Here’s a little test. Can you explain the difference between: an academy chain; a multi academy trust; a free school; a cluster; a family of schools; and a local education authority?
Being an ex-school governor, I thought I could. That is until I tried explaining to a current governor why and how Cockburn were now setting up a new free school, which will be called an academy.
I’m not having a go at Cockburn here, by the way. The environment they work in is beyond their control. A while ago I went along to a public meeting at Cockburn where they were explaining why they were converting from a local authority school to become an independent academy. Theoretically I was, I am, opposed to such a move. But you couldn’t fault their logic in terms of academic independence and financial benefits.
Ever since Labour introduced academies the playing field has not been level. Firstly they were for failing schools. The carrot and stick was a combination of it being the only way to get more resources and if you don’t convert voluntarily, we’ll force you.
Then came increasing incentives and with the Coalition and then Conservative governments ever more attacks and restrictions on local education authorities (LEAs).
Does it matter if our schools are run by different organisations? Doesn’t it increase choice?
Let’s get rid of the choice argument first. The vast majority of families want a place at their local school, the only people who shop around are those who can afford to move house to be in a catchment area for a ‘better’ school.
Whilst having a different boss may not make a huge difference within the school, the fractured set up across the city creates gaps. How does the LEA make sure there’s enough specialist provision across the city? How does it, for example, fund a Gipsy and Traveller education service when it has a smaller and smaller number of schools to pool resources from? How does it provide finance support and education advisers?
What happens when you have gaps? Children fall through them.
Well don’t worry because the Market can sort all this out. Yes that’s right, we now have a market in ‘state’ education. Our schools are being privatised.
It’s a gradual process. Serco, Capita and G4S aren’t running schools (yet), but they are players in the market. They offer ancillary services – financial, advisory, etc. The free schools and academy chains are all technically not-for-profit, but some are paying eye-watering salaries to their bosses. There have also been plenty of scandals of contracts being placed with companies owned by board members or senior managers.
Public money is leaking out of the system and into the pockets of company shareholders. That is money that could be, should be, spent on our children’s education.
The LEAs now find themselves in a crazy situation (by the way, if you are struggling to keep up, Leeds City Council is our LEA). As I reported earlier this week, LEAs are no longer allowed to build and run new schools, but they are responsible for ensuring that there are enough places for children.
At the moment the child population is rising. Just as an aside, when the government says it’s spending a record amount on schools, that’s because the schools are bulging. Don’t be fooled – spending per child is being cut.
More children means more schools, no? Well not entirely. Unable to build new schools, Leeds asked/cajoled/encouraged most primary schools in South Leeds to increase in size. We now have at least two three-form entry primary schools, and most are two form entry. I’m not against large schools per se, but should we really have primary schools with 630 children (and a nursery)?
And what happens when this current population bulge passes and we have too many school places? Will there be a rational debate and proper planning about how to shrink the estate, or will the Market make its own chaotic decisions?
Call me old fashioned, but I preferred it when the LEA ran the entire system and I could vote for who was in charge.
I’ll be on back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.