Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

FREE SCHOOLS: Where’s the accountability?

In R.Richardson on March 31, 2014 at 12:34 pm

by Ruth Richardson for The Clarion

In the last issue of the Clarion we took a look at a Free School that had been visited and praised by David Cameron in 2012. It was the King’s Science Academy, in Bradford. Early in 2013, the Education Funding Agency discovered serious failings in the school’s financial management. Now we hear that the founder and principal, Sajid Raza, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. We await further developments with interest.

NEVER MIND THE ESTIMATES – LOOK AT THE COSTS!

In December, the National Audit Office produced a study showing that Michael Gove’s Free Schools have cost twice as much to build as originally estimated. Half the districts county-wide where there’s the most pressing need for places do not have a single application for a new Free School. And in the schools covered by the survey, three times as many unqualified teaching staff were employed as the average for the state sector.

In December, the National Audit Office produced a study showing that Michael Gove’s Free Schools have cost twice as much to build as originally estimated. Half the districts country-wide where there’s the most pressing need for places do not have a single application for a new Free School. And in the schools covered by the survey, three times as many unqualified teaching staff were employed as the average for the state sector.

GOVE, A DISASTER:

A recent article in Tribune by Graham Lane (former chair of the LGA’s education committee) declared that Michael Gove has been a disaster. He faces not only the anger of teachers about changes in their pay, conditions and pensions, but also the growing resentment of governors and parents over how he is dumbing down so many young people’s opportunities. It should not be the role of Government ministers to decide the school curriculum. Gove is keen to prescribe what books students should study, but his perspective is narrow. The history syllabus would be pared down virtually to a list of the kings and queens of England.

However, it’s over the lack of accountability of academies and free schools that Graham Lane reserves his strongest criticism of Gove. The role of local education authorities has been marginalised, so that cohesive strategic planning is almost impossible.

Now, says Lane, Tristram Hunt (shadow Education Minister) needs to open a debate on how a Labour government would strengthen the role of the LEA. Hunt has already declared his support for the idea of local networks of collaboration between academies, free schools and LEA schools. How this would work needs to be fleshed out.

The privatisation of educational services is, says Lane, unproductive and a waste of public money. Many schools, including those under LEA control, use private companies to enhance the curriculum in art, music and drama – an expensive use of a school’s budget for, often, short-term gain. A quick trawl of the internet or a glance at the back pages of the Times Education Supplement shows how prolific these companies are – all, of course, out to make a profit for their shareholders.

VOTING WITH THEIR FEET:

Teachers’ morale appears to be at an all-time low. Not only are pay and conditions under threat, but many feel that teacher training does not adequately prepare new recruits for the reality of life in the classroom

Forty per cent of new teachers leave the profession within the first five years of teaching.

WHAT ABOUT SUPPORT STAFF?

Finally, teachers are not the only workers in education who are unhappy with their lot. Let’s not forget the classroom support staff – sometimes known as teaching assistants or “learning mentors”. I was shocked to find that that there is no national pay scale for them. The School Support Negotiating Body, set up by the previous Labour Government to set things in motion, was abolished under the coalition. Terms and conditions set out in the local government national agreement are frequently ignored, and there has been a huge growth in “term-time only” contracts.

The role of the support staff has changed a great deal over the past fifteen years. Many are used as teachers to avoid paying for expensive supply staff to cover absences – particularly in free schools.

An Association of Teachers & Lecturers (ATL) survey showed that two thirds of support staff work extra hours, most without additional pay. When Michael Gove abolished the Negotiating Pay Body, he said that the organisation “did not fit well with the Government’s priorities for greater de-regulation”!

RUTH RICHARDSON

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