John Bald is a former Ofsted inspector and has written two books on the history of writing and spelling. He is Chairman of the Conservative Education Society.
After last Monday’s account of my visit to Great Yarmouth showed some of the best of the academies and free schools movement, Panorama the same evening showed the worst. The latest two scandals, from the TBAP and Silver Birch Trusts, showed wholesale abuse of public money and what may be the worst case of cheating on record, destroying the personal integrity of a headteacher, staff and children. TBAP, which runs special units for excluded children – of which more later – was paying its chief executive £220,000 a year while leaving bills unpaid and reducing staffing to levels that threatened safety.
Add these to Perry Beeches, feted at our Party Conference and now shut down, with a professional misconduct finding against its head, the naive error of funding Steiner and bogus Montessori schools – despite private warnings of what they might do – the £400,000 salary and £850,000 pay-off to the knighted head of Durand Academies, and Bronagh Monro’s earlier Panorama exposure of the activities of Michael Dwan of Bright Tribe, who collected a Government grant of £566,000 to rebuild a sports hall, and spent around a tenth of that on shoring it up, and we have a collection of disasters that threatens the credibility of the whole academisation policy. “Stop filming,” said Dwan at one point in his showing-up by Ms Monro. Some former ministers and advisers will have echoed his request.
Lord Agnew, for the government, said that investigations were not yet concluded. The director at the centre of the Silver Birch scandal had been replaced, and he admitted that early investigations into Silver Birch, (from 2014, before he joined) had not been tough enough. Had this been the only case, the answer might have been adequate. In view of all the others, it is not. Clearly, some people have been put in charge of schools who could not have been trusted with a park bench, and this colossal waste of money, at a time when large areas of the education service were being cut, is too important an issue to be left to muckraking journalists like Warwick Mansell. We need to know how and why this came about, and how the government is going to prevent it from continuing.
The picture is not easy to establish. I learned only recently that the Government had formed the intention, before the 2010 election, to turn every school in the country into an academy, a goal that was only made explicit in the 2016 White Paper, Educational Excellence Everywhere, a title hollow enough to make Blair jealous. The first round of rapid expansion led our opponents to ask if the government intended to run all of schools directly from Whitehall. The argument was answered by establishing a system of regional academy commissioners, to take over many of the functions of local authorities, and possibly of Ofsted as well, as commissioners could send in officials to conduct their own version of inspection, with greater powers than inspectors ever had.
David Cameron’s government was characterised by a determination to meet Treasury spending targets, while pursuing radical, but expensive policies such as HS2. The Government has now admitted that, in addition to tight controls on 11-16 school expenditure, it put a tight squeeze on sixth forms and FE colleges, a policy that I didn’t understand at the time, but which now makes sense. Covertly cutting this provision, while imposing major new demands on the sector – such as the huge number of compulsory GCSE resits in English and maths – freed money for other priorities. Cui bono? The academies programme, whose consultants were paid large fees, while those of us working on the reform of exams and the curriculum, which to me was always the most important part of the work, did so as volunteers. The cuts to Ofsted, the only independent means of quality control, put several hundred million more into the pot. It is no accident that a good number of schools previously rated outstanding, and allowed to rest on their laurels, are losing this rating now that they are inspected once more.
What, one might ask, would lead a man like Michael Dwan, a venture capitalist by profession, to take an interest in running schools? This piece – from the Daily Mail, not the Guardian – suggests that raw financial inducement is the answer, with little or no regulation to stop people hiring relatives, commissioning “consultancy” from friends and relatives, and even complaining – successfully – about a suspension for taking a kick-back on a contract. Expanding the system at the required rate with almost no regulation was an invitation to corruption, and that is exactly what has occurred. The pioneer of academies who told me, well before the 2010 election, that “we don’t have enough good people” was correct, and we have had no shortage of bad ones to fill the gap.
People have noticed. Panorama’s film of the special unit run by TBAP gave us a view of education’s lower depths, where pupils spend more time wrecking the school than learning, the situation that prevailed at Great Yarmouth before Barry Smith’s arrival. Pupils and staff in these places are not safe, and this is not acceptable. Parents who come to me for help with their children’s serious reading problems tell me that they get no help from their schools at all, and the notorious school cuts site, is given credibility by programmes such as this and causing us real electoral problems.
The situation has got past the stage at which it can be dealt with by departmental ministers and officials. Damian Hinds has done well to allocate additional funds for special needs provision, and to press for more money for schools. He now needs to take personal control of academy regulation, listen to whistleblowers, cut out the graft, and make sure that the money is spent for the benefit of children.