There’s an old joke. A driver leans out of his car window and asks a pedestrian “How do I get to the Bakers Arms?”. The pedestrian looks at the driver and says “Well, you wouldn’t want to be starting from here.”
The mess that the academies programme has descended into should be a lesson to all policy-makers.
Undoubtedly it is a mess. No-one wanted it to be like this at this stage (or if they did they are completely bonkers) and I accept absolutely that policy was entered into in good faith, in the desire to improve education.
But it is a mess. And you wouldn’t want to be starting from here. But the reasons we are here at this point are important to understand. Here’s my take.
In 2010 the incoming government thought they had a limited time. We were in a different political environment and no-one really knew how long the government would hold together. So things had to be done quickly. And with the minimum of controversy. Because controversy begets delay.
I suspect that it is for this reason that wherever possible existing legislation was used to make things happen. As has been explained many times, the legislative framework for academies was brought in under Labour, many years previously. This was a lashing together of contractual funding agreements between DfE and charitable trusts.
The original academy programme envisaged trusts run by existing businesses who could contribute money and expertise. Along with an understanding of corporate governance. Bluntly put, to know the difference between what the rules allowed you to do and what you should do are two very different things. They were also people who by and large had businesses that did not benefit in any substantial way from education. There was little or no opportunity to mix what they did as businesses with what they did as trustees of a charity.
We now have hundreds of these trusts without this backing. Without this key understanding. Where many have businesses that are linked to education. Where the separation between the two is not so clear.
Add to this the rather lax charity regulations we have (lots of “shoulds” where “musts” would be better) and the possibility for bad things to happen becomes too great.
None of this mandates that bad things will happen, or that just to be involved with an academy trust makes you an asset stripper, but many years experience auditing companies suggests that malfeasance is more likely to occur where bad governance permits it. This is bad news for everyone, particularly the overwhelming majority of those involved who are in it solely to improve the education of children.
The final element which enables the privatisation and asset stripping accusations to gain a foothold is the abject lack of transparency that has been built into the programme. Again, this can be traced back to 2010 when letting anyone know what was actually happening might enable them to slow the process. This was at its most obvious in the Free Schools FoI debacle, but its effect has been greatest on the academy programme. Every time information about admissions, about funding, about related party transactions is hidden behind the words “commercial confidentiality” a conspiracy theorist gets a power-up pill.
I have a few simple suggestions. They will require legislation, but if we want our education system to succeed then we have to do the hard work.
No1. Transparency. Stop hiding things. Just stop it. We need a legal framework that sets out what information must be published by every school and how it must be published. This is not the place to set out what that should contain but I have a good idea what should be in it.
No2. The legal framework that applies to academy trusts must be changed to state that financial transactions between trustees and the trust (or any of its related bodies) are forbidden. Not just declared. Not that they have to be at cost. Not just leaving the room when such transactions are voted on. Simply forbidden.
No3. All academy trusts should be moved onto the same funding agreement. Within this there needs to be complete clarity over the position of land and building. Who owns the land schools stand on needs to be clarified. As do the processes for disposal of school land. I wouldn’t rule out a separate body to vest the ownership of all school property in.
No4. The secrecy surrounding the operation of RSCs should cease. Brokering of schools must be a public operation. This process does not just have to be clean, it needs to be seen to be clean.
No5. I am concerned about the potential impact of CEOs of trusts sitting on RSC Headteacher boards. But I have to think about this issue some more. At the moment I am tempted to say no HT boards, but somehow we need to get system knowledge into the running of the system. So I’m conflicted.
N0.6 Stop lying. There is no evidence academies perform better (or worse) than any other school structure. There is no greater autonomy or freedom for individual schools in the system proposed by the DfE. There is no sodding money to pay great teachers more. Just. Stop. Lying.
There are other issues but these are a good starting set.
Simply put, if the government wants its programme to succeed, they have to start listening to people who know the system. Not just people who generally understand how systems work in theory, but real people who work in those systems. And I don’t just mean people who agree with them either. Too often the government has confused listening to a few professionals with listening to the profession. Improvements in policy only comes from listening to people who disagree as they will point out the flaws. The cheerleaders will only point out how well everything is going. A system designed by yes-men only works until the system says “No”.
At the moment it’s not working. At the moment the risk of a severe system failure is great.
I am a governor in an academy trust. I commit no malfeasance. I am not an asset stripper. And like many others in my position I am sick and tired of a government whose actions, and omissions of action, add legitimacy to such accusations.
That’s why I won’t shut up. Not because I want this to fail, but because I want the system to work for everyone involved in it.
For more about the transparency aspects referred to above see Doveryai no proveryai