Started under Labour, continued under this government, the academies programme is handing over the education of our children to dubious organisations…
The announcement that the United Learning Trust has been given the go-ahead to take over academies run by Emmanuel College is a sure sign, if any were needed, that the academies programme is not primarily about improving the education of our youngsters.
Both “sponsors” have consistently failed to improve results even with the massive support they had from the Labour government. Indeed, so poor has ULT been, former Education Secretary Balls forbade their expansion. Two of ULT’s schools, both in Sheffield, have failed Ofsted inspections, and Emmanuel schools have been controversial from the start with their appalling Christian fundamentalism being imposed within the curriculum. Now, the new government has decided these are the people to run a swath of secondary schools with no say for the people affected.
A host of academies have been created this summer, schools that were already in the heavily subsidised Labour programme. These academies are “supported” (owned) by sponsors who didn’t have to put any money in, and new academies can have sponsors if they wish. So, in effect, millions of pounds’ worth of publicly owned assets have been forcibly handed over from local councils to private firms and weird and bizarre fundamentalists.
So, who are these people who are being given charge of our children’s education? United Learning Trust currently runs 17 academies and will have 21 with the Emmanuel schools. ULT is an offshoot of the United Church Schools Trust and has been in existence since 2002. The ULT has partnerships with universities and with Vodaphone, Barclays and Honda. With governors for academies being drawn from the sponsors’ lists, ULT controls around £500 million worth of publicly funded assets.
From incorporation, each academy has an effective 7-year contract with the government to run a school. Academies are still not subject to the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act (although that is supposed to change), so their internal affairs and accounts are not subject to public scrutiny.
The Emmanuel Schools Foundation was established by Sir Peter Vardy, a rich fundamentalist Christian car salesman and one-time confidant of Tony Blair. His four schools have been heavily criticised by children and parents as well as transferred staff for their proselytising approach to Creationist superstition.
The other main Christian group, with 11 schools, is the Oasis group. Oasis Global was founded in 1985 by Steve Chalke, a so-called charismatic Baptist minister from Croydon. Each of the Oasis academies is linked to an Oasis school in a poverty-ridden part of the world (it’s always the poor kids who are handed over to these characters!) Chalke was nominated for the OBE by the then Blair government in 2004. Oasis actively continues to seek to sponsor new academies.
Walthamstow Academy: its sponsor, United Learning Trust, had results so poor that it was stopped from expanding by then Education Secretary Ed Balls.|
One of its current schools in North East Lincolnshire was supported allegedly to the tune of £500,000 by Brian Souter, boss of Stagecoach the transport company. Souter is a one-time supporter of the SNP and a devotee of a Texas-based church that espouses Creationism and attacks homosexuality.
Again, we have a fundamentalist group free to educate our children with little regulation or oversight, as local authorities have no right to intervene in these schools. Oasis has control of about £200 million worth of public assets and annual income of around £50 million from us.
Another main player is ARK, a trust established by hedge-fund boss Arpon Busson. One of the trustees is Ron Beller, who was involved with Peloton. Peloton did well out of the American sub-prime mortgage debacle. Ark is heavily involved in setting up academies in London and controls around £200 million worth of our assets.
Also, in South London, we have a number of Harris Academies, founded by Lord Harris who made his pile from carpet retailing. The nine Harris academies get a mixed reception from parents and local authorities – some popular, some not so good. Flexing muscle, Harris is now threatening to establish a free school in Beckenham as Bromley Council wouldn’t roll over and give him the existing Kelsey school. It has around £180 million of public assets.
There are other big players including E-ACT, closely connected until 2009 with Lord Bhatia who was recently suspended from the House of Lords. It was given a new school in Winsford by Gove in spite of the Edutrust irregularities exposed in Oldham that led to Bhatia’s resignation. E-ACT, led by Sir Bruce Liddington, Blair’s Schools Commissioner and adviser on academies, has nine academies around the country and is active in its search for new schools. It was reported earlier this year that while E-ACT’s Crest Academy was making seven teachers redundant, Liddington was pocketing over £260,000 a year in salary.
There are others, of course, all feeding from the public trough. But what are these successive governments up to? When the state pulls out of directly running schools it surely amounts to a statement that it does not see a future for Britain. We have to come to terms with the fact that capitalism is withdrawing from the responsibility of running our country in a civilised, organised manner.
On 17 November, Education Secretary Gove, in weakness, opened up the possibility of becoming an academy to schools that Ofsted has designated as being “good, with outstanding features”- although there is no such official designation. He is allowing other schools to follow suit, as long as they agree to join with an existing academy.
Though 224 schools have applied since July, only 80 have opened. Many of those were already designated by the outgoing government which is, ultimately, responsible for this sell-off of assets and break up of local control of state schools.
Out of control
As schools become academies, their assets pass from local control to the ownership of the governing body/ academy trust that runs the school. Academies no longer have to have a sponsor. Yet current academy sponsors and new entrants into the field are actively looking for opportunities to link up with schools. Why should this be so?
Most sponsors are business bodies or self-styled “entrepreneurs”. Many of the existing sponsors were so tardy in putting their requisite £2 million per school into the pot, that Ed Balls removed the requirement to sponsor at all – rendering the term meaningless!
Each academy has so far cost around £20 million of public money but the land and buildings transfer to the trust and the sponsors run the trust. Thus, some of these sponsors have gained £200 million worth of public assets without paying a penny! Furthermore, new academies are “licensed” for seven years.
What isn’t clear is what happens at the end of that period if the academy hasn’t worked out. Does the school and its assets revert to public control and ownership? If not, that’s a lot of assets to pocket, especially land in London and other large city centres.
Undoubtedly, the ConDem government has latched onto the academy school as a vehicle for the break-up of local, public control of education, provided and controlled by accountable bodies in the form of local councils. Neither Labour- nor ConDem-controlled councils seem able or willing to resist this movement.
But the reluctance of governors and headteachers, teachers and parents to jump on the bandwagon has caused Gove to widen his net. No doubt, he will increase the level of incentive to join up but the academy concept is far from popular with the secrecy, the transfer of control, the dubious admissions policies and the break-up of pay and conditions agreements.
What teachers, parents and governors need right now is to sort out viable alternatives where councils are unwilling to stand up for their localities. That requires some quick thinking and determination. For example, some schools in South London have been quick to form their clusters into something firmer and more meaningful than just dealing with extended services. What’s needed is for workers, generally, to show that they value education and their ability to make partnerships with local schools a working arrangement.