What do academy schools mean for Whitstable?

AAEAAQAAAAAAAAc4AAAAJDM0Nzk4YjFlLTYyNmUtNGZkZi04MjFhLTMwZmIwMDk4NzNkYwThe government announced last week that all schools must become academies by 2020. This means a change to the management of our schools. All council-run schools will become academies, run by a charitable trust on a paid government contract. There is more about what this means here.

A few days ago I wrote about Community College Whitstable becoming part of Swale Academies Trust.The latest Gazette suggests there will be a consultation on this academy takeover. I don’t think the consultation means much, the decision seems to be already made, the council and the governors believe a quick change is in the interests of the pupils.

I’ve been trying to keep an open mind about the government’s announcement. I actually like academies as an idea, some of the best new state schools are academies, such as Michaela Community School in Brent. Some of the best state schools to convert to academies have also taken on schools and improved them, such as the King Edward VI school taking on Sheldon Heath Academy. The mood of the nation is now anti-academies. I’m not convinced this super-quick system change is good, but I don’t think academies are always a bad thing.

Here’s my thoughts on the positives of an academy system :

    • Schools have less hope of radical change if only local authorities manage schools. Academies offer something new and fresh, and can bring improvements. A poorly run council school might be transformed by a change of management to an academy trust. If schools are only council managed there are no options for management change if the council is handling education badly.


    • Our education system is problematic with a mix of council maintained and academy schools. There are different rules and procedures for each and it is confusing to parents. It streamlines our education system if all schools are run consistently in a nationwide system.


    • The theory of the academy system is that the best academy chains can influence more schools, so good policies can spread. This allows for education innovation and varied styles of schools that give parents more choice.


    • There are some local authorities doing a good job with their schools,  while others are managing education badly. School governors also vary in experience.  An academy system may be a fairer system, with the best academy chains expanding, avoiding regional variation and offering better leadership for more schools.


    • Schools can work together if they share the same management, this means teachers can move between schools if there is a need, or ideas and resources can be shared.


    • Parents, specialist groups and charities can create academy schools with the free school policy, this creates variety and specialist provision.


    • Academy schools are paid per pupil and need to please parents to run financially successful schools, theoretically this should mean they respond to parents needs.


Here are my thoughts on the negatives of the academy change:

    • This speedy drive to turn schools into academies ignores the fact many schools are providing excellent education now. They are being forced to find new ‘bosses’ which gives stressful work to school leaders and may unsettle established schools. Many schools see no benefit at all, especially primary schools who so far have mostly chosen not to become academies.


    • Most schools join Multi Academy Trusts, chains of schools which have a governing body based at a head office. Academies don’t need to offer local accountability or have school governors, although some do. Management of a school might be far from the school with less awareness of its community’s needs.


    • There is a high cost to converting schools to academies. There is a large fee for legal work, for transfer of school land, and academy chains are paid a fee for taking over a school. It also adds a layer of expensive management to schools. Academy chain bosses and trustees are often highly paid, and there will be many more school managers within this system.


    • Despite the fact Multi Academy Trusts are ‘charitable trusts’ there is much talk of abuse of the system to give financial benefits to trust managers. Academy trustees are allowed to make deals with their own profit making businesses. There have been cases of school bosses changing uniform to a provider they have a profitable deal with, and there is secrecy about who is appointed to a trustee team. There is certainly a lack of accountability in the current system that makes abuse of power likely.


    • There is a clear lack of good academy trusts, yet the government is asking all schools to convert to become an academy by 2020. It seems hard to believe this will be possible when estimates say 1000 new trusts will be needed. I worry that troubled schools will not be wanted by most academy chains, especially as there will be so many schools looking for academy trusts. The plan for an academy trust league table means trusts might seek schools with the best results and avoid troubled schools.


    • There is no clear consensus on whether academies have better results than local authority maintained schools. Nicky Morgan said it is no ‘magic bullet.’ There are clearly good and bad academy schools, just as there are good and bad local authority schools. There is little proof that academy schools have better results.


    • Academy schools are motivated by results, they have little interest in taking children with special educational needs, and there are examples of academy schools persuading ‘difficult’ children to leave.


    • Academy trusts often have standard methods for all their schools, it can mean a business like approach to education that stifles the creativity of teachers and school leaders to create an individualistic local school.


Despite the longer list ‘against’ than ‘for’ academies, I just about come out in favour of an academy system. Our local authority system has too many flaws because councils don’t have budget to run schools well, too often they are poor leaders and don’t appoint great staff to run schools expertly. It also becomes harder for councils to find staff to run schools expertly in a competitive environment where academy trusts pay education experts more. So our two-kinds-of-school system puts the councils in a weak position. It’s all very well to say we want the council to run Local School High when it’s doing great and needs little management, but what happens when the school gets in trouble?

Council’s don’t have a great record at turning troubled schools into successful schools. This is possibly because the academies can pay more for education leaders who have better skills. It might also be argued that they run schools better as they use professionals instead of volunteer school governors.

However an academy system needs careful monitoring and the current system is set up badly. It needs a whole lot of good rules and checks in place to stop academy trusts gaming the system, avoiding pupils with poor results or special needs, and in some cases thinking more about money than pupil welfare. However there are some academy trusts that are run by great trusts, some use a co-operative model, and some set up by parents or charities to further specialist provision for dyslexia or special schools. The academy system means a bunch of parents or specialists can set up a school for children they really care about it. The council alternative is time and cash poor education staff creating a special school just because they have to. Great academies made by people who care should be encouraged.

How will this education shift affect Whitstable schools? Of the eight schools in town only one is already an academy. St.Mary’s Primary School is part of the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership, an academy sponsor overseeing many local Catholic schools. Church schools are a special case and I think Endowed may find a partnership with other CofE schools to form an academy.

It is hard to predict what will happen with the rest… Whitstable Junior, Swalecliffe, Westmeads, and Joy Lane are the sort of schools that are hit hardest by this change. They are all highly rated schools with good community links. They don’t need this, it offers no benefits to them at all. Their governors must be fuming about needing to give away their school, while not even necessarily retaining control of the governance. I think the best bet may be to club together, anyone for a Whitstable Schools Trust? Or KCC appear to be in the process of forming an academy trust, if this happens they may involve local governors and offer a ‘no change’ system that keeps most of the control with the school. This is a best of both worlds approach, will people who want council run schools be appeased by KCC academy trust?

I don’t know what to say about CCW, this is the school I care about the most. This new legislation makes no difference to its decision to join Swale Academies Trust. KCC pressed for the move, the council management didn’t fix the school’s problems and an academy is the answer. This is after all what the system is all about. Kent County Council’s cabinet minister for schools may have spoken out against the forced academy change, but KCC had no method to help CCW other than to suggest an academy.

Despite a lot of protests I think the academy laws will go through. If you want to read more on either side I can recommend this article for the arguments against, and this article for the arguments in favour of academisation.

I am still, just about, hanging on to a a belief that academies can be a good thing. There is a huge and vital need to fix academy trust’s lack of accountability, the failure to recognise parents and local communities, and the greed of their management. I wouldn’t want them to expand until these problems are fixed, and I think expanding rapidly may make these problems worse.

And all this talk about school management is a distraction and changes little. Bad council schools are bad schools, bad academy schools are bad schools. I wish we would focus on the education issues that matter most, like a lack of teachers and a mad results culture, instead we’re faffing with who pays the bills and manages the teachers and it’s such a small part of the problem.










So our local school is now managed by Swale Academies Trust…

049Education is a big part of my life these days, the Kent Education Network is going from strength to strength and we’ll be announcing a website and membership soon. Closer to home my daughter’s school, Community College Whitstable, is going through troubled times. It achieved poor GCSE results, was given a ‘Requires Improvement’  Ofsted and its head has been sent on ‘gardening leave.’

Our current government believes that schools are better managed by academy trusts rather than by local authorities. I cautiously support this idea, mostly because there seemed little drive for overall improvement with most council run schools.

Obviously there are a mix of good and bad local authority schools,  and clearly there are a mix of good and bad academy schools too. Many academy trusts are created by highly experienced education managers and have fine leadership teams; the idea is that these excellent trusts take on more schools and spread their good work. The reality is that there are not enough excellent academy chains, and academy trust’s leadership varies. It is also obvious that changing the managing body controlling a school is not a magic fix for every school problem.

The academy program has grown too fast because our government wants all schools to be run by academies as soon as possible. Academy trusts have been created to meet that need, and most want to expand rapidly. They are supposed to be not-for-profit bodies, charitable trusts with the best interests of schools at their heart. Yet if their motivation was purely to do a good job, wouldn’t you think they’d just run three or four schools expertly and settle for that? Few do this, most are keen to grow and acquire more schools year on year. There are financial incentives for this rapid growth. They are certainly not businesses in the true sense, but I worry that the motivation for most academy leaders is a desire to have a profitable chain of schools, achieve bonuses for their teams, and increase salaries. Is this really in the interests of our school children?

There has been plenty in the news recently about the financial side of the academies movement. UK school academies currently hold £111 million in cash reserves, they spend  £8.5 million a year on consultants, and their CEO’s pay is causing a few eyebrows to raise, as you’ll see in this article.

I don’t mind our schools being run by businesses and well paid management if those executives are doing a good job. The worry is that many academies show average leadership not inspirational leadership. The majority of schools that are turned into academies don’t show much change in their results. The system works if academy chains take on new schools and improve them. No one minds if the system adds a new financial layer to schooling if it’s giving us better education. The problem is that an academy chain can take on a new school, take the money and achieve average results. There is no going back if the results are disappointing or the academy’s decisions are unpopular. Parents or governors can not claim a local school back from an academy if it turns out that academy was a poor choice.

Academy bosses get six figure salaries for the work of making good decisions and caring for a school. All while unpaid, volunteer school governors make decisions, do a great job and care more about their schools. I think payment for school governors is long overdue. Our unpaid governors have to make big decisions and hand over schools to highly paid multi-million turnover academy trusts. I do trust school governors to make good decisions, but we must trust them, because the future direction of our community’s schools are entirely in their hands.

downloadThe governors of Community College Whitstable sent a letter to parents last week to say that the school will become part of Swale Academies Trust. It has happened whether we like it or not. There is no consultation at all, this is a done deal. The theory behind this approach is that a consultation would unsettle an already troubled school. I am trying to be sympathetic to that view, and it would clearly not work to have a bunch of uninformed parents choosing their preferred  academy trust… But still. It hurts that the school I chose for my daughter can be given away to an unknown management team. These new school leaders might veer the school in a different direction, or change it in ways I do not like.

So who are the school’s new management? It seems Swale Academies Trust are a Kent based Academy Trust managing 4 primary and 3 secondary schools, 4 nurseries, 1 sports centre and a skills centre. They are listed on the Kent  Independent Education Advice schools website as being, ‘much favoured by Kent County Council.’ This is clear, as they seem to have been asked to step in by KCC when many of their schools received poor  Ofsted ratings.

They took over at Chaucer Technology School, then the decision was made to close the school. They took over Pent Valley Technology College at Easter 2015, although this is now also going to close.  They also took over the North School, Ashford, after it was placed in Special Measures in March 2014. The school received a ‘Requires Improvement’ rating in June 2015, so that is some improvement. The academy chain is about to formally take on the North School.

Despite their hit and miss record with these troubled schools I have no fears that CCW will close. However their involvement with these schools doesn’t show an inspiring track record of change. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, as the secondary schools that the chain have manged for many years seem to be doing fine. Westlands received an ‘Outstanding’ Ofted rating, while Meopham School and Sittingbourne Community College achieved Ofsted  ‘Goods.’

Reading about their schools makes me think they are a fair to middling academy chain, with discipline as a priority, and a principle who is not afraid to rustle a few feathers as he brings about change. I was told there was a teacher’s strike at one of the chain’s schools due to demands put on teachers (I haven’t found evidence of this so it may be only rumour.) I know the North School was in the news because they changed uniform twice in three years and sent 60 children home for being inappropriately dressed. On another occasion 40 pupils were excluded for behaviour issues. It seems like the chain’s ethos is ‘let’s be strict.’ I don’t mind that, but it seems hard to get a handle on any more to their educational vision.

I had a look at the Swale Aademies Trust finances, and the academy boss is paid £185,000 a year, with other trustees on decent salaries. I am sure this is just the going rate, and most top head teachers are well paid. I looked because academy bosses pay is current news, and because I was curious about the cash they received for taking on two KCC schools for six months before they were closed.


Swale Academies Trust are certainly an ambitious academy chain with a varied portfolio of education establishments. They have expenditure of 29 million annually and fixed assets of 50 million. And remember that this is just a small multi-academy trust! Education is certainly big business, even when it is ‘charitable trust’ business.

I guess the proof of whether this is a good decision for CCW will come if Swale Academies Trust do what they are here to do – we need them to manage changes that lead to significant improvements at CCW.

There is nothing we can do about this academy trust taking over our local school, but there is a meeting on March 22nd to meet the directors and ask questions. I’ll be there with my hand raised and a list of tough questions. I won’t ask about the uniform or whether academies are good value for money…  I will ask what happened with the other three failing schools they took on, and what they’re going to do to make CCW a school we can be proud of.

There is more in you than you think

stichtag_juni106_v-ARDFotogalerieI have a picture of Kurt Hahn on my desk. It’s not a pretty image like the other pictures in my office; he’s an old man, rather gaunt. He’s not a famous man. He didn’t write books, he rarely bothered with speeches. He is my hero.

I am sure that he had flaws,  and he never married which leads to debate about his personal life (that doesn’t interest me one bit.) All he did was have an idea, believe in it, and take it into the world and try it.

He is listed on Wikipedea as ‘an educator’. He was the founder of Gordonstoune school, the Duke of Edinburgh Awards, the Outward Bounds movement, and the inspiration for educational movements such as United World Colleges, Round Square and Expeditionary Learning schools.

He believed that young people, when challenged, find something in themselves to become better people. He said, You can say to young people, “you must volunteer.” That is the devil. And you can tell them, “you are needed” that hardly ever fails.

He believed, more than fifty years ago, “As affluence has increased, the young person’s environment has become impoverished for responsible and productive action, or any action that tests and develops him.” 

GREAT-BRITAIN. Scotland. Gordonstoun College. 1962.
GREAT-BRITAIN. Scotland. Gordonstoun College. 1962.

He found a  mad solution with a school where teenagers had to operate the town’s fire station!

I could tell you so much more about Kurt Hahn, but the bit that got me, was that he believed in experience as a teacher. Sitting in a classroom learning stuff is important; but I know that all the most important things in life I’ve learned by trying stuff that scares me.

I got a promotion, ‘I can’t manage people’ I thought, then I had to do it and I coped. I set up a writing group, ‘No one will come.’ They came, I dealt with it. ‘This will be a disaster.’ It was, I coped.’I should try again.’ I did, it was a good decision. ‘I can do this.’ I could, and  it worked and I went on to bigger things.

I learned none of this at school. Could I lead and organise and create things at fifteen? I don’t know, no one ever tested me.

I could bore you with Kurt Hahn quotes all day. Here’s another one, ‘A schoolmaster made the remark, ‘I have no faith in this boy.’ He said, ‘Then you have no right to educate him.’

Schools are nothing like the schools Kurt Hahn wanted. And instead of just theorising or dreaming he tried things in the schools he created, and he achieved things with the lives he influenced.

I feel strongly that if someone had asked me aged fifteen, “What do you want to do?” I’d have said, “Write.” And just maybe they’d have helped me to set up a writing group… That would have been better in so many ways than anything I learned in geography.

And instead a few years ago I set up my writing group, and it was awful. I had no confidence to lead it at all, I messed up, I made a bad writing group. Somehow I got through that and I learned, and I now organise an amazing group that is fun, it works, and it’s so big it meets twice a month, and we’re publishing a book next May. Imagine if I’d learned I could do all this aged fifteen? Maybe now I’d have a worldwide writing group organisation, and we would have published dozens of writing group books!

This is, of course, a flippant point. But still. I learned that I could manage people, and organise things, and make stuff happen in my thirties and forties. Is this because I needed to be this old to learn to do all this stuff? Or did I have this ability, but school only taught me geography and never tested if I could create things, and manage people, and be responsible?

When people care they push themselves, and when people push themselves they learn.

So here I am, with a love for a long dead german educator. I’m pleased that his ideals are there in practise in schools in America. Expeditionary Schools sound like amazing places,  it’s not only exams on the agenda, it’s self discovery, curiosity, responsibility, learning from failure, competition, reflection and service…I’ve thought of trying to set up a free school in this model in Canterbury. I may yet. I’m pleased the Duke of Edinburgh and Outward bounds stuff exists in this country, although I think challenge doesn’t need to only translate to the physical things…

So I have a hero, and I know the lesson he would teach is to keep on trying the difficult stuff. Experience and challenge is always the best teacher. I tell my kids there is a bravery muscle, it gets stronger if you use it. And my next step with the difficult stuff is deciding how to translate my enthusiasm for this long dead german educator into something that makes an impact in the world in some way.





Escape from School!

It’s worrying times for Community College Whitstable, their head suspended, disappointing GCSE results, and a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted.

I’ve spoken about the problems in Kent’s non-selective secondary schools before. My daughter went to Chaucer Technology School, but we were unhappy with the school and moved her just before it went into special measures. She’s now landed in yet another troubled school.

Today I volunteered for a mentoring program  that works with children at the school. I’ve been interested in working with secondary school children for a while, I’ve even considered being a teacher but I don’t think I’m quite cut out for that. I like the kind of education that encourages a love of learning. I hope a mentoring program will be more about individual children than lots of classroom facts.

I also have a love of games and community events. I set up the Museum of Fun partly because it lets me create interesting stuff. It shouldn’t really tie into secondary schools, but with the way my mind works it does.

escape-room-prDo you know about escape games? They lock a bunch of people in a space and there’s a time element, you have to solve the clues to get out. There’s a big new one based on the Crystal Maze coming to London soon.

So how do escape games, community events, and a failing school fit together?  Well I’d love to create an escape game for Museum of Fun. I was thinking of a Whitstable venue, and think the best one would be Community College Whitstable.

So I had the mad idea of creating an ‘Escape from School’ game. Perhaps the story is that an evil teacher has locked people in the school, and people playing the game need to solve clues based on science, history, or maths puzzles..? Plus it could have people dressed up as zombies. Everyone loves zombies!

Perhaps I could see if any kids at the school want to help me create it? Perhaps it will add a little fun to their lessons…

mhef9k4af6siwspmpnxsI will see how it goes with the mentor program first.

I am a very amateur school helper, plus kids these days haven’t even heard of the Crystal Maze.