Bum Deal – A permanent bruise on the backside of state education?

Bum Potato

Unsightly spud

COMMENT – A while ago, whilst working in the garden, I pulled enthusiastically at a deeply rooted plant.  It gave way much more quickly and easily than I had anticipated, causing me to plummet backwards on to a tree stump behind.  Lord, how we laughed!  It left me, however, with a huge and rather glorious bruise across my bottom.  You’ll be wondering why I’m telling you this and all I can say in response is, ‘Be patient’.  I do have a point.

On the same day, it was announced by a school known to me that the governors had decided to ‘consult’ on converting to academy status.  Regular readers are aware of my deep interest in these matters and so will be unsurprised that I noted the day in question:  it was ‘big bum-bruise day’.  I’ve followed the progress of both with concern.  Each day, I’ve got out of the shower, turned my back on the bathroom cabinet mirror and admired the glorious stain across my posterior; at first, it was blue-black, like the mark left on my aertex gym blouse when I spilled a bottle of Quink in my satchel in 1970.  Later, the colour changed, almost imperceptibly at first, and a wonderful array of new colours – brown, yellow, a sort of green – flourished there, as if the garden was trying to make amends for causing me such injury.

Similarly, there was quiet on the academy front at first; then, all of a sudden, letters appeared in the local papers from concerned parents who had realised that ‘consultation’ merely meant ‘We’re just biding our time until you’ve frothed at the mouth about it, then we’ll do it even if 100% of parents chain themselves to the school gates to try and stop us.’   At the same time that I was wondering why my bottom hurt more when I ran on the treadmill at the gym than it had when I’d first bounced heavily on the tree stump like a baby elephant tumbling after its first steps, governors of this school were signing the necessary paperwork for conversion faster than the printer could spit out the sheets.

The school now has academy status; my bruise – a mere shadow though it has become

– still adorns my rear.  Yes, a school can convert to academy status faster than a bruise on my bum can heal.

I want you all now to imagine the scene in a few months’ time.  The governors of the new academy have received their budget for the next financial year and realised that the riches they were promised have not materialised.  “What’s t’ flamin’ point of turning t’school into t’academy?” booms Councillor Obadiah Hecklethwaite, the ‘comedy Northern governor-in-residence’ at the newly re-named Finest Yorkshire Lard Academy,   “if we aren’t getting’ more brass?”   The headteacher , sorry, Principal –Alan Soldoutforcash – his eyes red-rimmed from sleepless nights worrying about how he can reconcile the massively reduced staffing budget with his vastly increased salary, nods his head in sycophantic agreement.  And after a long, heated and occasionally violent meeting, during which Councillor Hecklethwaite has to be restrained from pelting Alan with stale pikelets, the decision is reached:  the governors will seek to opt back into the local authority.

Alan rushes to ring the DfE special ‘Academies’ helpline, hovers over button 3 for ‘If you’re a principal whose governors are forming a lynching party’ and finally presses button 4 for ‘If you’ve finally realised you’ve been had by M. Gove’.  Putting his question to the suspiciously affable woman at the DfE, he listens carefully as she explains the situation, reading from her script:  “I’m sorry, Mr Soldoutforcash, you see the process for conversion from maintained school to Academy status is set out in the Academies Act 2010, but the Act does not set out a ‘reverse process’. “

Alan is momentarily, and for the first time in his short but stratospheric career, struck dumb.  Recovering himself, he stutters, “But surely, there must be a way of reverting to local authority status?  It was quick and enough to become an academy, after all.”

Alan swears he can hear Doris (the lady down the DfE) smiling and he will swear later, when he’s on his fifth double scotch, that it was the sort of smile you might see on the face of a large crocodile. “Well, yes –if your governing body gives the appropriate period of notice of intention to ….”

“Yes!”  Alan shouts, “We’ll give notice.  How much notice?  A term?  We converted to academy status in less than a term…”

Alan’s heart sinks as he hears Doris laugh merrily.  “Oh, bless you! You’d be forgiven for thinking it would be the same, but no…”

Back in the board room, the governors are busy hoovering up the finger buffet, but every face turns as the door opens slowly and Alan enters.

“Well?”  shouts Councillor Hecklethwaite?  “What’s t’procedure, lad and how soon can we be rid of it?  I never liked t’idea in t’first place, and I am unanimous in that.’  Noticing Alan’s uncharacteristic reticence to speak, the councillor uses his tried and trusted ‘poke him in the chest’ method of re-gaining Alan’s fullest attention.

“So, lad – spit it out.  Have we to wait a whole year?  I wouldn’t put it past them ferret-faced Tories…”  He leaves off as he remembers that he is, in fact, a Conservative councillor and busies himself with his sausage roll.

“Ah”, says Alan.  “No, it’s not a year.  The thing is – and you’ll laugh when you hear this, I know I did.  It appears that a seven year notice clause has been decided by Parliament because it could take time to ensure that alternative provision was available.  What I am saying here is that there is not an ‘automatic’ route back to the predecessor school status…”

Pandemonium follows, as members of the governing body realise, to their lasting horror, that they have signed Mephistopheles’ contract and there is no way out.  Alan slumps in a chair as governors argue about whose fault it was for ever listening to Alan in the first place.  It is left to Councillor Hecklethwaite to have the last word.

“Seven years’ notice, eh?  Well, Alan” he smiles, giving a rare glimpse of his upper set of dentures, “I’ll tell you one thing – and you’ll laugh at t’irony of it…”  Alan sits up, brightening slightly in the face of this unexpected levity.

“What’s that, Councillor?” he asks eagerly.

“We’ll not be wanting that much notice off you.  In fact, you can clear your desk tonight, if you would.”

I would have left the final word with the good councillor, were it not for the fact that I can hear the doubters from here.  There will be people who will accuse me of making it all up – and, obviously, there is a degree of dramatic licence involved in the scenario I’ve described above.  What is completely, utterly and depressingly true, however, is the fact that Michael ‘make sure there’s no way of reconstructing state education once I’ve finished with it’ Gove has carefully ensured that there is no way back for academies.  And if you still don’t believe me – there’s a reason for the italicisation of some of my story above.  I must offer my grateful thanks to Ms Sylvia Brack at the DfE Academy Policy Unit, for answering my questions (though I must tell you it took several increasingly ratty emails, which her colleague answered evasively, before Ms Brack swept in herself, at first offering to telephone me in what I cynically assumed was an attempt not to put anything in writing) and providing me with the quotations in italics.  Gove’s lasting legacy is permanent privatisation; a permanent bruise on the backside of state education, if you like.

Please submit your comments below.

Helen Freeborn

Helen Freeborn was a secondary headteacher for 11 years until she gave it all up to live in Greece. Now returned after four years abroad, she divides her time between consultancy, training, a range of writing projects and catching up with all the television she has missed.

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  1. May I say somewhat indelicately that the picture of the ‘bum potato’ that heads Ms Freeborn’s column looks to me more like the scabby, spotted bollocks that Mr Gove has been dishing out ever since he took power? If it were not for the fact that the information about the 7 year rule was extracted from the very mouth of the DFE one would be exceedingly hard- pressed to credit it. Ms Freeborn deserves ‘Gold’ for her dogged persistence at uncovering Mr Gove’s nasties and keeping us in the loop.

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