Saturday, 18 June 2011

Academies: An open letter to the Ludgvan CP School governors

As part of a long-running series of posts about academies and a campaign against attempts to convert a primary school in Ludgvan near Penzance in Cornwall to academy status (see here), here is a letter that was sent to the school governors as part of the 'consultation period'. The reply will published if and when it is received (see here).

Dear Ludgvan CP School governors,

I am a parent of a child that is due to start at your school in September. However, I was saddened and dismayed to learn that you have decided to turn the school into an academy. As we are still in the 'consultation period' I would be grateful if you could answer my questions.

First, can you explain to me why I was not contacted directly about this? Surely as a parent of two children who may well have a connection with the school for the next nine years I have as much, if not more, right to be informed than a parent of a child already at the school and potentially leaving this year and, as such, not directly affected?

Second, can you explain why, in your initial letter to parents, there was no mention of the consultation period?

Third, why were parents only told of the 'consultation' meeting shortly before it was held, making it very difficult for parents to arrange childcare? Why were parents not texted as they are for everything else? Why was it held at such an inconvenient time (ie neither straight after school nor later in the evening when more parents would be home form work)? Why did the school not provide a creche for those parents that could not find childcare at such short notice? Why was such little information provided to parents both before and at the meeting? Why were parents told the lawyer was present to provide 'independent legal advice' when the lawyer in question works for a company that provides (arguably highly biased) legal advice to schools that want to become academies? Why was the second meeting held during a 'coffee morning', at a time when parents who work or have other childcare arrangements would find impossible to make? Why did the school refuse to hold another meeting, during the consultation period, at a time that parents could manage, in which a representative of the school and a representative of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) could have put forward their arguments and parents could have asked questions. This would have allowed parents to be fully informed of both sides of the argument. You would then have had a genuine reflection of the views of parents and a mandate to either apply to become an academy or not. Did the school refuse because it was worried that if parents heard an alternative viewpoint to their own, they would agree with the representative of the NUT?

If I were a cynical person I would think the school did not want parents to be informed or consulted. The argument that 'outsiders' should not be involved is laughable. The NUT represents teachers in schools up and down the country and is better placed than anyone to understand the issues and how they will impact on staff and students. The idea that some parents are making the issue 'political', or that governors are somehow 'transcending' politics is, frankly, insulting. The government's plans to break-up comprehensive education, which was based on the idea that there should be a good school for every child, and to replace it with a system of schools run by competing, private companies is about as political, or ideological, as it is possible to be. You are either complicit in the government's agenda or naive in the extreme.

Fourth, why were parents told that the school was just considering the idea of becoming an academy when it was already far down the route and had already held two meetings with staff to discuss how they would be affected when they were transferred to the new private company? Is it possible that the school never had any intention of genuine consultation with parents?

Fifth, why did the school attempt to smear those parents that did attempt to obtain information from a source other than the school? Why did it claim that the information that was given to parents was out of date, even though this is blantantly false (it was published in April 2011). Why did it claim it only applied to the 'old style' academies, even though it knew this to be untrue? Why did it send a letter, on more than one occasion, to a parent asking him not to speak to teachers about the issue? Surely a parent has the right to speak to a teacher about how changes to the school will affect his child, or do you think not? Surely a teacher has a right to speak to parents or anyone else about how changes to the school will affect them as members of staff, or do you disagree? Were you concerned that, upon hearing an alternative viewpoint to your own, teachers might oppose your plans? Why were parents sent a letter apologising that parents were 'subjected to leafletting'? Why use such emotive language? Did any parents really feel intimdated by being handed some information on a piece of paper or by being asked politely if they would like to sign a statement?

Sixth, as I have already said, the idea of academy schools is to break-up the current system of education in which parents have some democratic control over the education their children receive via the local education authority. The plan is to replace this with a system of education in which competing, private companies provide education on the cheap in order to profit from it. It is a model that the government is attempting to introduce into the healthcare system and they are being forced to think again because the general public and healthcare professionals alike do not want it. It is also a model that was used in social care around ten years ago. Banks and investment companies bought up care homes previously run by the local authority. Then private equity firms moved in, buying up the firms, such as in the example of Southern Cross. The private equity company, in this case Blackstone, put the assets into another company and then leased them back to Southern Cross. They then put up the rents and sold the property arm for more money than they had paid for Southern Cross in the first place. As the banking crisis erupted, the property market crashed making loans secured on care homes look shaky. Southern Cross, Britain's largest care homes firm is now bankrupt. Four Seasons, the second biggest is also close to bankruptcy. They are now demanding taxpayer-funded bailouts. The bosses will walk away with a nice pension and the vulnerable people they were supposed to care for and the workers will be the ones that suffer. This is potentially the future for the education system. Does this seem like a good idea to you?

You need not take my word for it. Pat McGoven, the Headteacher of Helston College, at a meeting in Falmouth on 21 March, spoke eloquently about how much schools depend on the local education authority (LEA) and how becoming an academy is not so much about parents, children and teachers being 'free' of state control, but being under the control of private companies. He explained that many of the supposed benefits from becoming an academy can be done anyway. He said that he would never allow his school to become an academy because he does not have the right to sell off what is an assest for the local community both now and into the future. Have you spoken to him about the issue? I suggest that you do.

Fowey School announced to staff last month that it will not now be seeking academy status. This is because the government have told academies that they will be responsible for all redundancy payments, whereas previously they had been told they would only be responsible for the 'academy' years and the local authority would pick up the rest of the bill. Were you aware of this?

Newquay Tretherras School, which became an academy last year, announced a fortnight ago that it would be selling off land at the back of the school to Tesco. School bosses claimed 'this is the only way to fund the future of education at Tretherras for the next 50 years' (see here). Did you know about this?

Seventh, it has not been made clear to me that you are fully aware of the implications of what you are about to undertake. It is my concern that it is in fact you who are making a political decision and not one based on what is in the best interests of staff and pupils. Will there be any redundancies at the school? How will this be funded? Will you be pulling out of national bargaining arrangements for teachers' pay and conditions? How will you retain good, well-motivated staff if they are paid less than teachers in other schools in other parts of the country and indeed county? Can you provide me with a detailed list of precisely what the school will be responsible for once it has become an academy that it is not currently? Who will comission the services that you will need to 'buy in'? Will you be putting extra responsibilities on existing members of staff and if so will they be paid more for this? Or will you be employing additional staff? How will this be funded? Services bought from private sources will tend to be more expensive than those bought through the LEA; how can you justify this given that it will ultimately mean less money to provide less services? One local authority charges academies a higher rate for services. How can you guarantee the same will not happen in Cornwall? You say that finance is not your primary concern as the school does not have financial difficulties. If this is the case, why the indecent haste to become an academy this year? Why not wait until next year? The funding system for academies from the following year has not yet been announced; how can you, in all conscience, go into a system when you have no idea how it will be funded? Is this not an argument for waiting to see what will happen? If a school within the LEA system has a fire or a flood, the LEA will step in and ensure children's education does not suffer. Under the academy system the school is on its own. How will you ensure children's education continues in the event of an emergency whilst you are waiting on an insurance company to pay out (which as we all know can take many months)? If the school gets into financial difficulties, what is to stop it going bankrupt? The government has said it will not bail out failing GP consortia or failing universities; it is highly unlikely that it will bail out failing academies either. Do you accept that as a small school, Ludgvan is more likely to fail as an academy than other, bigger schools? How can you guarantee that the school will not be bought by one of the 'Edubusinesses' such as E-Act, Edison or ARK, a group of hedge fund managers? Academies have more control over the curriculum; how will you ensure that you are teaching subjects that are appropriate and that parents want you to be teaching? How do I know that the next headteacher will not believe in 'creationism' for example and will not decide that should be taught in the school. You say that you want to set up an 'ethos group'. This sounds wonderful but who determines who is on the group? One parent that expressed interest was told at the 'consultation' meeting that she would not be 'suitable' to be on the group. Is the school not making political decisions based upon its view of the parents and their political views? Is this not discriminatory? Should all parents not be given the oportunity to contribute? Academies have control over admissions and have the power to select. How can you guarantee you will not adopt an admissions policy that disadvantages children from poorer backgrounds?

As I say, I am a parent of a child that is due to start at your school in September. I was not told of your intention to become an academy, I received no letter or other communication. I could not attend the first meeting because of childcare and I could not attend the second meeting because of work. I only found out about the meetings and this email address by chance and it seems you only told any parents, other than those at the first meeting, about the email address and the consultation period because you were forced to by parents that announced it in their leaflet. You then denounced those parents in a letter to all parents. It also seems that you only held the second meeting because you were under pressure from parents. If this is the disregard you have for the views of parents in what is supposed to be a consultation period it suggests you will take our views into consideration even less once the school has become an academy. I find this genuinely shocking.

Despite this I call on you to think again. You have clearly not thought this through. The way you have attempted to shut down debate demonstrates that you are very worried that if parents and staff knew the full facts they would be opposed to the plans. If you go ahead with the plans to become an academy there may not be a problem in the next few years. However I feel sure that at some point in the future you will either be making staff redundant, changing their pay or conditions, something will be sold off, or something unpalatable will be taught at the school. At that point it will be the children that will suffer and you, as governors, are responsible for ensuring that does not happen.

I look forward to receiving your reply.

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