Wednesday 13 March 2013

Bullying DfE Brokers - key points from yesterday's debate

Yesterday's Westminster Hall debate brought the attention of the Government to the many complaints about the forced academy process. Here are some key extracts:

John Pugh (Lib Dem Southport) Throughout the land, brokers are appearing in schools when the opportunity arises to hasten things on and ensure that the targets are met. They show up when a school suffers even a temporary decline in standards. A recent article in The Guardian by George Monbiot—not a man I ordinarily agree or see eye to eye with—compared them to mediaeval tax collectors. I happen to think that mediaeval tax collectors performed an important social function; I do not necessarily feel the same way about brokers.

Brokers appear to come to governing bodies with threats and an academy contract in hand. The threats are, “Sign the contract, or you, the governors, and possibly the head teacher, will be replaced”, or “Choose a sponsor, or if you don’t we’ll choose one for you, which we may do anyway.”

Bill Esterson (Labour,  Sefton Central)

To add to the hon. Gentleman’s examples, a Department for Education adviser said to a school in my constituency, “You lost your autonomy when you went into an Ofsted category. Either you sign the papers to become an academy, or we will put in another interim executive board to do it for you.” I wonder whether he has had similar experiences.

John Pugh

I have had very similar experiences, but they are not just my experiences. Reports are coming in from up and down the land, and there is a kind of similarity that makes them wholly plausible.

There is a hurry to get on with things. Schools are basically told, “Get on with academisation now, or we will do it for you anyway.” They are also told—this surprises me—“Don’t tell the parents or the staff until it actually happens. Consult with them afterwards.” To sweeten the pill, cash is sometimes promised, in the form of a changeover fund to accommodate change. Relief from inspection or the school’s current status is also promised: whatever pressure Ofsted or the LEA apply will disappear when academy status is established. More worryingly, I have evidence that sponsors have been recommended, particularly school chains, with whom individual brokers have prior connections.

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield, Labour)

Can I take the hon. Gentleman back to what he said before? I have had a number of schools that have received not only that suggestion, but the message, “Don’t talk to the parents before everything is signed, sealed and delivered.” Is it not also strange that ministerial policy is that Members of Parliament should be told about academisation only after the funding agreement has been signed, thereby removing any chance for democratically elected Members of Parliament to advise, consult with the school or have any say in what is about to happen?

John Pugh

Yes, that is distressing. The hon. Gentleman is a witness to the fact that we have moved from a situation in which parents were allowed a vote to one in which parents do not have a voice.

I would like to draw attention to the well documented fact that some of the brokers’ behaviour is markedly aggressive. One governor of fairly robust temperament described a broker as “seriously scary”. I find the process appalling. Regardless of what one feels about the academy programme, I find it distressing that people who have the interests of children and their schools at heart feel that they have been put in that situation. It strikes me that it is bullying. The intention is to close the contract and sign it there and then, which is the worst kind of sharp salesmanship, if I can put it like that. It is obviously wide open to corruption; it is about making offers that people cannot refuse, straight out of the Vito Corleone textbook. I see absolutely no reason why we who wish to stop bullying in schools allow the bullying of schools.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West, Labour)

Fortunately, we have the Minister with responsibility for bullying here, so she can deal with any accusations of bullying.

Surely the hon. Gentleman is being completely unfair to the Government. Did he read the article by Warwick Mansell in The Guardian yesterday? It quoted Tim Crumpton, a councillor in Dudley, who said that after he made accusations of bullying, he received a letter from the Department saying:

“We carried out a thorough investigation and found no basis in the claims.”

John Pugh

I am sure that the Department took the broker’s word for it. What I am describing has been told to me by people I have known for some time, who have no axe to grind and whom I trust.

I feel particularly aggrieved about my area. Under previous regimes, not a single school in Sefton ever opted out. We had two ballots, both of which were lost. There were good reasons. Sefton was one of the first LEAs to give schools true financial independence to pioneer; in fact, I was on the local authority at the time. It has kept its central costs low. It has always prioritised education and schools. It stands favourable comparison with other LEAs. Its schools are good and, better still, there are good relations between the LEA and the schools, which themselves cluster together harmoniously and supportively. There is a genuine communitarian spirit, accompanied by good results. To make things more acutely painful, Sefton has a good record, praised by the Schools Minister, for improving its schools; it is in the top five of LEAs.

One—I think that is all right—might suppose that what is crucial to the success of education is the independence of the school. That is an understandable view. It is a simplistic and probably wrong view, but I can understand people taking it and it providing them with the motive for feeling that academies are an all-sufficient solution.

Another interpretation might be that there is an unstated plot to reorganise schools into private chains rather than in LEAs; if so, we could legitimately debate that at some point. It is likely that many primary schools, if they become academies, will form part of chains. There is nothing particularly wrong with chains, and there have been great ones in the past: Blue Coat schools, Merchant Taylors’ schools, the Woodard foundation, Haberdashers’ Aske’s schools and so on; and, in the state system, organisations such as the Christian Brothers, or the Salesian or Notre Dame schools. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with chains; they are often founded for the poor but usually end up serving the rich. The model is particularly in favour with the Minister responsible for academies, Lord Nash, who I understand supports a chain of some sorts himself.
In the past, however, huge gains to the educational system were not achieved by virtue of the state handing people 125-year leases; normally, it was done by philanthropists digging deep into their pockets. If there is a real agenda, and such motivations are genuinely behind the strange set of phenomena we are seeing at the moment, I am happy to debate that. Let us not, however, have this forced choice, with underhand persuasion and inducement.

In my years as a teacher, the worst sort of bullying was not the stuff that one saw and could stop but the stuff that was not seen and took place away from view. If nothing else, through this debate I hope to bring the bullying of schools, rather than in schools, to people’s attention.

Rose Cooper, (West Lancashire,  Labour)

All the evidence points to a Department that is ideologically wedded to the promotion of academies for all, rather than the best education for all. In our education system, only 10% of all state schools are academies and free schools, and the figure for primary schools is only 5.3%. Yet one third of Department for Education staff are assigned to the academies and free schools programme, which accounts for 18% of the Department’s revenue and capital budget—a level completely disproportionate to the size of the programme. 

Then we come to the £1 billion overspend. No doubt that money is being taken from the budgets for non-academy schools, many of which most need that investment.

The whole situation is compounded by the Gove army of brokers. Given that they earn up to £700 a day, some might suggest they are more like mercenaries. I would suggest they are conflicted mercenaries, because many are alleged to have connections to academy chains. These conflicted mercenaries—these brokers—are running round the country offering inducements of £40,000, plus£25,000 for legal costs. That approach to academisation is deplorable, and it is all being done because of the ideological war being waged by the Education Secretary. 

Our ambition and aspiration should always be to ensure that our children have access to the best possible standards of education from the start to the end of their school life. Simply forcing schools to become academies is not the solution. We know that one-size-fits-all policy making does not work. In our schools, we need good, strong leadership from the head teacher and governing bodies, with investment in schools buildings and school resources, irrespective of whether the school is LEA controlled or an academy. There should be a consensus among parents, teachers, governors and the community about the type of school they want; that decision should not be forced on the community.

I agree that we need to ensure that all schools reach the required standards. However, we should do so based on the needs of the individual school and its children, not on the imposition of a one-size-fits-all model driven by ideology. I am sure the Minister has come here today replete with the usual lines about school improvement, education for the 21st century and investment, but I remind her that we are talking about the forced conversion of schools into academies.

My message to the Minister is this: nobody believes you. As each day passes, fewer and fewer people believe you.

 David Ward   (Lib Dem, Bradford East)
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mrs Main. I thank my hon. Friend John Pugh for initiating the debate.
It is not too much of a secret, certainly in some quarters, that I am not a great fan of academies. I opposed them under the previous Government, and I oppose the academy regime under this Government. Within a few months of coming into the House of Commons, I voted against the Academies Bill. That was for a couple of reasons. First, many supporters of academies, who want to push for academy status, are seeking to control admissions. For them, it is about who goes into the school, not what goes on in the school.

In a private meeting with the Secretary of State, I said, “You should be far more radical and make every school an academy in terms of some of the freedoms that are proposed.” However, for those who support
academies, and who are pushing for them, that would not really work, because the secret of academies is that some schools are academies and some are not. Alongside freedoms in relation to conditions of service and so on, there would need to be some control over admissions, which would defeat the purpose of going to academy status for many sponsors, and the same applies to free schools.

I am opposed to the academies also because there is an overemphasis on the impact that the structure will have on raising achievement and attainment in schools. It is interesting that many of the new academies have not taken up some of the new freedoms: they have taken the money and stayed, rather than taking the money and running with the new freedoms. Another reason for my opposition is that I always want, as Stephen Covey said, to“Begin with the end in mind.”

If something works, generally speaking it is okay. I do not feel that there are too many strong, politically different issues or matters of principle. Most of them are about what works in a situation, with some fundamental underpinning of values. I am not clear where the evidence is for academies. In a sitting of the Education Committee a few weeks ago, I asked the Secretary of State whether he believed in evidence-based policy and he said that he very much does, but I do not see any evidence for that.

The success of the academies project seems—my hon. Friend the Member for Southport referred to this—to be judged by how many academies there are. That has almost become an end in itself. There has been much talk about needing to convert. A school is in a particular situation, and the idea of need is always introduced; but it does not mean the school will benefit from a conversion. The evidence base is not there. The idea is that the school needs to convert because it meets the criteria; but it is the Secretary of State who sets the criteria. It is like saying, “I will decide when it is raining, and I will decide what to wear in the rain.”

He is doing the same, because he is saying, “I will decide the criteria and whether they have been met.” That is the same idea as, “There is a need to put on a coat when it is raining; it is raining so we need to put a coat on.” The false logic behind the whole academies programme is: “An intervention is needed and an academy is an intervention, so you need an academy.” It is all false logic. Using a coat when it rains is an intervention, but it is not the only form of intervention and there is no evidence that that intervention is the one that would work.

There are all sorts of interventions, which could include setting up an academy—but where is the evidence? Local authority support would be a possibility: many authorities are not, as has been suggested, dreadful, and are effective at providing support. The intervention may be a new head for the existing school. It may be an integrated post-inspection plan, or an interim executive board to turn the school around. There is evidence to show that all those interventions work in certain circumstances. They all have an evidence base, but there is no evidence that the academy structure works. It is false logic.

In my constituency in Bradford, there are two schools that are going through intervention academy conversions. My two sons went to one of those schools many years ago. If someone went to a local estate agency 10 or 15 years ago, the window would have adverts stating that properties were close to the school.

The school was one of the largest and most successful in the Bradford district and it was why people moved into that area, but it has had a difficult time. It was not so long ago that the head teacher of that school, before retirement, was the executive head of another school that was failing and has now become successful. I was chair of governors at a school that was in special measures, and it became the first secondary school in Bradford to be rated as outstanding. All that was done without academy status and on the basis of interventions by an extremely good head teacher, who was able, through a new management team, to turn the school around.

In Bradford, a secondary partnership has been established. The whole principle behind it has been to offer support to other schools and negate the need for academy conversions. The partnership was formed about 18 months ago and all 28 secondary schools from the district are involved and pay an annual subscription to join. It involves developing a rigorous system of performance review. It will provide effective school-to-school support and deliver school-led professional development. Those schools do not need to be academies. There are other ways forward that do not require a change to a school’s structure.

Ideology has been mentioned a few times, but I do not think that is the issue. It is about ego. All schools can be improved, but it takes time and requires hard work. It is not glamorous and a slog is involved. It takes 18 months to two years to get the right people in place to turn a school around, but where is the glamour in that for a Secretary of State who needs to be seen to do dramatic things? Where is the glamour in that hard graft that happens day in, day out up and down the country in turning around schools that need to improve?

The problem is that that egocentric project comes with a cost. The House of Commons Library briefing shows the actual cost involved in investing in the schools and bribing them to take up academy status, as well as the opportunity cost of the money that is not available for other schools. It is frankly sickening to see schools in Bradford unable to afford basic repairs while a bottomless pit of money appears to be available to support the free schools and academies programme. That programme is a costly distraction—devoid of evidence—from the principal concern of an authority, which is to raise educational achievement and attainment through the well-established methods that already exist for turning schools around and providing the quality education that pupils need and deserve.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith, Labour)

We had a £33 million investment programme—at the moment, that is quite a big programme—over two years for primary schools, yet all that money was directed to voluntary-aided schools, free schools or academies, for new build, refurbishment, conversion or expansion as may be, despite the fact that very successful community schools also wish to expand and see investment put into them. I object to those double standards and to not having a level playing field. I have to ask who the ideologues are in this case, and I am afraid that they are particularly centred around the Secretary of State for Education.

None of that would matter if there were no adverse consequences, but let me explain some of the consequences. First, there will be a perception—it may be a reality, but it is certainly a perception—that we are creating a two-tier system in education, in which academies are the preferred type of schools. Parents will therefore gravitate, reasonably and understandably, towards those schools, because they believe that the schools will be preferred—with money, resources or simply the attention that they receive from local education authorities and the DFE. That then leads to a form of separate development. A number of academies are now for pupils aged three to 18, and they therefore monopolise children within an area. 

Equally, I have noticed a trend whereby secondary academies will select—particularly if they are in the same group—from their primary feeder schools, so it may be that there is no longer an interchange between primary schools in that way. I am beginning to get a lot of complaints from parents of children in community primary schools who might want to send their children to secondary academies, and they find that they are refused or are a long way down the waiting list.

I also fear that there is a possibility of politicisation of the academy system down the road. There is a strong association between the academy system and not only Conservative local authorities, but Conservative funders, peers and so on. Lord Nash has been mentioned. Lord Fink, who I think is still the Tory party treasurer, was the chairman of ARK, and he is the chairman of one of the schools in my constituency. Both of those gentlemen are very substantial funders of the Conservative party. One of them, Lord Nash—or rather, his wife, Lady Nash—was the principal funder of my opponent at the last election. It is a free country. Anyone can do as they wish, but the association of particular schools, chains of schools and individuals with a particular political party is not healthy in education. I see that as another branch of the politicisation and there is the real prospect of our moving—with every pronouncement that comes out of Government or those close to Government—to profit-making schools. If another Conservative Government were elected, we would see that trend continue, and I think that would be extremely regrettable.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West, Labour)

Last year I visited a group of schools that had formed an education improvement partnership. One of the primary school head teachers in it was desperate to tell me about her experience with what some people locally have described as gauleiters being sent out by the Department for Education. What she told me made my jaw drop. She told me that when the adviser from the Department turned up, she was told that she had to meet them and that no one else was to be present. When she objected to that, she was told that perhaps at a stretch she might be allowed to have the chair of governors present with her for part of the meeting. She wanted to have, and in the end she insisted on having, the head teacher of the local secondary school, which was part of the education improvement partnership, with her for the debate, but she told me several stories about how she was leaned on—that is the only way it can be described—and told that there was no alternative to her school becoming an academy, despite the fact that the governors did not want that, the parents did not want it and it was clearly an improving school. In the end, having taken legal advice, they were able to fend off the adviser who had come from the Government, using those bullying tactics, but I am told that as she left she said, “I’ll be back”, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style—no doubt after further efforts have been made to undermine the efforts being made by the school to operate as part of an education improvement partnership to raise standards in the school. That is happening around the country. I have also been told that in the same area, one head teacher has seen a gagging clause put into their contract, having been forced out of a school as part of this process. 

It is all very well, under the cloak of standards, to go around to schools and offer them an opportunity to consider academisation—the sponsored academy approach. That can be entirely appropriate on many occasions, but the bullying behaviour—we are hearing, and I am receiving, more and more accounts of it—is very worrying. I therefore want the Minister to answer a few questions about that. How many schools does she know of that have successfully resisted forced academisation procedures? How are the academy advisers recruited? How are they rewarded? Is it true that they are on a payment-by-results regime? I hope that the Minister will answer this question particularly. Is there any code of conduct for those people as to how they should behave? As the Minister with responsibility for the issue of bullying, will she give us an absolute assurance that if there is one, she will publish it, and that if there is not one currently, she will ensure that one is available? I ask that because some of the behaviour that is being described—

Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk, Conservative)  Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (education and childcare)

We are encouraging all schools to convert to academy status, so that good and outstanding schools can use the autonomy that the status provides to drive up standards. Where schools are underperforming and leadership and management need improvement, however, we cannot just stand by and allow that to continue. The cases that hon. Members have raised in the debate are about schools in which performance is not good enough. We are not talking about schools in which performance is already good. There are good schools under local authority auspices and there are good academies, but we are talking about underperforming schools. We look for two indicators of underperformance to determine which schools we should approach and work with to deliver sustained improvement: low achievement over time and whether the school is in Ofsted category 4. 

Many schools agree to become sponsored academies, because they know that academies are achieving dramatic improvements in results, particularly where new sponsors have taken on formerly underperforming schools, as I have seen that in my county of Norfolk. Sponsors bring outside influence and a wealth of experience. They challenge traditional thinking and have no truck with a culture of low expectations.

…...We should bear it in mind that intervention takes place where schools are underperforming—where there is a problem. At meetings with governing bodies, where schools are in Ofsted categories of concern, a broker discusses sponsorship options and aims to agree a schedule of actions. As is necessarily the case in an underperforming school, that can sometimes appear challenging—of course, it can. We are saying that what is happening at that school is not delivering for the children. It is important that they receive the best possible education.

1 comment:

Neil Moffatt said...

Liz Truss spoke at length to advertise academies, leaving precious little time to answer questions. Only 2 minutes in effect as she returned very late from the break.

She made a point of avoiding the issue as much as she could, and the chair failed to haul her back to answer the questions set her.

This was no debate - this was a series of position statements with almost no interplay of viewpoints. It felt like a waste of time, except for the admission that civil servants are beholden to a code of conduct which they regularly break.