Academies: Progress or Regress?

Academy Chiefs in “fat cat” pay and perks row.
Sunday Times headline – August 27, 2017

A report in the Sunday Times by its Education Editor, Sian Griffiths, got this story off to a lively start by noting that “ministers face calls today to curb the ‘fat cat’ salaries of academy school chiefs” after it emerged that more than 100 people in this group earn more than the Prime Minister – with some enjoying lucrative perks such a company BMWs.

The story did not spell out precisely how the news about the reward packages collected by this latest addition to the league of fat cats emerged. It is unlikely that the 100+ bosses in question sent off a round robin to the Sunday Times Editor to put him in the picture. I rather suspect that this particular group, like their equally well rewarded colleagues in our starved of funds higher education system – the University Vice Chancellors – would prefer to do good by stealth and blush to find it fame.

Sian Griffiths unkindly pointed out that “last year the Academies Enterprise Trust which runs 63 schools was identified as one of seven poorly performing trusts …..Its chief executive Ian Comfort was reported to be on a salary of £200k last year”

Academy chiefs should be taught a lesson about greed
Sunday Times main editorial, August 27, 2017

The Sunday Times got nicely warmed up as it outlined its concerns. In its editorial it initially adopted a softer tone taking care to adopt the time-honoured approach of stressing that “the expansion of academies has been one of the successes of recent education policy” and it went on to note specific areas where the introduction of academies has been followed by significant improvements in performance. However it then observes, more in sorrow than in anger, that “ the primary purpose of academies must be promotion of excellence, not the inflation of salaries and the granting of perks.”

In the final paragraph of the editorial the rhetoric sank into bathos: “ Academy chains cannot jeopardise the public’s trust by wasting the public money they are given. Otherwise the greedy behaviour of their senior administrators will discredit the whole policy of replacing L.E.A comprehensives with independent academies.”

100 academy school bosses earn more than the Prime Minister
Daily Mail headline – August 28, 2017

The article under this headline covered the same ground as the items in the Sunday Times on the previous day. The Mail article contained a delightfully bland quote from Sir Michael Wilshaw: “Salary levels for the chief executives of some of these multi academy trusts do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance of their trusts or constituent academies.”

A masterpiece of understatement.

This story struck a chord with me because some 18 months ago I wrote an article on the topic and sent it to Tribune magazine. Sadly – from my point of view – Tribune was unable to find space for the piece and it languished in my rejected file. The re-emergence of the topic as a newsworthy item persuaded me to revisit my rejected piece and to add it to my blog.

My motive for doing so is to be able to claim that I saw coming what has in fact come to pass.

I leave it to Holden Forth readers – please God let there be more than one – to judge if am right.

Here goes.

Academies – The Way Forward
Article sent to Tribune on April 29, 2016

The Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has created something of a storm by announcing that she plans to convert all state schools into academies by the end of the current parliament.

Ought this clear statement of intent trigger huzzahs all round as being a giant leap forward or ought we to be wary? What does the plan signify and what are its implications?

I have to confess to being a little out of touch with regard to education. It is now getting on for sixty years since I walked out of school for the last time and those in the know tell me that there have been a few changes in the intervening years.
Have these changes yielded the only outcome that really matters, namely a better educated population? Opinion here is divided with some pointing to the steadily improving year on year results in measurable terms such as school leaving qualifications and the ever increasing number of college graduates. However others of a cynical turn of mind point to the simple expedient of achieving better results by lowering the bar. Which group is right?

“Education Education Education”
Tony Blair’s election exhortation in 1997 that sets the scene nicely

“The vilest abortionist is he who attempts to mould a child’s character”
George Bernard Shaw, Maxim for Revolutions: appendix to Man and Superman, 1903

Don’t teachers have enough problems without being equated with abortionists, and not just bog standard abortionists but the vilest!

“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet:”
Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

To put the point more prosaically – how exactly does reclassifying a typical secondary school as an academy change anything? The teachers are the same teachers, the buildings and locations are the same, and the curriculum is the same.

“At Mr Wackford Squeers’s Academy, Dotheboys Hall …….Youth are …. instructed in all languages living and dead, mathematics, orthography, geometry, astronomy, trigonometry” …… and so on and so on and much more besides – a curriculum wide enough to assuage the concerns of the most discerning parent.
Advert for Dotheboys Hall in Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens

“B-o-t, bot, t-i-n, tin, n-e-y , ney, bottinney, noun substantive, a knowledge of plants.”
Nickolas Nickleby, Charles Dickens

An early example of a possible mismatch between the theory and practice of academies.

A stroll down memory lane

“On October 5, 2005 we published a new schools White Paper…. We made it clear that, in time, all schools could and should become self governing trusts, either foundation schools or academies, with far greater flexibility in staffing and pay …the end is quality services irrespective of wealth .. The end is utterly progressive in its values. But the only progressive means are those that deliver the progressive ends.”
Tony Blair, A Journey, 2010

It would seem from the above and from much more in similar vein from the same book that the father of the academies plan is Tony Blair, ably assisted by Andew Adonis and, sadly, impeded in this, as in other areas, by Gordon Brown and his associates. Not surprisingly, confusion reigned.

In 2010 the Labour Years gave way to the Coalition Years. In the main, these were five years of frustration as Tory attempts to usher in a new golden age were thwarted by their Lib Dem coalition partners as soon as any perceived lurches to the right were detected.

In these years one firm voice made itself heard above the raucous clamour, namely that of Michael “Aggro” Gove, as he amended the words of Mrs Thatcher taken from the prayer of St Francis of Assisi – “where there is harmony let there be confrontation” – and there was confrontation.

One issue which caught my eye at the time was the Gove advocacy of Performance Related Pay. Under this system the better the performance of the teacher, the higher the PRP element: this was to be one of the main drivers of the policy to improve standards.

This idea, unlike some of his ideas, is not even sound in theory and a recipe for disaster in practice. It causes far more problems than it solves, and these problems include the obvious one of performance measurement.

Many teachers will tell you that the task of measuring the performance of teachers is far from being a straightforward task, that a whole host of variables such as catchment area, the performance of other teachers, and, a key point, the performance of the head teacher and his senior colleagues, have a crucial impact on pupil performance.

It is alleged that the very act of trying to measure teacher performance is fraught with difficulty, and that arbitrary and inept attempts to do so trigger far more problems than they solve.

The second practical objection to a PRP system for teachers is that it tends to create antagonism and frustration rather than harmony, and that the outcome is not better quality teaching leading in turn to improved pupil performance. Instead, teachers spend too much time and energy focusing on those elements of the job likely to maximise their PRP rather than focusing on the job of getting the best out of their pupils.

Any attempt to keep the PRP element of remuneration confidential will be doomed to failure and its publication inevitably creates bad feeling among the have nots and a furtive sense of embarrassment among the recipients. However, and once again apocryphally, it is alleged that opposition to PRP has come from a dubious alliance between incompetent and/or indolent teachers and those thinkers who argue that performance measurement is intrinsically unsound, because it highlights failure.

The anti-PRP lobby found itself opposed by a formidable alliance of parents wanting to know which schools are getting the best results and of politicians wanting to get the most votes. There are many more parents than teachers, we live in a democratic society and so PRP became a sought after remedy for the academic shortcomings of the young.

I have a better alternative approach – let us call it Plan B.

  • Apply basic systems of performance appraisal on all teachers on say an annual basis and then act on the outcomes so as to weed out those who either can’t or won’t do the job for which they are paid. Any poor report to result in the issue of a formal warning to the pedagogical back sliders to get their act together or else.
  • Inadequate teachers turning in consistently poor performances to be shipped out to pastures where they can safely graze in jobs where the damage created will be greatly reduced.

On the plus side and for the good performers – the reward element is that you get to keep your job  (Aggro Gove was eventually winkled out of his education brief and replaced by the supposedly emollient Nicky Morgan.)

Let us return to Mr Blair and his journey.

Mr Blair clearly favoured the phasing out of comprehensives and their replacement by academies. His pages on this topic (as on all the other pages) were peppered with his favourite political words – modernise, progressive, radical and reform. Sadly he was long on slogans and short on detail.

I shall now examine what I see as just two of the weaknesses of the academy model, namely the confusion of core managerial responsibilities coupled with the propensity of some – not all – “academy” leaders to focus more on maximising their terms and conditions rather than on the core objective and task of ensuring that ALL the pupils are educated to the full extent of their capabilities.

The gist of the case for academy schools was and remains that the transition from a school controlled by its local authority to a school controlled by Head Teachers and a range of unspecified advisers, supporters and associates and hangers on arranged into a Trust WILL raise standards. The thrust is long on slogans and dubious statistics, but short on solid evidence.

I have argued elsewhere that the very word Trust should send out alarm bells and those anxious about Trusts should instead use the word dubieties so as to flush out the ambiguities at the heart of Trusts.

The academy advocates argue that the act of removing the dread dead hand of an alliance of political opportunists and their satellite and servile bureaucrats, and their replacement by a new breed of super heads will usher in a era of – of what?

Swift impressive demonstrable transition to the sunny uplands characterised by radical modern progressive improvements – that’s what.

I am not convinced by this vision.

Let me briefly digress with a few words about what has happened at the very pinnacle of education in the UK. I have commented elsewhere on the unseemly behaviour of the Vice Chancellors of our institutions of higher education in recent years.
Our Vice Chancellors are working tirelessly to loot the system, but one unfortunate consequence of their zeal for personal enrichment may well have been a decline in academic standards – there are only so many hours in the day, and looting can be tiring and time consuming.

Time was when such competition as existed between Universities was limited to purely academic matters such as which University was the most highly rated for electrical engineering, which for medicine and rather more muted, which for sociology.
Sadly that is not so today, and academic competition has been replaced by unseemly competition between Vice Chancellors as to who can secure the most agreeable arrangements in terms of pay and perks, with academic considerations out of the picture.

Again, sadly the absence of any effective constraints other than self regulation as to the size of the reward packages for vice chancellors resulted inevitably in packages that have grown fatter and fatter, whilst often coinciding with a simultaneous fall in performance.

The Daily Mail led the charge in its assaults on the acquisitive propensities of our Varsity Vice Chancellors but the predictable response of this grasping group has been to lie low until the Mail selects another greedy group to belabour.

So – beware of leaving any group with unfettered access to public funds because some of them will take full advantage of the fragility of the system and, confident in the knowledge that by the time the public latches on to the looting they will be over the hills and far away, with their riches judiciously located away from and outside any possible claw back.

Does this melancholy story of the decline and fall of our former centres of educational excellence have any lessons for us in terms of the Tory plan to convert all schools into academies.? Very much so.

“Parachuting a ‘super head’ into a school causes havoc in the long term and is only a quick fix for exam results, academics warn in a report seen by the Times…….. Millions are spent on super heads salaries and on consultants hired to repair the damage after the heads leave, researchers (at the Centre for High Performance at Oxford and Kingston Universities) said”.
The Times, March 29, 2016

“Academy head defends £360k pay”
The Times, January 27, 2015.

Sir Greg Martin earned £161,000 from managing a Sports Centre on the site of the school that he served as head teacher in addition to his head teacher’s salary of £201,000. MPs expressed anger at the scale of his earnings and accused him of failing to understand the concept of public service.

The MPs could not have been more wrong. Sir Greg understood only too well the concept as outlined by George Washington Plunkitt of Tammany Hall fame: “I seen my opportunities and I took em”.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s plan to turn all schools into academies continues to unravel as another multi academy trust falls foul of Ofsted. The Education Fellowship Trust runs – is “runs” the mot juste? – four secondary schools and eight primary schools … last month it received six pre termination notices from the Department of Education threatening to take two secondary and four primary schools away from it due to unacceptably low performance….. The Education Fellowship Trust responded by attacking Ofsted….”
Private Eye April 29, 2016

The above cautionary tales indicate that all is not going well in the drive to transform all our ugly duckling state schools into beautiful academy swans – but these may be just teething problems and in due course all will be well.

The declared aim of the academy propagandists is, as noted, to transfer control of schools from LEAs to a new breed of Super heads. These stars will be required to combine the existing onerous responsibilities of the job with additional heavy managerial responsibilities over staff pay, staff terms and conditions, and, crucially, powers to arrange school mergers and acquisitions which could benefit the various players in the new game.

It is that last feature that should trigger loud alarm bells. Imagine a modern version of Thomas Arnold of Rugby, a venerable head master of the old school and one dedicated to achieving the noblest aims of his profession. The ardent apostles of the academy solution would have us divert our latter day Arnold from his previous beloved objectives and priorities and, instead, to examine the scope to merge with Winchester, or to acquire Harrow or to take over Eton, or, if all else fails, to share some facilities with Neasden High School. His additional responsibilities hold in prospect an agreeable combination of riches beyond any attainable via the old honoured practices and, a key factor, escape from the disagreeable and tiresome features of being a head teacher.

Let me speculate about the probable consequences of a mass transfer of schools from Local Authority control to management by super heads. I predict that the teaching profession will be invaded by a Tsunami of Arthur Daleys masquerading as pedagogues, but in reality in hot pursuit of a quick buck, the sort of quick buck easily acquired by those familiar with the no man’s land of the public-private sector, a world where the public funds the business and the private operators scoop up the profits, if any. We are looking at an educational version of the City of London populated and run by spivs for spivs, all avid for frenetic activity in the business of mergers and acquisitions.

More prosaically, my concerns about this switch to academies centre on the following points.

  • Arrangements have been in place for many years whereby the control of schools rests with democratically elected local authorities. My contention is that to the extent that these bodies are failing to discharge their responsibilities then the public has the means to take effective actions.
  • My main concern is that this transition to academies will divert the attention of Head Teachers away from the core task of providing the best possible education for all pupils to one of casting about for ways of maximising their own reward packages. In short I see a replay of the squalid farce that has been enacted in Higher Education with the shameless looting by Vice Chancellors of the unguarded public funds.
    I see a significant number of Academy CEOs plunging into wholly unnecessary restructuring in order to line their pockets at the expense of pupils and of the public.
  • I would go further and predict that if the dash to academies wins out, in a few years time the standard of education will suffer a further decline, a decline that is wholly avoidable.

So: should primary and secondary education remain primarily in the public sector with management and control remaining with local authorities or should they be privatised via academies? As usual there is some confusion with regard to the location of battle lines with some Tory Councils anxious to repel the invaders from their territory whilst there are some Labour supporters ready to go along with academies where there is evidence of local support.

I am suspicious as to the motives of the latter group but that may be due to my innate scepticism.

As I see it the main questions and suggested answers as the debate moves on are:

If the preponderant feeling is to stay as we are – so be it. Let the teachers teach and let the head teachers focus on the time honoured priority of setting and maintaining high and improving performance standards. Let the democratically elected Local Education Authorities do the rest as per the existing arrangements.

If the outcome is an unstoppable momentum to academies – what then?

  • Who will foot the bill for all the changes? You, the public.
  • Who will call the shots? The academy CEOs who make it to the top.
  • Who will benefit? The academy CEOs with their massively enhanced reward packages.
  • Who will suffer – the school children as those responsible for their education concentrate on the agreeable activities of looting the system.

Conclusion

A concluding prediction (made back in April, 2016)

Let me suggest a plausible media item in the event of a victory for the academy cause:

A beaming CEO welcomed the arrival of the new era, an era in the course of which he managed to quadruple his reward package. On the debit side he regretted that unforeseen difficulties had resulted in many pupils leaving school unable to read and write, but he stressed that lessons will have been learned – by the senior management, if not by the pupils.

It was and remains a pity that the strong case against academies was unable to compete with the academy spivs masquerading as modernising progressive radical reformers.

Image: Thomas Arnold courtesy of Rugby School

Advertisements

Author: holdenforth

50 years in management - mostly as a sharp-end man. Occasional contributor to Tribune.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s