The last five years have seen a coalition government - with a mandate that’s dubious at best - steam through the country in a Saville-Row-suited smash and grab. Having pulled a fast one with Royal Mail, re-privatised the one national train line that was bringing cash into the coffers and had a fair crack at kicking the foundations out from under the NHS, the craziest gang in town are turning their dull, greedy eyes towards the education system. As ever, this is happening in bright, broad daylight with little attempt to pretend that they are doing anything other than dishing out grief to us plebs with nary a sigh. The only explanation we get is: because.
This week David Cameron here he is – and I know this is childish, but it makes me laugh –
So, this week, David Cameron announced that if the Tories were elected in 2015 they’d definitely not be cutting government spending on schools. The way he did this was great – at a press conference at Kingsmead school in Enfield, he said “with a Conservative government, the amount of money following your child into school will not be cut,” which, when put like that seems pretty simple.
It turned out to mean something quite different. What he actually meant to say was that the amount of government money put into each school kids education will remain exactly the same, with no rise linked to inflation. This means that the amount of money ‘following your child’ will only stay the same – in real terms - if the economy is completely and totally fucked. If the economy rises – which is the central tenet of both major parties election drive (interestingly, not the Greens, but that’s another column for another time) - then the amount of money following kids into school will dwindle by somewhere between 5-12% over the course of a parliament term. So that’s less money David. Not more. God knows what stream your shonky maths would have put you in.
This obfuscation came packaged with another policy idea. Cameron is up for substantially widening the grounds on which under-performing schools can be forced to become Academies. As he put it - “So this is what we’re doing. We are waging war on mediocrity. We are saying no more sink schools and no more bog-standard schools either.” Sounds good right? Let’s do it!
At the moment a school can be turned into an Academy if it is deemed ‘Inadequate’ by OFSTED officials – the worst possible grade. The plan is to expand this remit to include schools the next level up, places that are labelled ‘Requires Improvement’. There are only two other ratings; ‘Good’, and ‘Outstanding’. This new idea would mean that anything under a ‘Good’ - potentially 3,500 schools - could be turned into Academies and handed over to the control of new heads, either from neighbouring, high performing schools, or – and here’s the clever bit – backed by independent finance.
The logic driving this decision is that Academies perform better. The brilliant thing is; there is zero evidence for this claim. Not a bit - literally, actually, none. The Education Select Committee have had to conclude that it’s simply too soon to claim there is any evidence that the system will work better. Here’s what their report, released last week, says, verbatim (and it’s worth noting that this report was led by Graham Stuart, a privately educated Conservative politician, who, even with the biases and party loyalty that entails, couldn’t find it in himself to support Academies.)
"It’s still too early to know how much the academies programme has helped raise standards… While some chains have clearly raised attainment, others achieve worse outcomes creating huge disparities within the academy sector and compared to other mainstream schools. To address this problem Ofsted should be given the power to inspect academy chains in the same way it does local authorities.”
So; some Academies do well, some don’t and, as a group, they are deemed to be an unstable factor compared to mainstream schools. There is no logic driving the decision to turn schools into Academies and no evidence that it is a good idea - only an ideology that seeks to introduce private finance into every aspect of life. Any time a politician claims that the Academy system is better, they are lying. They don’t know and they know they don’t know.
Back to Cameron’s announcements. It doesn’t take any great predictive power to suppose that implementing Stage 1 of his plan – freezing funding to schools, effectively cutting the amount of money they receive to educate their pupils – increases the likelihood (particularly when a school is teetering on the brink) of pushing it into under achieving, quickly finding itself smack bang in Stage 2 - where, under new rules, it is forced into turning into an Academy. It’s almost as if the two policies were designed to work hand in hand. Surely not?
But why? Who steps in to take over ‘failing’ schools? What are the motives of these philanthropic members of the community? Where does their cash come from? And are they any good?
As it happens, ‘what’ and ‘where’ aren’t that easy to answer. As the Education Select Committee reported, “Going forward, the Department for Education (DfE) should be less defensive and more open about its implementation of the academies programme, producing a range of clearer and deeper information about the performance of academy schools, chains and sponsors.“
They are not the first to think this. When smirking manchild Michael Gove was Education Secretary, Matthew Coffey (then chief officer of OFSTED) requested the power to inspect organisations running Academies, as well as the Academies themselves. Gove flatly refused. For some reason, the organisations were determined to remain opaque. Conversely, when the government has driven for further powers to hack emails they’ve been very much of the opinion that if you’ve got nothing to hide you’ve got nothing to fear…
Gove followed this battening of hatches with one of the smug, tricksy moves he excels in - he appointed a new chair of OFSTED; David Hoare.
David Hoare is one of those bland, pointless men who run the world. Unsurprisingly, as with many people who like to remain discretely rich, Hoare’s wiki page is an empty red link. Thankfully the internet will provide, and a quick look into Hoare’s past throws up a litany of companies he’s worked for - and, yes, they’re a cheeky who’s who of bastards. Hoare has done his time with, amongst others, oil monsters ESSO, tax diddling shipping company V-Ships (operating in England, registered in Monaco), and Bain Capital, the Mitt Romney affiliated company that became notorious for its ruthless demolition of jobs in the name of profit.
After all of this entirely-unrelated-to-education work, he landed himself a role running the failing AET. Who? Well, AET are Academies Enterprise Trust, the biggest sponsor of Academies in the UK, currently running 77 schools. After two years spent at AET learning the company line, Hoare got the nod from Gove for his new role at OFSTED, and in September 2014 shuffled sideways into his new position; a move so brazenly riven with conflict of interest that it outraged headteachers across the country. Essentially, Gove had got his own man at the top. There’d be no more asking to inspect the groups running the schools.
So why the secrecy? Well, the thing about AET is that they’ve been doing pretty fucking badly (or pretty fucking well, depending on your perspective). Remember at the start when I was talking about a smash and grab? In a short space of time AET have been scrabbling to privatise non-teaching roles, siphoning taxpayers cash (yes, they still receive money from the government) into their private companies and paying themselves obscene bonuses, and, worst of all, providing a shit education. Tally ho chaps! It turns out that this Academies lark is a great wheeze! In short, the boys have rolled in, grabbed what they could, tried to package up and flog anything not nailed down, and failed a generation of children in the result. Go UK.
There’s a pending OFSTED report into AET group. But, and I love this, Hoare – who was running the AET during those halcyon champagne years – has been put in charge of investigating them. And, in one of those wild and crazy coincidences that love to crop up in election year, the report has been delayed. ‘Til who knows when.
OK, so maybe the AET/ Hoare/ OFSTED mess is just one bad apple spoiling the bunch. How about the other major providers of the Academy system? As it happens, Schools Minister Nick Gibb appeared on Radio 4, and when he wasn’t denying the findings of the Education Select Committee (ie, lying), he was extolling the virtues of two other over-sized Academy chains – ARK and Harris. ARK has 30 schools, and Harris 36. Let’s look at them.
Resting his bulk on ARK’s board of trustees is a Tory Peer. But not just any Tory Peer. This is one of the biggest donors to the Conservative Party, having given the boys in blue a sweet £3.1 million over the years, may I present the fabulously named Lord Fink. Here he is. What ho.
When he’s not voting on policy and taking over schools, Fink is also chairman of Zenith Hygiene Systems, who provide cleaning products for schools (fancy!). Alongside him on the ARK board of trustees is Paul Marshall, a Lib Dem Peer, and chairman of one of Europe’s largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace. Marshall also sits as non-executive director of the Department for Education, so absolutely no conflict of interest there either. He’s also – and this really is unforgivable- fathered Mumford & Sons bassist Winston Marshall. Jesus.
Alongside them on the board are assorted Goldman Sachs cronies – and just for a bit of context, it was Goldman Sachs who handled the break-up of Royal Mail, a break-up which is now recognised to have been a neatly executed scam.
At this stage it’s all getting too much for me to think about. So quickly now; Harris Academies. Harris Academies are run by Lord Harris of Peckham (lol), yet another Tory Peer. The CEO Lord Harris has running his Academies is a chap called Daniel Moynihan – who also doubles up as an OFSTED sharpshooter – here’s a quote from Private Eye, dated November 2013, and I think it lets you know which way the wind is blowing:
“Ofsted also judged the London Nautical School as “requires improvement”. The Eye found the inspection team included Sir Daniel Moynihan, CEO of the Harris Federation academy chain which sponsors academies in London and has taken over a number of “failing” schools including Downhills.
In 2011, the Eye had received assurance from Ofsted that if any inspectors were “involved in an organisation in competition with the school under inspection” then Ofsted would regard it as “a conflict of interest to be avoided”.
The Eye asked Ofsted whether the inclusion of Moynihan in inspection teams was a breach of that protocol. Ofsted promised an explanation but “answer came there none”."
Clearly there has been a realisation somewhere deep in the corridors of power that you can make a ton of easy cash off the education system. A collection of Lords, bankers and ministers are chortling as they crash in with a system that doesn’t even bother to conceal it’s intent. The plan is simple; get your chaps in OFSTED to condemn schools run by local authorities as not good enough - take over with your own firm - award your other companies (or those of your chums) all the essential contracts, from IT to cleaning - pay yourself an insane wage, and take full advantage of state subsidies. Sorted. Worse still, they can’t even be bothered to provide a decent education whilst they do so. Their own children go to private schools, so why should they bother?
There is a complete contempt being shown to the people of the UK – the plebs – and if this doesn’t piss you off, you’re a fool. If it does piss you off, there’s an election on its way. Although let us not forget – Academies were Tony’s idea in the first place….
Ian McQuaid can be found on twitter