Pirate Gove? – Staying afloat on the DfE Moral Bankrupt-Sea

COMMENT – There are some things in life that you just have to accept you will never have the chance to do.  In my case, the list is very long indeed, but right at the top would be making Tony Blair’s former adviser on education, Michael Barber, sit in a locked room with me until I had made him understand that correlation does not equal causation and that chucking money at schools via such initiatives as Excellence in Cities is not necessarily going to make results improve.  Unfortunately, of course, I missed that opportunity at a Sports Colleges conference at which Barber was a guest speaker – I could have lured him to my hotel room with the promise of exotic favours (or a scintillating chat about data, which his conference speech suggested was entirely fascinating to him), but I didn’t.

I was musing to myself only the other day that I’ve never had the opportunity to use in formal writing the phrase ‘morally bankrupt’, so you could have knocked me down with a feather when along came three opportunities to use it of Michael Gove, Ofsted and the DfE all at once.  Now, I know some people will be scoffing, since Ofsted has long been so morally bankrupt that it’s doubtful they ever had a halfpenny in the Bank of Morals in the first place.  Nonetheless, this mighty triumvirate – which wields amounts of power over individual state schools that appear to be increasing on a moment by moment basis – offered me the chance to tick off one of my bucket list items this very day.

Exhibit A:  an article in the Guardian on 4th June 2012 reported that schools which had been lured to convert to academy status by the promise of big wodges of extra cash were finding – quelle surprise – that their budgets for next year have been slashed.  Now, this was about as much of a surprise to me as discovering that the child catcher in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ handed out sweets to children in order to lure them into his clutches, but it’s clear that a fair number of heads and governing bodies have taken Gove’s sherbert dabs.

Exhibit B:  I decided to pop over to the Department for Education website to see if they had anything to say about it.  I have to admit that I don’t go there nearly as often as I used to, but I was stunned to find that the first item which hits a browser’s eyes on opening the site says:  “The Department for Education is responsible for education and children’s services. Find out about the academies programme which provides schools with greater freedoms to innovate and raise standards.”  Click on to the academies section and you’ll even find a helpful ‘ready reckoner’ to show you how much extra moolah your school might receive, though I’m suspicious that it will just be set to read ‘Ooh, squillions!’ no matter which school’s data are entered .

Now call me the old cynic that I’ve clearly demonstrated myself to be, but isn’t sticking this blatant bit of advertising top left on the front page of a government department’s website a bit, well, obvious?  They couldn’t be more up-front about what they want unless they flashed subliminal images whilst you browse, saying ‘You want your school to be an academy and the brain-eating hamsters will get you if you don’t convert now!’

You think I’m exaggerating a tad?  Well, scroll down about five inches to the index for ‘Schools’ and look at the first two items on it.  Yes, that’s right – it’s ‘Academies’ at number one and ‘Free schools’ at number two.  I did check to make sure it wasn’t merely that all the items in the index were in alphabetical order, by the way.

Exhibit C:  growing evidence, principally via various blogs and websites such as the Anti-Academies Alliance, suggests that Ofsted inspections are now coming down much harder on non-academy schools than they are on academies.   Now, I’ll hold my hands up and admit here and now that ‘suggestions’ are merely this and the examples given on such websites don’t make it a proven fact.  I will cite, however, the example of an academy in Hampshire which was this year given a ‘good with outstanding features’ report when its data doesn’t nearly suggest it, whilst schools with better data are rated only ‘satisfactory’. Please recall that Ofsted have now decided that from September, schools will be called ‘requiring improvement’ rather than ‘satisfactory’, inspected much more quickly and given only two opportunities to prove themselves before the school is hauled into the tumbril marked ‘forced conversion to academy status’.

Moving back to the DfE website in my search for more examples of rhetoric at odds with the truth, I was interested to find, in the afore-mentioned section on academies, the following statement:  “We expect all schools that are performing well and applying for academy status to work with another school to raise standards. Collaboration and partnership are now embedded in the school system, and this is also the case for academies.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it?  I looked, therefore, for some figures on converter academies and their ‘expected’ support for other schools and found that the DfE’s own statistics show that only 3% of such academies are currently working with other schools to help them raise standards.  Digging deeper, I found that Michael Gove himself told the Education Select Committee on 31 January 2012 that “Every school that becomes an academy – and these are the new academies that convert – has to be in a relationship with another school that it is committed to help.”  It’s important to keep in mind that Gove used the statement ‘has to be,’ because one of Gove’s own advisers, Sam Freedman, has stated that the DfE is not enforcing such supportive relationships on to academies because it would ‘stifle innovation’.

All I can say at this point is that if the above stories are not examples of moral bankruptcy, then I’m a baroness who has told porky pies about her expenses claims.

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. Excellent article, you’ve hit the nail firmly on the head!

  2. Really like this article – as well as the others by Helen Freeborn. They are entertaining and well informed about the subject in hand and the style is succinct, pithy and – sometimes – laugh out loud. But then, of course, so much of eduction ‘reform’ is laugh out loud any way.

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