There was a time when staging 3 day strikes was considered a militant expression of democracy. Nowadays it’s turning up at a public meeting and breathing.
When I went to a public “consultation” meeting last week, which the public didn’t know about until a couple of days beforehand, via literature that indicated (to many) that attendance was superfluous to requirements as the outcome had already been decided, it came as no surprise to find a practically deserted hall. What I didn’t expect, was for the chair to open the meeting with the words, “It’s great to see so many of you here”. Out of a combined population of over 2,000, there were 20 odd people present
It reminded me of the first time I attended an all party parliamentary debate in the House of Commons. I took up my place in the press gallery, just as the then secretary of state for International Development, Hilary Benn, stood up. His opening words served as my first lesson in political chicanery, “I am delighted to see such a full house”. There were 6 people present, including himself.
Afterwards, in the commons bar, I asked my then MP, the affable current speaker, John Bercow, what was behind Benn’s remarks. He said, “One word Tess. Hansard” (the official public record of proceedings). Poor representation with a variety of voices, opposition and dissent, undermines the democratic process, ultimately leading to poor decisions.
So when I found myself in a hall to rubber stamp, I mean discuss, the proposal for local schools to form a Co-Operative Trust, with the chair exaggerating the turnout, it went down hill from there.
A friend of mine once opined, if you don’t want your child to be the donkey’s backside in the nativity play, just keep your head down and your mouth shut. To do her bit as a good parent, she became a school governor for the sole purpose of ingratiating herself with the head. That would explain why Ofsted warns that governing bodies are too weak and not challenging enough of their heads.
A good parent may wonder why a pugnacious (as described by a consultee) Co-operative College rep was chairing a process about whether or not our schools should have anything to do with his organisation. They may query what’s in it for the Co-Operative College, given there’s ostensibly nothing to gain from cash strapped schools. What they won’t know, is that the Co-Op College offers a “consultation package (which includes “chairing discussions & collating feedback)”, which will cost the first school £4,000 and £700 for all other schools involved in the consultation process. If there are 7 schools involved, like in my area for example, they won’t get much change out of ten grand (incl VAT), shared out collectively. That’s not counting the legal costs, which could be double that.
The Co-Op College also offers an all inclusive, “Package of consultancy and project management services throughout the conversion to academy status process”. They anticipate more red tape after conversion so have another package to help schools with that too. In fact, there’s a package for just about everything. At a cost.
With so many vested interests, and with schools having invested so much in the consultation process alone, it’s little wonder the purveyors of awkward questions are made to feel verbally kettled. The Co-Op man is hardly impartial which, to my mind, risks gravely undermining any trust in the integrity and independent outcome of the process.
Good parents may have consulted the aforementioned Hansard and discovered that schools that have first converted to Co-Operative Trusts find less resistance when converting to academy status later. They may have gleaned that the conversion rate from Co-Operative trust to academy status is rising and are concerned about the risk of becoming an academy by the back door. But they will keep their council. There is inevitably a bad parent in the audience who will ask the question for them.
The Co-operative trust governance model creates several additional layers of bureaucracy (many rural schools are already working collaboratively, so why add layers of unnecessary bureaucracy and cost?). There’s the board of trustees, to whom the schools’ land and assets will be transferred to be held indefinitely. There will also be a community membership forum, of whom there will be 3 representatives elected to the trust. In contrast, according to the National Governors Association, any number of corporates, for example, can become trustees as “external partners”, each with their own vote.
Good parents might be tempted to ask what due diligence has been carried out to safeguard against the possibility that, in 5-10 years time, our children’s nativity plays aren’t entitled, “Driving Jesus to Bethlehem in a Landrover Jaguar iX35, sponsored by Tesco, because for struggling schools, “Every little helps”.
The Co-Op man will protest that the schools’ assets can only be used for educational purposes and cannot be for profit. The bad parent will have done their homework. They will know that case precedent already exists in this country allowing a Trust school (in Suffolk) to operate for profit, thus undermining any previously espoused legal safeguard in that regard. They will also know that there’s nothing (legally) from preventing a scenario whereby trustees convert school assets into a high tech sports facility, sponsored by McDonalds and Coca Cola (as trustees), who will have their wares on sale therein. As long as you can wangle an educational angle, anything is possible.
Principled parents with inside knowledge of corporate shenanigans are the worst troublemakers. They will object on ideological grounds. They will argue that there’s no place for private industry in a decision making / vote holding / power wielding role in children’s education. That their ethos and values (making profits, to hell with people) are diametrically opposed to that of pastoral care and critical thinking (as opposed to corporate indoctrination) that educational institutions are charged with nurturing in our children. They will point to the recent spate of student protests against the marketisation of university campuses which is killing democratic debate and dissent. The pragmatic bad parents will be enthusiastic about building links with all businesses in the community but will argue vehemently against them influencing educational strategy.
One of the arguments for becoming a trust is that it will open up new revenue streams. The bad parent will say, “Show me the money”. Schools that already enjoy charity status are not exactly flush. The only way of generating revenue, that I can see, is from private investors or "sponsors".
It would be a mistake to confuse being a nice person and having good intentions, with due diligence. With the best will in the world, being a head teacher (even the excellent ones in my area) doesn’t necessarily lend itself to grasping the legal, political and strategic ramifications associated with substantive organisational change. In the same way that my expertise in governance, ethics and organisational change doesn’t qualify me to be a head teacher or conduct brain surgery.
I want my local high school to be there for my child in 5 years time but not at any cost. If the price of having a high school in my community, which has thus far resisted any corporate takeovers on the high street, is having “Sponsored by Land Rover” above the front door, it’s a price I’m not willing to pay.
If my local authority attempted to close down our high school I would fight it tooth and nail. I wouldn’t be deflected by claims of there being no money left for schools. If there’s money in the pot to rescue failed banks and to pay RBS’ bankers’ bonuses, there’s money in the pot for our children.
If we participate in a process that will potentially change the landscape of children’s education for ever, we’d better know what we’re doing. Our children and grandchildren will judge us harshly if we get this wrong.