The demagoguery of large numbers

I guess the first response of most people upon seeing Sir Michael Wilshaw in the news again today will be “When is that bloody buffoon going to shut up and give everyone a break”. The second response of many will be “Oh look, he’s criticising Academies, that’s Ok. Fine chap Sir Michael, as I’ve always said”.

His newsworthiness today is based on a letter sent by him to the Secretary of State relating to the focused inspections of academies in multi-academy trusts. And he pulls no punches. Much as the PM is able to pick out a number of very poorly performing local authorities, Sir Michael has rightly rounded on these providers and told them to pull their socks up. Now I don’t have the context of each of the more that 220 academies in the MATs in question so I’m ill placed to comment on the relevance or otherwise of the academic issues he raise. The financial issues, on the other hand, are a different matter altogether.

In the letter Wilshaw quotes three numbers and uses them to pillory the trusts. I think he is being disingenuous in his use of these numbers.

Let’s start with the first one, the CEO salaries.

“The average pay of the chief executives in these seven trusts is higher than the Prime Minister’s salary, with one chief executive’s salary reaching £225k.”

Now I can see that this is an easy target. By OFSTEDs measures these trusts are not performing well. I’d say that was, to a certain degree, beside the point. Unless, of course, you believe in performance related pay.

Personally, I’d say that in the role of CEO of an organisation running 30, 40, 50, 60 or more schools we would want the best people possible. The issue isn’t are they paid more that the PM (a juicy red herring if ever I saw one) or if a LA head of children’s service gets less. The issue is, what is the going rate for the CEO of an organisation spending over £200,000,000? Is it a problem if their pay is 0.1% of that amount? To be clear, I am not assuming here that the trusts in question DO have the best people in post. That is a different issue.

Okay, the second number:

“This poor use of public money is compounded by some trusts holding very large cash reserves that are not being spent on raising standards. For example, at the end of August 2015, these seven trusts had total cash in the bank of £111 million.”

To be honest, this is a bit rich. MATs are, as the name implies, trusts. They are charities. What are charities encouraged to do? Yes, they are encouraged to build up their reserves to provide a financial cushion to smooth out the bumps in the funding road. So, what’s coming up at the moment for schools? Yes, that’s right, the mother of all bumps in the funding road. All that these trusts are doing is what they have a duty to do.

“But Mike”, I hear you cry, “ONE HUNDRED AND ELEVEN MILLION POUNDS!! THINK HOW MANY BOOKS THEY COULD HAVE BOUGHT FOR THAT!!”

It sounds an awful lot, doesn’t it, £111,000,000. However you write it – £111m. But the size of a number depends what you are comparing it with. These trusts together include around 225 schools. I can only estimate here, but that is probably somewhere around £800,000,000 in annual spend (depending on the mix of primary/secondary/other). So the reserves have to be looked at in that context. And at the moment, with the funding issues facing schools over the next 4-5 years, I’d say that if anything the level of reserves were a little light.

Third number.

“Furthermore, some of these trusts are spending money on expensive consultants or advisers to compensate for deficits in leadership. Put together, these seven trusts spent at least £8.5 million on education consultancy in 2014/15 alone.”

First thing. Large numbers. £8.5m. Probably around 1% of expenditure. In a secondary school that’s about the cost of a deputy head. Look at the reasons given, “deficits in leadership”. Secondly, not only are these schools having to cope with the problems brought on by the governments woeful record on providing a leadership pipeline, they are being abused for try to fill the gap in the best way they can.

 

This is what I call the demagoguery of large numbers. Politicians do it all the time. Basically any number with word million on the end sounds large. If it also has a pound sign at the front it sounds profligate. Large numbers are used to impress and bamboozle. On their own they convey little information. The intention is to play on emotions rather than any rational analysis of the numbers.

It may well be that some of these trusts are poorly run, I really don’t know. I do know how hard it is to run one school, so running sixty-seven of them (see what I did there), many of them in extremely challenging circumstances will clearly present its own difficulties.

We are all aware of the problems of publishing one number to represent the performance of a school. This is the same issue, presenting three numbers to represent the success or failure of over two-hundred.

To use numbers in this way in a formal letter of this kind is, in my view, unacceptable.

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