Last year, teachers, students and parents in Lewisham ran a campaign that successfully fought off the threat of academisation to four schools in the borough. Activists were confident that this left them in a good position to launch a vibrant campaign against the government’s proposals for forced-academisation contained in the recent White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere.
Just as this campaign was starting to gain some momentum it became clear that we faced a more immediate and local threat. In December 2015, Sir Steve Bullock, the directly elected mayor of Lewisham set up an Education Commission which had the remit, “Given the rapidly changing local and national context” to develop “a long-term vision for education in the borough”.
The people appointed to the Commission, all had backgrounds of working in or supporting different types of multi-academy trusts (MATs). The backdrop was a perceived problem with Lewisham’s “under-performing” secondary schools. No surprise then that the Commission’s report positively endorsed and encouraged Lewisham schools to become multi-academy trusts. Despite the report surfacing, cynically, during half-term — when over-worked teachers are away, secondary teachers are focused on examinations and primary teachers are writing reports — the response from Lewisham NUT, parent activists and local Labour Party members was swift and quite impressive.
Lewisham NUT and Stop Academies in Lewisham (SAIL) organised a lobby of the council’s Young People and Children’s select committee while it was discussing the document on 8 June. Two days later Lewisham Deptford Constituency Labour Party’s General Committee passed an emergency motion saying, “We call on Lewisham Council that if they agree or implement any changes to the existing ownership and organisational model for education in the borough, such changes do not involve any kind of academisation at least until the national debate is resolved. We call on our councillors to act in accordance with this motion”.
It was good that Labour councillor Luke Sorba made one of the motivating speeches. This was followed by a petition being launched on Change.org. On Saturday 11 June NUT and SAIL activists held a successful stall in Lewisham town centre to build for a public meeting on Tuesday 28 June (RHB 142 at Goldsmiths’ College, 7.30pm), and a lobby of the Mayor and Cabinet when they discuss the Commission’s report on Wednesday 29 June. This speedy response has shifted the mood in the local Labour Party and among some councillors. They can keep trying to academise our schools, but they should know we will fight them every time they try.
Cash cows, cramming and cronies
The Observer of 12 June described one of Britain’s new academy chains, the “Bright Tribe Multi-Academy Trust”. Last year it took over Colchester Academy, in Essex. Cleaning, catering and building maintenance were promptly outsourced to a company called Blue Support. The managing director of Blue Support is Andrew Dwan, brother of Mike Dwan, the boss of the Trust. Its parent company is Equity Solutions, Mike Dwan’s main business. The school’s IT services were outsourced to another firm owned by Dwan. The websites of the Trust and all the academies it runs were designed by yet another Dwan company.
The National Audit Office is investigating, but this is pretty much routine. There are many other cases of academy, or academy-chain, bosses using their school budgets as cash-cows for businesses run by themselves, their family, or their friends. Cases like that of Jo Shuter — awarded “head teacher of the year”, then found to have spent £30,000 of public money on her 50th birthday party, meetings in five-star hotels, and personal taxi fares — are the froth on the top. The solid base is those academies, or academy trusts, creating hierarchies of “executive heads”, “CEOs”, and so on, paid huge salaries.
Michael Wilshaw, the retiring head of the official school-inspection agency Ofsted, is a friend of academies and a former academy head teacher himself. Yet even he is disgusted. In March he reported that some academy chains are doing worse than the much-reviled “failing” local authorities, and commented that “salary levels for the chief executives of some of these Multi Academy Trusts do not appear to be commensurate with the level of performance... The average pay... is higher than the prime minister’s... [and] some of these trusts are spending money on expensive consultants or advisers...”
Wilshaw’s latest answer, however, is to repeat his call for new public exams — at age 14 — to be added to the already-packed schedule. So even more of school time can be taken away from learning and given over to revision and exam-cramming!
Wilshaw has, however, worked in a school. He overestimates the extent to which intellectual and creative growth can be identified with exam grades, and underestimates the damage done by the stress of the exam system (designed above all to brand the majority as failures), but he has been a teacher. His successor as Ofsted chief, Amanda Spielman, has never been a teacher. She is an accountant by trade, worked in high finance until 2001, became a boss in the Ark academy chain, and has also been chair of Ofqual, the agency which supervises Britain’s exam boards, since 2011.
She comes to education entirely from the run-it-as-a-business, measure-everything-by-exam-grades angle. The National Union of Teachers’ ballot on strikes, which closes on 22 June, names its demand as nationally-negotiated pay and conditions for teachers. That is the first step in fighting back against the conversion of schools into “exam factories”, with “success” measured by grades and the amount of money siphoned off to the bosses and their cronies.