Thursday, April 13, 2006

Honours for cash for schools - and the '£2 million test'

Warning, long entry written in wroth!

OK, take a look at this news story: a Head from Barking who serves on the 'Specialist Schools and Academies Trust' which 'helps the government recruit education sponsors' told a journalist that if you donated money "the prime minister's office would recommend someone like [the donor] for an OBE, a CBE or a knighthood". And ... Downing Street said at the time it was "nonsense to suggest that honours are awarded for giving money to an academy". (And the Guardian have it here)

Whoa. Now for a short test, boys and girls. What is the real news story here?

1) That knighthoods can be bought be large donations of money, making a mockery of a system designed to recognise merit
2) That Downing Street can swat away the on-the-record comment of a respected person by labelling it nonsense, and presumably insist he resigns to try and neutralise the effect immediately
3) That we live in a society where a majority influence on the governing body of a state school can be bought for approximately £2 million by anyone who feels like it.

And the answers?
I don't know about you, but I think that it's point 3) that has always been, and continues to be, the real news story.

I am vaguely concerned about the whole cash for honours thing, as I would like to live in a meritocractic society, but hey, it's no biggie.
Yes, it does send a chill down my spine to be reminded of the blatant way that government can silence any critical comment by saying 'it is not so' and demanding resignations and public apologies as scalps.
But the really, really important thing is this: inner city schools are being sold to anyone with any agenda at all. For the sum of only 8% of total start-up costs!

For this bargain price you get...
- influence in the name, ethos and style of the institution
- controlling interest on the governing body (yes, I said that before but it bears repetition)
- And once you have this influence with the governors, you can use it employ anyone you want because you are exempt from the requirement to only employ teachers registered with the GTC!
- And then you can pay them anything you want because you can opt out of the national pay structure!

(Aside - I wrote a sci-fi short story about ten years ago set in a dystopian future school; I was rooting around for a brand name to give the school, such as the 'Ronald McDonald High School' or the 'Microsoft School'. So I honestly thought it was fiction when I first heard about the Dixons Academy - but it's not. It's a state school sponsored by a chain of electrical stores.)

What does the government really think it's doing?

If there was a huge amount of money going into these schools, say £20 million, and if the major obstacle in the way of improving inner city education was simply cash, and if the government had a serious shortfall, I could be persuaded that huge injections from philathropists or businesses was justifiable. And if in return the donor got their name above the door or the right to serve on the governors as a sort of sinecure or even a knighthood, well, hey, I can live with that. But does getting 8-10% of the cost paid really help that much? Surely you could just build one less academy instead.

You see, I don't think the Academy program is primarily about fund-raising. The government don't actually believe that money is all we need to solve the problem of inner city schooling. Tony B wants to demolish old schools and build new ones but with a new ethos. And here's where it goes bad for me - he believes the only way to get ethics, values, vision and character for his academies is to buy it.

£2 million does not represent a shortfall that needs to be filled, £2 million is a test, set to see how strong someone's (or some organisation's) commitment to leading a school is. So the logic must be - to have something serious to offer inner city education, you must a) be interested and b) pass the £2 million test to see if you are committed or just pissing around, writing blogs and generally just talking it up.

I don't like it one little bit (which doesn't mean that all academies are terrible institutions per se, not even the Dixon's Academy which I've never visited; please don't think I am getting at you or your leadership if you are toiling in an Academy, doing your best for inner city students and making a difference.) I don't like it because the underlying idea is that the problem of inner city education can be solved by finding people and groups of people who pass the £2 million test. Wheras I think that the best people to solve the problem of an inner city school are a group of committed teachers, well-led by an inspirational and pragmatic leadership team (and a body of parents who will work to support the school.) And hey, they don't usually have time to accumulate £2 million between them because they are too busy.

To conclude at last: the major obstacle in the way of improving inner city education is not simply cash; we need strong schools with teachers and leaders who share a profound, robust vision for education and who can create a new optimism, value-structure and vision in the place of what was previously perceived as a 'failing' school. Knocking down the old buildings and replacing them is one way of kick-starting this change, so in that respect the government is maybe doing a good thing by flipping difficult schools out of the rut they are in. However, into that shiny new building you need to put the best, the most energetic, the most gifted, the most committed teachers you can find. And then you need to put an experienced Head and school management team in there and let them get on with it. They will be able to create a new ethos without any need for a friendly electrical retailer on the board of governors to advise.


PS I've never taught in an Academy. If any of my readers have, I sincerely invite you to rubbish all of the above.

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