in an age of austerity, as the government keeps telling us, and creating academies for the sake of it uses money that could be better spent protecting children’s centres, rural bus subsidies, disability benefits or a host of other more useful projects.

The Perry Beeches warning letter from the Education Funding Agency published on Maundy Thursday will just add fuel to the fire of those that worry about how MATs operate. Of course there were schools that broke financial regulations under local control, and even heads that went to prison for mis-appropriating public or parents’ funds. But, it would be interesting to know whether the trend towards financial mis-management is more likely in MATs with no geographical basis than those where they work closely with local authorities?

Who runs our schools could become the key battle of the 2016 local elections. If it does, there is no guarantee that the Tory programme for all schools to become academies will meet with universal voter approval.


6 thoughts on “Education not a priority for voters?

  1. Every time a report is published criticising the financial arrangements at a MAT the DfE says academy trusts are subject to more stringent accountability than non-academies. But the Perry Beeches investigation was triggered by a whistleblower and was not picked up in accounts. Similarly, the investigations into Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust, Barnfield Federation and Sawtry Village College began after the EFA received allegations. The National Audit Office investigation into EFA handling of Durand Academy Trust was, again, set in motion by correspondence received by the NAO. The NAO found the EFA’s policy towards related party transactions was ‘light touch’ and desk-based. The EFA has since tightened up rules around related party transactions (they have to be at ‘cost’ for example) but the ex-chair of the Public Accounts Committee didn’t think these new rules went far enough – in her opinion they should be banned.

    The new rules didn’t stop Perry Beeches setting up a complex arrangement between a third-party supplier and Liam Nolan Ltd, a private company set up by Perry Beeches’ head (and who was its only director) by which Nolan benefited. This cosy set up wasn’t on the trust’s accounts – it was hidden from the auditor who signed off the accounts. This would likely not have come to light if it were not for a whistleblower.

    It’s difficult to see how schools under LA stewardship would have got away with these kinds of activities as LA schools have LA appointed governors.

    • More fundamentally is the fact that in the case of Perry Beeches we yet again have the myth of the super-head, the cult of personality around one man or woman who is deemed vital to the whole enterprise. Using a services company to pay an additional salary, not declared as such, to the head is simply corrupt, and can only come from a board (of whatever composition) that believes that the head is so vital that their services must be retained and all, indeed any, cost.

      There have been a litany of such cases over the past ten years, in which heads have been set up by government, inspectors, governors, parents as beyond criticism and therefore deserving of wealth beyond the dreams of avarice, but have subsequently turned out to have feet of clay and it’s not entirely clear what they were actually doing for their money. The case of Jo Shuter is similar: the board were so awestruck by her brilliance that they didn’t impose any sort of sensible governance, and when it all came unravelled, what was left?

      This isn’t a problem of academies qua academies, but it is a problem of cults of personality in small organisations with poor governance, and academies are far more likely to suffer from that. In small schools, what sometimes happens is that the governors become an extension of the PTA, a claque around the head, but local government representatives and the tight limits on the powers of maintained schools keep it in check. The removal of those controls in academies wouldn’t matter if the heads were not treated as demi-Gods who, in turn, saw riches are only their fair due. But when it happens, as Janet says, there just isn’t enough control to catch it and stop it.

  2. John
    I asked my Cornwall Councillor, Andy Wallis, in charge of children’s services for his thoughts and he replies “Further to our conversation about the forced academy programme, I will be writing something public about my thoughts and objections to this ill-thought-out white-paper. I am also bringing/signing a motion to full council expressing my concern and how any change to a school should be the choice of parents, governors and head teachers. Not the Sec of State.”
    Dick Powell

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