The National Union of Teachers (NUT) welcomes the Education Committee Inquiry. The NUT is the largest teachers’ union with 320,000 members teaching in a range of school types and settings across England and Wales, including academies and free schools.
The NUT has chosen to focus its evidence around the following aspects of the Committee’s Inquiry: The process for approving, compelling and establishing academies, including working with sponsors; the appropriateness of academy status for primary schools; and alternatives to sponsored academy status for primary schools.
SUMMARY OF THE NUT’S VIEW
The process for approving, compelling and establishing academies is undemocratic and is alienating school communities.
In the case of converter academies, consultation arrangements fail to give due weight to the views of school communities, with the decision to apply for academy status being taken by a small number of people on the governing body who have, in many instances, ignored the majority views of teachers and parents opposed to conversion. This has led to alienation between teachers, parents and academy trusts. The NUT believes that the consultation arrangements that were put in place in respect of Grant Maintained Schools should apply to the question of whether or not a school should voluntarily convert to academy status.
The process of compelling schools to become sponsored or ‘forced’ academies is punitive and destabilising. In the Government’s determination to expand the academy programme, particularly into the primary sector, schools are being targeted for academy status on the basis of one year’s examination data or one Ofsted inspection under the new framework. This fails to provide a full picture of the work that schools are doing. Where genuine problems are identified, schools are not being given time to address these with the support of their local authority (LA). Instead brokers are appearing in schools within weeks of inspections with the stated intention of forcing the school into sponsored academy status. Teachers and parents are becoming fearful and distrustful of the Ofsted process and increasingly regard it as a tool of Government academy policy rather than a genuinely robust and independent mechanism for providing support and challenge for schools.
Department for Education (DfE) ‘brokers’ are intimidating some Head Teachers and Governors into acquiescing over forced academy conversion. Where there is opposition, Heads, governors and parents have been labelled and smeared and in an increasing number of cases, removed and replaced with interim executive boards (IEBs). Some schools have become battlegrounds with a consequent deterioration of relationships and distraction from pupil progress. This is neither a positive nor a healthy environment in which to educate children.
Academy sponsors now receive substantial sums of money for taking over so-called ‘failing’ schools – for example up to £150,000 in pre-opening funding for a ‘full sponsored’ secondary school and up to £110,000 for a ‘full sponsored’ primary.1 Some academy brokers, charged with identifying sponsors for schools, have links to academy chains themselves, calling into question their impartiality. Some brokers also work for Ofsted as ‘Additional Inspectors’, again raising concerns about the connections between the process in which a school is identified as ‘failing’, becomes a broker’s target for forced academy status and then becomes a sponsored academy.
The NUT believes that academy status is particularly inappropriate for primary schools. By virtue of their size, primary schools benefit greatly from their relationship with local authorities and the services, support and advice that councils provide to schools. In addition they contribute to and are enriched by the collaboration and support provided by working within an LA family of schools.
Furthermore the relationship between primary schools and parents is a much more direct one. Parents are deeply affected by the forced academisation process and have in many cases reported their anger and disbelief at the treatment of the Heads, teachers and governors in their child’s school. If parents feel their views are ignored or that they are treated with contempt, there is a danger that parents will become less engaged with their child’s school. The NUT is aware of many instances of parents removing their child from a school following a forced academy process.
The NUT does not believe that there is any evidence that academy status can bring value for money either for individual primary schools or for the system as a whole. There is no evidence that academy status raises standards. Additionally, there is ample evidence that it is inefficient to have a large number of small schools individually procuring and buying in services.
There are alternative models to sponsored academy status to support primary schools that fall into genuine difficulty and the NUT highlighted some of these in its evidence to the recent Education Select Committee Inquiry into School Partnerships These alternatives are being wilfully ignored by the Government.
The process for approving and establishing free schools is opaque and fails to take account of the views of local authorities or established local schools and their communities. The decision to approve a free school rests solely with the Secretary of State for Education. Free schools have been approved to open even where there is evidently no need for new school places and despite local opposition. The requirement on the proposers of the school to ‘consult’ is in most cases treated as a legal requirement that has to be discharged rather than a genuine attempt to listen to local views. 2
Additionally, there is a further legal obligation on the Secretary of State for Education to carry out an assessment of the impact of a free school on neighbouring schools. The NUT has obtained under Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation the assessments for the wave 1 and wave 2 free schools that opened in 2011 and 2012.3 These reveal that free schools have been approved to open even when the anticipated impact on local schools has been fully acknowledged to be a negative one.
THE PROCESS FOR APPROVING, COMPELLING AND ESTABLISHING ACADEMIES AND FREE SCHOOLS, INCLUDING WORKING WITH SPONSORS FORCED ACADEMIES
The process for compelling so-called ‘underperforming’ schools to become sponsored or ‘forced’ academies is undemocratic and undermines the important relationship of trust between parents and schools that is essential in providing a stable school community. Furthermore, it is destabilising for schools, often exacerbating or worsening any genuine problems rather than offering a solution. Sponsored academy status as a ‘one size fits all’ solution for schools ignores the evidence about school improvement and fails to take account of individual schools and the context in which they work.
The forced academy programme has increasingly become a source of conflict in schools. NUT members report that primary schools in particular are being forced to become sponsored academies in situations where there is little basis to believe that any short term problems in the school cannot be overcome through alternative school improvement strategies. Schools with a long record of providing high standards of education for their communities are being pushed into sponsored academy status within months of problems being identified. In some cases this has involved a one-year dip in SATS results or one Ofsted judgement.
Instead of schools being given time to focus on making the required changes and improvements, schools are being rushed into academy status with a sponsor pre-determined by the DfE. Governors are being told that if they do not ‘vote in favour’ of academy conversion under the preferred sponsor they will be replaced by an IEB.
In cases where IEBs have been imposed, personnel from the preferred sponsor academy chain have been appointed to the IEB and have been involved in running the statutory ‘consultation’ on whether their academy chain should assume control of the school. In some cases the chain has advertised and interviewed new Head Teachers and brought in a new school uniform bearing the logo of the chain even before the results of the formal consultation have been known. This has led staff and parents to conclude that, regardless of the outcome of the consultation, the DfE has already effectively ‘handed the school over’ to the chain.
There are many examples from around the country. Just a few examples include:
Governors, staff and parents at a Gloucestershire primary school are opposing the DfE’s attempts to force the school to become an academy. In 2009 the school was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted. However this year the school was placed in special measures following an Ofsted inspection in May 2013 which rated the school 'inadequate'. In July an academy ‘broker’ was appointed by the DfE to find an academy sponsor for the school. Parents believe that the Ofsted report was politically influenced – Ofsted visited the school just three weeks after the governing body had decided not to pursue academy status. SATs results released in July, showed over 60 per cent of Y6 pupils achieved higher than the expected level. A full meeting of Stroud District Council in October 2013 saw Councillors from all political parties express concerns about the Ofsted inspection. A motion to write to the Secretary of State was supported unanimously.
Governors of a primary school in Norfolk claim that that they were sacked by the LA for resisting plans to turn the school into an academy. Ofsted put the school into special measures following an inspection in March 2013 but a follow up visit in July found the school’s improvement action plan was “fit for purpose”. The school was also consulting on forming a co-operative learning trust with five nearby schools; a plan which the chair of governors said was being put at risk by the council’s actions, adding: “It is clear that Norfolk County Council has abandoned schools in special measures and is no longer offering any helpful support. They are doing all they can to force them to become academies as quickly as possible, even if this disrupts carefully planned improvement.” 4
A junior school in Carshalton, Surrey, was told by the DfE in August 2013 that it must become an academy sponsored by the Harris Federation despite the fact that 98 per cent of the 545 respondents to the official consultation voted against the move. Parents and staff had overwhelmingly backed the local High School becoming the school’s sponsor and said their voices had been ignored by the DfE.
A junior school in Barking and Dagenham has been told it must become a sponsored academy under the Reach2 chain despite the school having a school improvement plan in place and receiving intense support from the local authority. Following the Governing Body decision in September 2013 not to agree to academy conversion, the Secretary of State issued an academy order which removed the governing body and replaced it with an IEB which includes personnel from Reach2. There is no support for academy status from staff, parents or the local authority. The local authority intends to ballot parents but the IEB say they will not consider the outcome as part of the statutory consultation.
In Bury one primary school will become a forced academy on 1 January 2014. The school should have had a Section 5 monitoring inspection which could have brought it out of special measures but was told it would be delayed until after it had become an academy. The school says it has been denied the opportunity to demonstrate the progress it has made that should have prevented it becoming an academy.
In February 2012, Father Simon Morris, Chair of Governors at Coleraine Park Primary School in Haringey issued a press statement on behalf of the governing body stating that governors had been forced to accept that their school was to become an academy. The statement said: “The Governing Body feels that it has been treated with contempt by Mr Gove and his representatives.” It added that “the decision to 'ask' for an Academy order was not in any real sense a ‘choice’. It was an instruction to rubber stamp a decision made by Mr Gove and his officials. The Governing Body believe this whole procedure is a farce and leaves many feeling ignored and belittled.” It concluded “Coleraine’s governors feel that the Secretary of State has disempowered them without due regard for their role and has in fact bullied them into a decision in a way that nobody wants. It is in this context that the Governing Body has regretfully made this decision.”
BULLYING, ACADEMY BROKERS AND CONFLICTS OF INTEREST
DfE documents released following a freedom of information request have revealed that £8.7m was spent from 2010-13 on ‘academy brokers’ – consultants employed by the Department to broker academy sponsorship of schools.5 As of June 2013, there were 37 brokers working with the Department.
The NUT receives regular reports from schools of bullying behaviour by these brokers whose sole intent appears to be to ‘persuade’ governing bodies to vote in favour of academy status and head teachers to resign.
A recent example concerns a primary school in Cheshire which has been targeted for forced academy status with a sponsor. Two academy brokers have put the head teacher, an NUT member, under intense pressure to cooperate with the process. Their tactics included threatening the head with the loss of his job and making the false statement that, unlike other members of staff, a head teacher’s post is not covered by the TUPE transfer process when a school becomes an academy. The matter has been subject to a formal complaint to the Department.
One of these same brokers has been accused of bullying at a primary school in Bury where governors have been given an ultimatum that they must either decide to become an academy by the end of January 2014 or be replaced by an IEB. The school was placed in special measures in May 2013 following an Ofsted inspection that was the subject of formal complaints by both the governing body and the local authority. The local NUT representative commented: “No independent expert that has been in the school believes it to be Special Measures. Staff have worked their socks off, not knowing whether they are coming or going, with advice from the first Ofsted inspection being changed by the second inspection. Nevertheless, the school is working well and making changes and it is expected that it will have some cracking results this summer.” Following a recent visit by the broker, the authority’s Director of Learning commented that school staff might feel “why bother” because it didn't seem to make any difference what they did.
A Secondary School in Gateshead was given an Ofsted judgement of ‘inadequate’ in September 2013. DfE reps were soon at the school informing the head teacher and governors that either the school would be forced to become an academy and the school management would be removed and replaced, or the current leadership could opt to convert to academy status before being pushed. The local NUT official reports: “Not surprisingly the school leadership has chosen option two.”
In November 2012 Dudley’s Cabinet Member for Children's Services wrote to the Office of the Schools’ Commissioner (OSC) asking the OSC to investigate "bullying" by a broker. The councillor stated that he had accompanied the broker on three visits to schools in Dudley, when: "On each occasion, [her] behaviour has been intimidating and bullying towards governors, head teachers and local authority staff". The councillor stated that the broker had provided no agenda or subsequent notes of the meetings at schools under pressure to become academies but had, on each occasion, said: "The Minister will make you become an academy, and will intervene both in the school and in the local authority if they do not support this action."
The NUT conducted research on the background of these brokers which was published by the BBC in December 2012.6 It found that many had links to academy chains – in some cases as chief executives of the chain or in other senior positions. Furthermore, a number were working for Ofsted as Additional Inspectors.
In August 2013 it was reported that Daniel Moynihan, Chief Executive of the Harris Federation, was also working as an Ofsted Additional Inspector contracted through Tribal Education. Mr Moynihan was part of the inspection team at the London Nautical School in Lambeth in May 2013.7 The school, which is surrounded by Harris Federation Schools, was given a ‘requires improvement’ grade, leading to speculation that were the school to become a sponsored academy, it may find itself joining the Harris Federation that many of its neighbours already belong to.
This ‘revolving door’ relationship of individuals between the Department, Ofsted, academy brokers, the forced academy process and academy sponsors has done little to persuade schools or parents that the route to sponsored academy status is an impartial one carried out solely in the best interests of pupils.
THE FORCED ACADEMY PROCESS DESTABILISES SCHOOLS AND UNDERMINES SCHOOL IMPROVEMENT
Inspectors working for Ofsted have raised concerns that the Government’s insistence on forcing schools into academy status is de-railing a focus on school improvement by distracting head teachers and governors.
In an Ofsted monitoring report on a junior school, near Preston, the inspector said that a "significant barrier to improvement has been the amount of time [in which] the head teacher has been involved in the discussions about transferring to an academy." The inspector added: "Lengthy and time-consuming meetings with parents, unions, staff and external agencies have taken leaders' and governors' focus away from school improvement."8
Similarly, in a monitoring report on a primary school in Birmingham the inspector noted: "The process of converting to an academy has placed a high demand on the energies of governors, the head teacher and other senior leaders and it has distracted them from focusing on improving the quality of teaching and learning."9
The leader of Conservative controlled Lancashire County Council wrote to the Secretary of State for Education in April 2013 asking him to keep academy brokers out of the county’s schools because: "The activities of your officials in Lancashire is having a detrimental and counterproductive effect on the education of our children, particularly those in schools where we know improvements are necessary and where we are working with the schools to achieve those improvements". His letter added: "I have contacted all head teachers and offered support from county officers to attend any meetings that your officials arrange... but all that is in itself potentially disruptive to those schools and their senior managers and governors, who should be concentrating all their efforts on working with the county council to improve their performance. He continued: "I should therefore be obliged if you would instruct your officials to suspend their activities in Lancashire until we have had the opportunity to meet to discuss how we can best move forward." 10
The experience at Roke Primary School in Croydon, which was forced to become a Harris sponsored academy in September 2013, provides an example of how the process of forced academisation can play a significant role in destabilising a school and undermining its academic progress.
Roke was rated ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted in inspections in 2005 and 2009. The school’s KS2 SATs results dipped to 64 per cent in 2011 and an Ofsted inspection in May 2012 resulted in the school receiving a ‘notice to improve’. KS2 SATs tests taken by pupils in July 2012 found 80 per cent of pupils achieving Level 4 in English and maths, above the national average. However, in September 2012, the Head and governors were informed by the DfE that Roke must become a sponsored academy. Governors were told that if they failed to vote in favour of academy status they would be dismissed and an IEB imposed. They took a vote to do so in November 2012. The school favoured sponsorship by the neighbouring Riddlesdown Collegiate secondary school with whom Roke was in a school improvement partnership, but this was rejected by the DfE and the school was informed at the end of December 2012 that it was to be taken over by the Harris Federation. An Ofsted monitoring inspection in January 2013 found that the school was making ‘satisfactory’ progress. The statutory consultation on whether the school should become a Harris sponsored academy was conducted by the Harris Federation itself. Results showed that 63 per cent of respondents supported Roke remaining an LA maintained school. In addition, two parental polls and a petition organised outside the formal consultation showed that the overwhelming majority opposed academy status and favoured continuing to work with Riddlesdown Collegiate.
A further inspection in June 2013 put the school into special measures. Parents say the forced academy process drove out large numbers of staff and caused turbulence in the school. The Head resigned in April 2013 and subsequently 15 teachers (82 per cent of the teaching staff) handed in their notice, including the Deputy Head, the SENCO, the Head of Early Years, the Literacy coordinator and the KS2 leader. A further 18 staff also resigned including the school’s Business Manager. In total the school lost 55 per cent of its staff team in just one academic year. A parent was quoted in the local newspaper, asking: “How can standards not now slip, when children have been robbed of teachers often mid-way through term? These are good, inspiring, motivated teachers who have been put through the forced academy wringer, with disastrous results. This is exactly what we predicted would happen, that our good teachers would leave in droves. Forced academy is toxic and does more damage to a school than good.”11
ALTERNATIVES TO SPONSORED ACADEMY STATUS FOR PRIMARY SCHOOLS
In April 2013 the NUT submitted evidence to the Education Committee’s Inquiry into ‘School Partnerships and Cooperation.’ In its evidence the NUT provided examples of a number of successful models for school improvement that stand as alternatives to sponsored academy status for primary schools.
THE ROLE OF LOCAL AUTHORITIES (LAs)
Government policy currently appears determined to undermine the role of democratically elected local authorities (LAs) in education. Instead the focus appears to be on growing ever larger academy chains to run groups of schools, in either specific geographic areas or on a national basis.
LAs, including their elected members, know their schools and communities well and are in a unique position to develop and support school improvement models which both support schools and are supported by them. Furthermore they are democratically accountable in a way that academy chains are not. The NUT hopes that the Select Committee recognises the huge importance of putting local authorities back at the heart of school improvement practice.
LONDON CHALLENGE The NUT believes that the London Challenge provides an example of a sustainable approach to school improvement that has resulted in the capital’s schools, one suffering a poor reputation, being highly regarded and a model for others. The NUT has set out its case in its evidence to the Education Committee Inquiry into ‘School Partnerships and Cooperation. A summary of the record of the challenge by the DfE Evaluation Report’s lead author is also available on the NUT website.12 London Challenge was not only highly successful; it was also, unlike the academies programme, extremely cost effective. Over three years the funding for City Challenge was £160 million, considerably cheaper than the £8.5 billion reportedly spent on the academies programme over two years.
Ignoring cost-effective school improvement options and promoting costly and contentious ones should not be countenanced by Ministers at a time when budgets are under pressure.
FREE SCHOOLS The NUT believes that the process for approving and establishing free schools lacks transparency, ignores the evidence on the need for new school places locally and fails to take account of the impact of free schools on neighbouring schools.
The NUT’s evidence to support this view are set out its recently published document, ’Free Schools, Free for All’ which is available on the NUT’s website.13
1DfE ‘Sponsored Academies Funding: Guidance for Sponsors’ www.gov.uk/government/publications/sponsored-academies-funding-guidance-for-sponsors [Accessed 16 December 2013].
2 The NUT’s evidence on free schools is set out in full in its recent publication, ‘Free Schools, Free for All?’ published September 2013. See www.teachers.org.uk/files/free-schools-16pp-a4-8963_0.pdf [Accessed 16 December 2013].
3 See wave 1 impact assessments at www.gov.uk/government/publications/free-schools-that-opened-in-2011
And wave 2 impact assessments at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/free-schools-that-opened-in-2012 - [both sites accessed 16 December 2013].
4 See report in Guardian, 04.11.13 at: www.theguardian.com/education/2013/nov/04/education-department-school-deregulation and the statement by the school’s governors and managers at: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14UvVe_qtZQd48Coo508UW-ZUhxLgEFA9ghyX567hcLg/edit?pli=1
[both links accessed 16 December 2013].
5 Warwick Mansell, Education in Brief, The Guardian, 22.07.13 http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/jul/22/pgce-school-direct-bath-childcare [Accessed 16 December 2013]
6 Union’s concerns over education advisers’ potential conflicts of interest, BBC new website, www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-2075665 [Accessed 16 December 2013]
7 See Local School Network report at http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/11/private-eye-queries-conflict-of-interest-in-ofsted-inspections-answer-came-there-none/ [Accessed 16 December 2013].
9 Reported in the Guardian, 25.03.13 http://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/mar/25/ofsted-conerns-academies-undermine-improvement
10 ‘County Chief Tells Gove to Halt ‘Academy Broker’ Visits’, BBC News Website, 23 April 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22271467 [Accessed 16 January 2013].
11 ‘Roke Primary School placed in special measures by Ofsted amid teacher exodus ahead of Harris Academy conversion’, Croydon Guardian, 7 June 2013, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-22271467 [Accessed 16 January 2013].
12Why is attainment higher in London than elsewhere? Professor Merryn Hutchings, Institute for Policy Studies in Education, London Metropolitan University, www.teachers.org.uk/node/17429 [Accessed 16 December 2013].
13 ‘Free Schools, Free for All?’, NUT, September 2013, www.teachers.org.uk/files/free-schools-16pp-a4-8963_0.pdf
Nut Evidence To The Education Committee Inquiry Into The Academies Programme,