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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Forced academisation is as brutal as it sounds

academyThe academy trust taking over my daughter’s school have a slick presentation. A room of parents listen and nod as men in suits explain their plans to transform the school using a mix of firm discipline, rules about exercise books, and other schemes to grind out results and please Ofsted. The school is in trouble and we know a change is needed. This is the only option and everybody wants to be convinced it is the right plan.

The school achieved poor GCSE results and Kent County Council advised the governors to hand the school to this academy chain. In just two weeks this academy trust will move in and run the school as ‘school improvement advisers,’ when the paperwork is done our school becomes their school. This has been decided before parents know anything. A token consultation will take place but we know it can’t change anything.

We try to get a feel for our school’s new owners.

We are told behaviour will be drastically improved. This trust’s schools have a hard line no-excuses policy.  Detentions for infractions, high standards and tough rules. Children will be excluded, those ‘troublemakers spoiling it for the rest’

Exercise books are to become the ‘teacher’s CV.’ Tidy books full of work will show parents how much their children are learning. The learning process involves effective written exercises that lead to satisfactory exam outcomes.

To achieve the high level of discipline and impressively marked exercise books the right kind of teachers are needed. Teachers will be assessed and encouraged to improve. If they don’t wish to improve they will find a school where they are ‘more suited.’

In a troubled non-selective school in Kent this confident pitch from the trust’s principle is welcomed by parents. Our school had a poor reputation and disappointing results. The school has no permanent head and a shortage of quality teaching staff. Something has to happen; it has to be this.

A few days ago the school’s white paper told us every school would become an academy. I wondered if schools throughout the land would organise meetings like this. Meetings where executives who know nothing about a local school pitch their confident improvement plans. Our school needs a change, I accept that.  But what about the schools that are working fine? Maybe some schools don’t need a head office and an improvement plan.

I thought of my son’s primary school with its painted pictures and teachers succeeding with an inspired mix of silliness and learning. I couldn’t imagine a business education leader improving this lovely school. The school worked, all it needed was to be left alone to get on with things.

I don’t think education experts can agree on the magic formula to create a  successful school. So why does every academy trust boast that they have the magic formula? It feels like smoke and mirrors.

The question and answer part of the school meeting was managed carefully. I expected hands raised and a mike passed around, but instead there were printed cards for parent’s questions. It was just as efficient as the seat allocation system.  I was placed at table 6 which meant I couldn’t sit with my friends. It felt like the academy trust takeover  meeting used techniques for conflict avoidance.

Table 6 discussed the questions we should write on the cards. The parents at my table were mostly positive. “They mean business.” “We need discipline.” “It must be hard to get good teachers, all the best teachers want  to teach at the grammar schools.” “Well kids behave in the grammar schools.”

We had been told what to think already. A school governor told us the trust takeover was the best thing. A lady from the council education department told us this academy chain was right for the job.

We were told academies were the way forward, the white paper was mentioned, we were told this was inevitable. Our school was some kind of early adopter of a fine new academy vision. No one cheered this news.

I was confused by the presence of the council officer. Our council‘s education leader was mentioned in the Guardian this week, he said the white paper was unnecessary and academies were not the answer for every school. So did the council want to keep its own schools? They didn’t want our school. Maybe councils only wanted successful schools? Perhaps they only wanted the schools with good Ofsted ratings. I didn’t see any evidence the council cared much, I didn’t know what the council  had done to look out for our school. Maybe academies were the best answer after all.

Pent_Valley_Technology_CollegeI learned something of our council’s work with failing schools in the meeting. Kent County Council gave Chaucer Technology school to Swale Academies Trust when it was in trouble, then a few months later they said the school must close. Pent Valley Technology College was in trouble next, the council hired Swale Academies Trust to improve it, then a few months later told parents the school must close. The parents were hurt by this decision because the council say they will open a new school in a few years. North School in Ashford was troubled too, so the council hired Swale Academies Trust again here, and soon the school will join this academy chain.

My school is in trouble now, so what do the council do? Yes, it’s Swale Academies Trust.

I learned that Swale Academies Trust offer a school improvement service. I know that when they take on a troubled school the trust sometimes hire a school consultation company called Richard Slee Ltd. This consultation company is  owned by one of its directors. I don’t understand the modern business of education,  but I know academy trusts hire their own director’s companies and oddly that’s allowed.

A member of staff visited table 6. This was our a chance to chat with someone on the school’s side.

“Are the teachers happy with this?” a mum asked. I’d heard rumours from teacher friends that this academy trust makes tough demands of its teachers. “The teacher’s want strong leadership at the school,” was her reply.

I could see she was in favour of this change, and how could we argue? We were a school no one wanted. We were a school in trouble, no permanent head, too many supply staff and poor GCSE results. It all made sense. Even the silly exercise book thing and the tough behaviour rules.

It was all so completely sensible that I was at a loss to know why it made me feel so sad. I scribbled a couple of questions. How would we find a new head? Would the governors be allowed to stay?

The questions were taken to the front of the hall where the academy boss scanned the large pile and selected a few.

“Can we keep the uniform?”

I’d read a news story about one of the trust’s schools changing uniform twice in three years. I clearly wasn’t the only one to Google things before the meeting.

“Oh yeah, we change uniform sometimes, but if you like this one that’s no problem.” We felt grateful. It felt like a small victory. They let us keep our uniform!

“Are children allowed to go to the toilets if they need it in a lesson?”

A national newspaper reported on this trust’s policy that children couldn’t leave classrooms if they needed a pee in lessons. We got a jokey reply and, “Don’t believe everything you read in the papers.”

Someone asked how long it would take to turn the school around. The answer was, “These things take time.”

We were invited to visit the trust’s other schools. I doubted any one would take up this offer. There seems little point. I expect if I do I will see good discipline, and I’m sure someone will show me the exercise books. Perhaps I could check if the toilet doors were locked?

There was a question on the trusts plans to take on other schools. They mentioned their school improvement business, and taking on another school in a neighbouring county.

I suddenly had a question that I wanted to ask. It was too late, but it mattered.

What is your motivation?

Why do you care about our local school?

Pointless questions. The answer was clear as soon as the question came to me.

The motivation was money or business growth, or perhaps economies of scale. They cared about our local school for  reasons to do with these things.

All the parents in that room had a personal reason to care, all the teachers and the governors had a genuine motivation to see the pupils do well. To the men in suits at head office the pupils were numbers on a performance graph. I am sure they have professional pride in the school’s success. I know they want GCSE passes and an Ofsted ‘good’, so maybe it’s irrelevant that the reasons are only financial. My daughter’s GCSE sucesss will make a good business case, but they will never know her name.

This is an organisation with a method that works. If you’re a Kent non-selective you have a tricky kind of school. Your pupils are less likely to get good exam results. Your poor results mean your school is likely to get a ‘requires improvement’  Ofsted rating. Your school has more disadvantaged pupils and pupils with Special Educational Needs. None of this matters to Ofsted who judge the school by the same standards as any school in leafy Islington where an au pair helps with a child’s French homework, and parents pay for after-school maths help. On top of this we are a non-selective school, so we are full of pupils who were told they were bad at exams by a council-run test. Maybe those pupils don’t feel motivated to work hard to get a a C in a GCSE exam?

A method to succeed with this tricky kind of school is probably tough discipline and rote learning. I am sure Ofsted are impressed by homework in books, disciplined pupils and micro-managed teachers following a plan.

I believe my daughter’s new school leaders will do the job. A satisfactory number of pupils will achieve 5 GCSE passes soon, and we will please Ofsted in a couple of years. The children will enjoy a stable education and results to show for it.

The method seems so good.

The classroom troublemakers will be silenced, they will reform their ways, call in sick, move schools,or find themselves excluded.

The teachers will accept the workload demanded, work to the methods set, or move to new schools. I hope our best teachers like this trust’s system.

The exercise books will be full of facts memorised and tested, and it will ensure GCSE pass marks.

Everything is fine, except for the fact that our school has become an exam factory.

tumblr_ns6sebujv91snt1oto1_1280Anyone who believes education should involve enthusiasm, relationships, after school clubs, community, laughter, creativity, individuality, and all the personal, human, emotional bits of life will despair. This academy trust, like many others, farms our children to produce GCSE scores to make neat  graphs in a business report.

We all want pupils achieving 5 GCSE passes, and an Ofsted ‘Good’, but I don’t want that at any price.

I don’t want teachers too tired to run after school clubs. I don’t want children claiming headaches to avoid a place where a forgotten pencil means a mark on a report card. I don’t want to see teenagers on medication because of a pressure to behave, revise, and have perfect exercise books.

I remember my school with affection. I remember clubs week and learning to invent board games. I remember lending computer magazines to Mr.Green and discussing tips for coding. I remember making upside down cake, a recipe I still make for my family today. I remember my friends giving me the bumps on my birthday. I remember the head teacher’s talk about awareness. I remember the smart way I avoided PE but still stayed within the school rules. I remember selling sweets and making a profit for charity. I remember the day the pupils had a strike.  I remember being nervous in the school play but managing public speaking. I don’t actually remember my results in GCSE geography.

I believe there are many things about education that are not measurable and that will not show in any league table or on any graph.

This academy trust will grow and gather more schools under its belt, because all good businesses like to expand. I believe there is a danger that their method will be rolled out and implemented by people who don’t fully understand the system. It may become less effective. I think there might be cases where a memo passed from head office to many schools might get a bit ‘chinese whispers’ and be interpreted incorrectly. Maybe something about a rules change, and maybe that will lead to a school exclusion that changes a child’s life.

Maybe the academy trust’s methods works fine, but then the Department for Education will change exam methods, and then a one-trick-pony results-focused chain of schools will all fail because they can’t adapt. Maybe this could lead to children failing exams and not reaching university.

I don’t need to worry about wholesale academy changes, but I do worry. I don’t need to think about this academy trust, it’s too late so there’s no point. But this is the only secondary school in my town.  I care about my town and I care about it’s school. I know that something has to be done to fix things. This is it. Here’s hoping.

I don’t think exams results alone make a school. I don’t think proof of work in an exercise book is really proof of learning. I don’t even think a ‘good’ Ofsted  rating always means a good school.

Academy trusts are supposed to spread ‘best practice for education.’ I think some trusts are cloning an education system that isn’t a kind of education I admire.

So our local school now belongs to an education business. Who do I blame?

I don’t blame the school’s governors. They had a non-selective school  with poor results and a head they couldn’t replace. They looked to the council for guidance.

I don’t blame the council. The council have little money for school improvement, so they offload troubled schools to ‘expert’ academy trusts.

I don’t blame the academy trusts. Academy trusts fit the needs of a school system that demands results. The education business needs efficiency and money often drives change.

I don’t blame the money men of education, our school’s exam results are the  KPI target set by our government.

I don’t even blame the government. The government creates policies people want. Parents like exam results and league tables, so the government focuses on these academic targets.

Of course I don’t blame the parents. We want the best for our children. But we certainly don’t want academies everywhere.  I hope the fight against this government white paper will focus parent’s on thinking on the reasons why.

Academy trusts are businesses, but schools are not. The personal, human, laughter, painted pictures, chat with the governors, unstressed teachers, side of education, matters as much as numbers on a spreadsheet. The answer to an exam culture is exam factory academy trusts. We need to say that we don’t want KPI we want relationships with our schools.

It’s too late for my school. The meeting closed. The people went home. The days of a friendly local school are gone. Maybe in a few years we will plug  the children into Swale Academy  Trust learning machines until our children become fully educated products of the system.

If your school is not yet an academy, take your time and choose your new management carefully. Ask your academy trust for their policy on children’s happiness. Ask if they believe in love of learning. If they tell you to sit at table 6, tell them you won’t. Tell them you’re going to sit with your friends because you believe in people not numbers.

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.

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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.

Consultation, community engagement and learning from the best

I am impressed with the new members at Canterbury City Council, although I am biased as my husband is one of the councillors! I blogged recently about their plan to seek money making ideas from the community in the ‘Ideas Lab.’ This seems like a clever way to get the public on board, with members of the community working with the council in a shared aim to raise cash for our district.

Infrastructure and ParkingIn general the new council seem keen to inform the public early, and involve them in consultations. A clue to this change was the announcement of car park and transport plans in a meeting for community groups. This was clearly an attempt to tell the people who matter first. Feedback on this plan is now being sought, and is one of many consultations underway. There’s a public meeting in Whitstable on Friday 22nd at  7pm at the Umbrella Centre if you want to find out more, you’ll find the details here.

The consultation that interests me most is the proposal for the 2016-2020 Corporate Plan. This document sets out the aims and priorities for the council’s term in office.

At first glance the council objectives give little reason for comment. The 10 aims are broad and positive. They include:

  • Working to achieve enough high quality housing to meet everyone’s needs
  • Contributing to the good health of local people
  • Focussing our community support on those in most need of it
  • Supporting business growth  etc.

The temptation is to say, all very good, and leave the council to get on with things… Only I’m not going to leave them to get on with things! We’re being asked for an opinion, and this is important stuff. It feels like an opportunity to get involved and push our council to work a little harder. I think they’re doing a good job, but a consultation is an opportunity to influence them to do a great job.

I’ll be honest. I think the council has a trust problem. Many of my friends are suspicious of local government, which is odd when you see what they’re about listed in 10 super-positive aims and objectives. Everyone would agree these things are worthwhile and important. Only somewhere in the detail, or the delivery, something goes wrong and people become suspicious, or in some cases even angry.

This is a consultation on a four year plan with broad aims that look rather nice. So I suspect the council are not going to get a lot of comments or suggestions… The consultation involves a survey with comments.

So there is, ‘Focussing our community support on those in most need of it’

We can say on a 5 point scale whether we strongly agree with this point, are somewhere in the middle, or strongly disagree. It would be an odd person to check the strongly disagree box! But perhaps this exercise will be useful to councillors, and lead to some feedback on what matters most to people in the district?

There are boxes on each point for comments, but I’d imagine if you cared about any issue in particular and had a lot to say it might be better to write to a councillor or council department.

This exercise even has some potential to lead to lack of trust again. There’s nothing worse than someone saying, “What do you think of this?” And you tell them and they ignore you. Of course the council can’t act on anyone’s whim, but what if we see the results published and 70% of people think ‘Inspiring people through a wide range of cultural activities and opportunities’ is not very important..? Will those comments and points really be heeded and plans changed?

I think the council is better for public involvement. But (massive BUT) this only works if there is a genuine desire to act on those comments.

So I am going to give my consultation reply to one small aspect of the corporate plan. The bit that I’m going to focus on this:

Principle 1 We will make clear and transparent decisions having been informed by local opinion We will do this by ensuring that:

a) we will consult only where there is a genuine opportunity to influence the decision

b) when consultation is appropriate, it should take place at a stage in the process when it can genuinely influence the outcome

c) sufficient information is provided to allow consultees to provide an informed response

d) the consultation will be open and accessible to all relevant interested parties

e) the results of the consultation will be taken into account and made publicly available

I’m going to write a consultation comment about the council consultation strategy..! That’s all a bit meta, isn’t it!? But I am worried that this consultation does not live up to the high aims of points a) and  b).

I agree with ‘consulting where consultations can make a difference’ but I think this point has a danger of shutting down communication. I would say that communicating information is important even when the public can’t have a say.

An analogy used in a recent Facebook discussion was about neighbours extending a house. If the neighbours chat about the builders work they may find a compromise to make a difficult situation work better (consultation.) The other side to this is that simply knocking on the door and saying ‘this building work is happening’ (no consultation, just good information) can also make things run smoothly. So I would suggest that consultation and sharing knowledge are both parts of a good relationship between public and council. I think good communication matters and should be somewhere in this document too.

I am trying to work out the thinking behind this consultation principle. I want the council to seek comments because they feel decisions can sometime be better with public involvement, but it is clear that they are seeking comments because their decisions are better when they are informed by the public.

It’s a subtle difference, but it effects the strategy. It supports a one-sided approach of choosing cases where they may listen to the public and choose to be guided by them. It doesn’t encourage any public involvement to guide the council. They are listening not discussing. So I guess that is why there is no mention of communication… It is not a very new strategy to do  it this way. Consultation may be number 1 on the list but this is an average sort of consultation policy. But then again, I wonder with things like Ideas Test and those public meetings, do these things suggest they may want a little more that this?

I think this bit is also interesting:

Principle 2 We will encourage local individuals and communities to become self-reliant and actively engaged in improving facilities, activities and the environment.

I think a council who wished to communicate and engage with the public might find good ways to connect to people and groups who want to make a difference. I think a smart council might even lay some foundations for doing that. I liked this post about this here.

I think there may be people in our communities with the skills who might help with all sorts of council things from community centres to rubbish problems, and I think the council must have many services they need help with. So how do they put the two things together? I think there could be some innovative ways, all tied in with good communication and telling people what is needed.

I am being picky but I also want to point out that the first two principles are not very joined up with this bit:

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Consultation is about people, encouraging self-reliant communities to improve things is about people…

I assume they are not considering  the consultation and working together bit here because they’re seen as minority interest. I think the council are missing a trick. They are saying ‘cultural activities and opportunities’ can inspire people. They are probably spending wodges of budget on this inspiration..! But I would argue that community involvement and engagement with neighbourhood improvements can inspire people too. Only this doesn’t cost anything, and it can save the council money.

I get a kick out of going to the Beaney and learning about history. I get a kick out of thinking of ideas too, and being listened to when I’m having a say on things that matter, and I love learning about improvements to our town like new sports centres and changes at the harbour… It’s not Beaney history, but it’s another sort of learning and inspiration. I think people can often be inspired by communication of neat improvements to our town, and I think people can also be inspired by opportunities to take pride in their community and get involved in improving it.

I found one council who had this line on their corporate plan.

Create a well connected and engaged city.

The measurement points included, opportunities to have a say, community engagement/volunteering, numbers participating in consultation activities, civic engagement in decision making.

I liked this. So I would put something like this in my council wishlist.

I also took part in a central government consultation recently and looked at the policy document about the principles of the consultation process.

This bit was very clear. ‘Consultations should have a purpose Do not consult for the sake of it…. Do not ask questions about issues on which you already have a final view.

The consultation I took part in involved a new law I disagreed with. But the thing is, I was told very clearly that this thing had been decided already. I was told that the consultation was only on two small bits of the implementation process.

What do you think I did?

I worked my hardest to make these two things as good as they could be.

Strangely I wasn’t angry, I understood the big law wasn’t my decision to make, but I could  influence this situation I cared about. I only had a say on one very narrow thing, but this tiny aspect was something I thought I could change. I think this was an excellent consultation, because I felt empowered by commenting on the one thing that I could certainly influence. This felt much better that writing lots and lots of points about something I had no clear hope of doing anything about.

I’m afraid this corporate plan consultation is not very guided. I don’t know what I can influence,  I have my doubts that anyone can influence anything. The point above says ‘we will consult only where there is a genuine opportunity to influence the decision.’ But it doesn’t tell me which bits are open to negotiation here, or how we might change things in the corporate plan, or in what sort of way.

It is not a bad consultation, but it’s certainly not a consultation that asks a very clear question. When the central government consultation asked a question I felt ‘needed’, they were not asking people for the sake of it, they told us exactly what we could do and I trusted I would be heard.

But this consultation is check box scores and a few comments from the public, and councillors may just latch on to ideas… Maybe. We don’t really know, it feels vague. Even thinking about it is putting me off bothering…

Also I somehow need to turn this blog post into something to actually submit!

I think I will summarise it all as :

The council should commit to a clear plan for communication, and it should be early and honest communication.

Communities want to be engaged, so the council should seek ways to get people involved and tell them very specifically what is needed.

The council should learn from the best, steal the central government style of narrow consultation rather than a free for all. That also means giving people clear power to actually influence decisions, even if it is only in very small ways.

Central government also give the right amount of information. Not many people read a long document or presentation, but a recent Education Select Comittee gave 3 bullet points of information, one question, and a web forum. That is a very public friendly consultation.

I feel the council do not properly use a resource of a bunch of people who passionately care about their community. They should consider the benefits of actively engaging them, look at places that do it well, and consider measuring themselves against a high benchmark of being the best council for a positive relationship with the public. People like this stuff as much as they like the Beaney!

I worry that Canterbury district resident’s care for our community often manifests itself in hours of free time spent in protest about council things that have gone wrong. This involves people debating controversial issues with friends, getting petitions together, sharing social media news, or writing to the papers. The subtext to this is not only that the people care, but that they give free time willingly to these issues they care about. Can’t we find a way to harness exactly that same motivation, and these hours of our community’s hobby-time in a more positive and productive way? People want to make a difference, we give them no way to make a difference, and their time is spent feeling frustrated and patching up the perceived problems.

I’ve written an awful lot on just a couple of presentation slide points. There you go,  I’m yet another care-about-my-community type, wanting to do something and not sure if I’m usefully engaged..!.We’re a free resource and we like to help, maybe one day the council will accept brain power and caring alongside the council tax payments.

The corporate plan consultation runs until Friday January 22nd at 5pm, check it out, check those boxes and have your say here.

David Bowie’s education and the Sevenoaks grammar school annexe

bowie-school_3546112bDavid Bowie died on Sunday and we all mourned a creative genius; while some Twitter fans worried about whether or not he’d passed his 11-plus.

He went to a secondary modern school in Bromley, and much of Twitter claimed he was bright enough to pass the 11-plus test and could have chosen the better grammar school. Others said he’d failed the test and his mum cried when he was forced to go to the lesser school.

It seems bizarre that people care about an intelligence test David Bowie took at ten years old. David Bowie was a genius in so many ways, but this test is often used to judge people. The 11-plus is divisive by nature, a pass = clever, a fail = not smart enough. Most Twitter fans wanted to label their hero with a pass because that makes him a clever rebel who chose the lesser school. A few talked about a fail, but if they did the story was that he proved educational aspirations meaningless.  The truth is that life is never so black and white, but of course the 11-plus has no shades of grey.

The judgements about David Bowie reminded me why I dislike the 11-plus so much. It’s a test that labels our children too soon, often inaccurately, and I believe grammar schools are divisive. I came across the David Bowie debate accidentally when searching for news of the grammar school annexe to be built in Sevenoaks.

11694816-largeThe Weald of Kent grammar school annexe is controversial, because although Kent divides children with the 11-plus no new grammar schools are allowed by law. Parents in Sevenoaks wanted a grammar school in their town so they started a campaign. It was a popular campaign because Sevenoaks has many grammar school fans. They hoped to get around the legal problem by asking Tonbridge’s  Weald of Kent grammar school to build an annex 9 miles away in their town. A school annexe is more usually in a field next door to a school,  not in a neighbouring town. Doing it this way is odd, but it’s the only legal way to create a grammar school in Sevenoaks.

Nicky Morgan the Secretary of State for Education had to review the application to accept that this was truly one school split over a distance, not two schools which would break the law. Her predecessor Michael Gove turned down the plan in 2013. The decision was finally approved last October and this week the 3 month deadline for a judicial review passed. It seems the Weald of Kent have won and  it’s likely the annexe will be built. The Comprehensive Future campaign group  claim they had no evidence to use in their case because the DfE and Kent County Council would not provide the school plans.

Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, criticised the lack of transparency. I think this information should be public too, I can’t really see why school plans should not be revealed. So I made a request for the plans in the most transparent way possible, on FOI site What Do They Know. This is one of my favourite sites because if I have an interest in something I like to see both sides of it. On this site everything is in the public domain, the questions asked, the replies from public bodies, the the data given. If you have an interest you can create an account and get updates by email when there are responses to requests.

I asked KCC for the plans, I asked the Department for Education for the plans, and I asked the Weald of Kent grammar school too. FOI responses are supposed to be within 20 days so there should be a response of some sort before February 10th. If the plans can’t be given then the reason for the refusal will be interesting.

Last Friday our new Kent education group met for the first time, sadly without one of our founding members.  And we were busy over the weekend. We sent out our first press release, we featured on BBC South East and we had our quotes in many Kent papers.

Our group wanted to present Kent’s side to the Sevenoaks annexe story. Of course I do have some sympathy for the parents in Sevenoaks who want a grammar school, but I see the bigger picture. This sets a legal precedent. Grammar schools are disallowed by law, but if each of the 134 remaining grammar schools opened a school ‘annexe’ ten miles away there would be 268 grammar schools, and then if each of those expanded again… You get the picture! This is a decision that effects everyone in the country because it circumvents a law, and I believe it to be a good law.

The pitch for this school was that children were travelling too far to reach grammar schools. I have sympathy for this point too, my daughter used to travel 10 miles to school each day, and will do so again in September. No one likes this kind of journey, but it was our own decision and we chose her school knowing it meant a bus ride. Such journeys are common in grammar school Kent. And of course Sevenoaks children could go to local secondary schools too, but grammar schools have more appeal to parents.

Grammar schools are popular to a certain kind of parent, and there are many who supported this campaign,  but laws are there for a reason. If you feel that a law is wrong then I think it is better to try to change the law and not attempt to find a route around it. The first lesson this school is teaching children is that it’s okay to try to dodge a very clear point of law.

The 11-plus is often described with mention of sheep and goats, but ducks come into this too! The Sevenoaks annexe fails the Duck Test (maybe Nicky Morgan doesn’t know about the Duck Test?) The Duck Test goes… ‘If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck.’

The Sevenoaks school plan doesn’t look like a school annexe, it doesn’t work like a school annexe, and it wasn’t campaigned for as a school annexe. I’d say it’s probably not a school annexe, but is in fact a new school.

People in Kent don’t often stop to think why the rest of the country bans this type of school. There are a lot of reasons… Most of the country do not think it right to define children aged 10 in a test. The majority of people outside Kent do not feel two types of school, one ‘academic’ one ‘less academic’ are necessary or desirable. Most schools outside Kent are achieving comparable exam and university results without this system of education. Most people believe grammar schools are bad for social equality, including our own council who have just set up a commission to review social mobility in grammar schools. The Sutton Trust place most of Kent’s parliamentary constituencies in the bottom 5% for social mobility in secondary schools, despite the county doing just fine with primary school social mobility. The ‘bring back grammar schools’ campaign is almost as right wing as ‘bring back hanging’ and has only UKIP support. Even when politicians support academic selection they often state reservations about Kent’s 11-plus system, for instance Boris Johnson supports grammar schools but called  our 1950’s style system ‘brutal.’

None of these arguments  have any bearing on parents in Sevenoaks. They just like grammar schools and they want one in their town. They skipped all the debate, and they side stepped  the law.

So their plan worked it would seem… But did it? The school was designed to avoid journeys to schools, this was the whole point of having a Sevenoaks school. But the Weald of Kent grammar school was forced to put together a plan to prove it was really one school with a 9 mile gap between buildings… This plan means there needs to be travel between these buildings.

This is the odd contradiction, to prove that this really is one school the Weald of Kent has to use both sets of buildings every day. This means that children and parents will need to be ferried between these far away buildings, or else half the children will be taught in the Tonbridge building, and half in the Sevenoaks school building. So then half the Tonbridge children will have to travel to Sevenoaks, and half the Sevenoaks children will have to travel to Tonbridge… The expressed purpose of the school was to avoid children travelling, but this school is clearly causing children to travel. It doesn’t solve the problem at all. In fact the travelling may be worse and may be in lesson time.

Of course we can’t see the plans yet and say this, because they were not made public with those Freedom of Information requests. It will be interesting to see the plans when they are finally revealed.

Our new Kent education group has many members already and features heads, senior teachers, governors, former school inspectors and education researchers, and I’m the token parent! We decided to call ourselves a ‘think tank’ and use a research and evidence based focus. We agreed on the aims of the group, though the name was a different matter! We are Kent Education Network for now, but it’s possible this name will change.

I don’t know whether David Bowie passed or failed his 11-plus, or whether his mum really did cry because he didn’t attend an aspirational grammar school. Do you think he passed or failed?

Do you notice how your story of him changes a little when you consider each option? Each child who takes the 11-plus has their story changed by a test result. I told my daughter’s story in an article for Schools Week here.

Bromley, where David Bowie grew up, is still a grammar school area. The children in his old school made a tribute video, called ‘he is one of us.’ I like their style. To me it seems our children’s educational path should not lead to different stories with a test at 10. I think Kent needs to realise that the rest of the world has moved on from the 11-plus, and for very good reasons.

Richard Stainton – A tribute to a Whitstable campaigner who cared to make a difference

CYCrsR0WsAI_e-jRichard Stainton was found dead on Monday January 4th, and many in Whitstable will miss him. He was someone who chose to take an active part in all the things that mattered to him. It’s such a cliché to say ‘he tried to make a difference,’ I’m sure he would never have phrased it quite that way! It seemed more like a passionate caring for things, and that overspilled into action.

And he cared about so many things things!  Kent education, libraries and museums, Palestine, politics, peace, literature festivals, local issues, and anything big or small that improved our town. His actions involved letters to the paper, tweets to spread information, petitions, council meetings, organising events and demonstrations, and simply engaging people with his enthusiasm for any cause. I know his actions had impact, and he influenced many people who crossed his path.

There are many campaigners for causes, but it was his dignified style of his campaigning that I most respect. Many people who feel passionately about an issue get so wound up they think ‘I must be right’ and that tunnel vision alienates people. Richard and I disagreed on a few things, but I always felt he listened.  His style of debating was a patient presentation of facts, intelligent points, and a respect for the opposing view.

Our politics were poles apart but he did not write me off as ‘the enemy’ instead we got on with working on something we both felt needed attention. In recent weeks we were working on a new group to highlight issues with Kent’s eleven plus and grammar school selection.

Up until the day he died he was helping with our group’s first meeting. He sent an email to suggest a change in the agenda. It was a good point, and I changed the agenda. Now when that item comes up I will need to be strong and get on with things..! It feels awful that we meet tomorrow without him.

Our last email exchange was about the purpose of the group and the name to call it. I wish he’d answered my last email, I think we would have called the group anything he suggested! I know that he cared passionately about this cause, had a good mind, and a skill for getting attention for things. We will miss his campaigning skills enormously.

Richard’s take on education was certainly more ideological than mine, he wanted a grand plan, where perhaps I might accept practical improvements. However I will not forget his wishes and ideology, and I hope our group will turn into something he would be proud of.

He was a great one for letters to the paper, and often sent me scans of education debates in Kent papers. Yesterday I was given a quick deadline to write something about Kent education in influential magazine Schools Week. I got up at 6am, worked like crazy, and hit send at 9am on the hastily written, heartfelt, article. It was such a strange day, it started with pride and ended with sadness. Just a few hours later I heard Richard had died. He would have loved to know we got Kent education in that paper! I think he would have enjoyed scanning that one for his clippings collection.

I will do my best to do good work for this cause we both believe in. If anyone else has an interest in helping do get in touch. Though I think a better message is to  simply say if you care about something take one small action to do with it. Richard took many small actions, and that led to a fine life of acting on beliefs and getting things done. Our town will be a lesser place without his presence, and the Whitstable Gazette won’t be the same without his letters.

I’ll miss you Richard.

 

Let’s help the council make some money!

imageI spent years trying to persuade my company to set up an ideas and suggestions system.  Ten years ago there was a one room office, and I could send ideas to my boss. He would always look at my random suggestions (and he must have been fed up with getting them) but a few ideas did get implemented. Then the years passed and the company grew and grew… My boss was busy managing six offices  full of people, and my  line manager only liked ideas about our department. There was nowhere for general ‘this might work’ ideas. This drove me nuts!

Ideas are free, everyone has them, they can be bad, indifferent, good or amazing…  And do you know the best way to find a good idea? Have lots of ideas! Ideas are powerful, ideas are my favourite thing, and a good idea can change the world!

ideas (1)So I was happy when my company finally set up  ‘The Innovation Hub,’ an online place to harness the free resource of their thousands of idea-generating staff. I was even more thrilled when they realised how useful it was and invested millions in innovation.

So what’s all this got to do with the council? Well a small post on a Facebook page just got me really excited. The post used my favourite word ideas! Canterbury City Council (yes, a council!) have this thing called ‘Ideas Lab.’ It’s a workshop in January for people to help the council with income generating ideas.

ideasThe document detailing this starts with the problem to fix – and it’s a big one.

‘The ‘age of austerity’ has taken its toll on Canterbury, we have already had to find £4m of savings in the last four years. ‘

Uh oh. No one likes cuts! The presentation goes on…

‘The autumn statement made it clear that from 2020 we will not be able to rely on central grants to fund services – placing additional pressure on council budgets. ‘

Great, more cuts..!

‘It is our ambition to achieve financial self-sufficiency by finding alternative income, as well as potential savings, to offset the loss of this funding and maintain service delivery levels. To help achieve this goal, we will need to generate additional income by 2020.’

That s pretty sensible. So, how?

‘We are already challenging all our services to reduce costs, but it won’t be enough. So we are asking people to help us be more creative and generate ideas on how we could generate income. We are talking with a wide range of people including residents, businesses, parishes, community groups, partners and suppliers – everyone we do business with and for.’

So, the council has told us about a problem. I like honesty… They’ve said what they’re doing. Good…. And they’re open to offers of help. I like this best, because we are all in this together. We need important council services supported, and so of course I am willing to help.

Ideas to generate income are needed because these days councils can set up any money making enterprise.

I will admit I had reservations when I heard about the changes of the Localism Act, this act allows councils set up any business venture. If it’s a business that you or I could run, then the council is allowed to run it too. It seemed worrying to me that a council might set up a chain of hairdressers, and use its massive promotional power to create profitable council-run hairdressers… in the meantime putting every independent hairdresser out of business! So I think they do need to be careful with this income-generating plan. But that’s another reason why it’s good that they’re involving people from the start. There might be a hairdresser in the Ideas Lab meeting saying, ‘Hang on a minute..!’

The Ideas Lab will showcase ideas that other councils have used, and from what I’ve heard about all this there are some clever, and responsible, enterprises out there. There is no reason why the council couldn’t generate income and also  improve tourism, or generate income by adding features to services they already operate.

So, this is Canterbury Council realising that ordinary people might care to get involved. I don’t have any amazing ideas yet, but I’ll try to think of some. Even if the ideas people come up with aren’t much good I still think people will appreciate being involved in this way.

Council’s get an awful lot of bad press, but if they inform people what they’re doing and give them a say things work better. It’s like any relationship, it’s better with listening, involvement, and a date night once a month.*

It took ten years to get the Innovation Hub set up at work, it’s taken this new council just six months to realise that ideas matter. I read about the Ideas Lab on the excellent Campaign for Democracy in Canterbury District facebook page. If you’re interested in participating contact Haroon Awan on haroon.awan@canterbury.gov.uk. I believe there will also be ways to participate online.

I hope some bright ideas get found and we can help the council make some much needed cash.

 

 

*That might just be me.