A new free school in Brighton and Hove sponsored by the University of Brighton Academies Trust: what’s the problem?Can it be fixed by parental involvement?

University sponsorship does not safeguard democratic governance or parental engagement. Nor does it suggest a better school than those run by local authorities or even by other academy and free school sponsors (known as Multi Academy Trusts when more than one academy or free school is sponsored).

Free schools and academies both have the legal status of an academy but the term free school is used for newly opened academies, while existing local authority schools which convert are called academies. Both are, by definition, not locally accountable schools. In our experience, parental engagement tends to be greater with local authority schools and even academy heads will say that local authorities interfere rather less in their schools than Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) in their academies and free schools (regardless who set up the MAT). There is now evidence that MATs, including those run by universities, have over-ridden heads and interfered  in the curriculum of free schools and academies.

More important though is the difference between the local authority education committees (or their equivalents) and MATs. Both run a number of schools (in a defined area in the case of the local authority, often very geographically spread in the case of MATs) but local authority education committees are made up of elected councillors and meetings are held in public. MATs don’t answer to local authorities, elected councillors or the local community. No MAT includes a majority of elected members on its board and few include more than a token elected member. For example, does the board of the University of Brighton Academy Trust (UBAT) – the MAT opening the free school in Brighton & Hove – include elected parents or members of school staff? We don’t think so and this absence of elected members is typical of MATs. What this means is that the corporate interests of the MAT are not held to account and can (and do) over ride the interests of individual academies and free schools. It means that parents and teachers associated with academies and free schools have little or no influence over the MAT running the MAT’s free schools or academies. This is not an accident: this is the policy intention and the ownership and governance arrangements for MATs are designed to deliver this policy.

The on-line education journal ‘Schools Week’ has run articles on parental engagement in free schools and concluded that the policy now, all but, excludes parent groups setting up free schools. See: http://schoolsweek.co.uk/free-schools-parents-pushed-out-as-multi-academy-trusts-move-in/ and http://schoolsweek.co.uk/parent-led-free-schools-in-steady-decline/ Free schools are increasingly set up by MATs who buy into the policy on corporatisation and privatisation. (Incidentally, the article in the first of the two links includes a reference to UBAT and does not differentiate their proposed free school from those set up by other MATs in respect of parental engagement.) It is almost ironic that the one free school in Sussex genuinely set up by parents (the Discovery New School in Crawley) was closed by Michael Gove – the architect of the free school policy. Some Brighton & Hove teachers and parents have asked why the free school due to open in Brighton was not a parent led proposal (it could have been) or even a proposal from other local schools (this is not uncommon) but a proposal from a MAT that, even today, has no experience of opening a new school anywhere or of running a school in Brighton. Good questions.

Questions have also been asked about the alternatives to opening a free school and if alternatives might have included increasing the capacity of, or reorganising, existing schools. After all, it’s only 10 years ago that a secondary school in east Brighton was closed partly because it was struggling with pupil numbers and, even today, the city still has two secondary schools that are only half full and another two with spare capacity. This doesn’t invalidate the decision to open a new school but the absence of a public consultation on the options and alternatives to a free school does suggest the decision was rushed and it must be worrying that even now there has been no study of the impact of the new free school on existing schools in the city (including the academies). Local school governors and head teachers tell us that a number of head teachers and governors of schools and academies in the city expressed concerns over the decision to open a free school. They feel they were ignored.

In the end, though, the principle objection to academies and free schools is that the experience and evidence seems to be that the model can only be made to work if MATs behave as business corporations (regardless of who set them up and unlike the local authorities they replace). The worst excesses of the academy and free school model – Kings Science Academy, Durrand, Barnfield and the rest are well known. More recently and locally, the Prospects MAT closed its academies in East Sussex for business reasons and in a manner that would never have happened with local authority schools. The Bright Tribe MAT has been praised by government and benefitted from additional funding but documents leaked to ‘The Guardian’ suggest the MAT is non compliant with rules on contracts with companies and its interactions with firms connected with the MAT’s trustees. Toby Young’s free schools are reported to be ‘phoning other schools to ask them to join their MAT to defray costs and the Aldridge MAT (running two academies in Brighton & Hove) has pulled out of running an academy in Dorset for financial reasons. See here: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/nov/15/bright-tribe-academy-chain-warwick-mansell AND/OR https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/dec/13/toby-young-free-school-trust-warwick-mansell AND/OR http://schoolsweek.co.uk/new-aldridge-education-trust-ditches-struggling-academy/ .

We’ve also been told that UBAT has a business target of around 27 academies including schools in the Hastings Academies Trust to generate a financial surplus.

Time and time again then, the evidence is that the free school and academy model requires MATs to put business ethics or financial imperatives over community need or educational priorities. There seems to be no mechanism for parents or others to hold MATs to account and MATs behave towards parents and schools in a manner that simply would not, and could not, happen if all schools were overseen by local authorities.

It’s also pertinent to ask why the average pay and conditions of staff in free schools and academies is worse than that in local authority schools (by between 1.5% and 3%/£700 – £1000 pa) while academy and free school MAT CEO pay is greater than the pay of local authority school head teachers. The research is here: https://sw10014.wordpress.com/2016/11/29/the-variation-in-teachers-pay-in-large-multi-academy-trusts/

Nor does the introduction of business ethics and competition lead to improved educational performance. Data shows local authorities consistently outperform all MATs with no exceptions correlated with parental engagement or the type of organisation establishing the MAT. Analysis of this data is here: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/2016/07/06/academy-chains-performance-less-impressive-than-local-authoritie/ AND/OR http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/03/dfe-reveals-dismal-performance-of-academy-chains AND/OR http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-32038695

Some argue that a selling point of the decision to ask UBAT to open the free school (rather than a higher performing MAT or one with experience of opening new schools or schools in Brighton & Hove) was the MAT’s association with the University of Brighton. But UBAT is not the same as the University of Brighton: it is a separate private and corporate body – albeit set up by the University of Brighton corporation. In this sense, the University of Brighton as a corporate body and UBAT are both distinct from the staff that make up the university (and the university’s School of Education). This is the case with all MATs set up by universities.

Moreover research shows that, educationally, MATs set up by universities are no more successful than other MATs. For example, a university MAT (the University of Chester Academies Trust) is the worst performing MAT in the country despite boasting (like UBAT) of its links to the university’s School of Education rated (like the University of Brighton’s) as ‘good’ or better. See here for details: http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/university-chester-academies-trust-branded-903401

Recent data published by the Department for Education, too, shows that UBAT is below the national average for Key Stage 2 ‘added value’ and only ‘average’ in terms of improvement while another MAT created by a local university – the University of Chichester Academies Trust – performs unimpressively. Here’s the data: https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/multi-academy-trust-performance-measures-2014-to-2015

Even if the results of university sponsored MATs are no different to the results of other MATs, do university sponsored MATs, and UBAT in particular, behave differently in other ways? The local experience would suggest not. Parents and a parent governor at a school in Crawley were so concerned at the take over by UBAT of their school last year that they started a local group – The Crawley Schools Forum: see: https://crawleyschoolsforum.wordpress.com/2015/04/03/community-concerns-over-fixed-consultation/ Unfortunately for the parents concerned, the takeover went ahead and this popular and outstanding local community school is now a UBAT academy but whatever one’s views on academy status the experience of this group of parents suggests that UBAT (and the school) were only willing to grant the very bare minimum of parental consultation over the conversion of the school to an academy. Another school, an outstanding special school in West Sussex, was concerned about the pressure UBAT was putting on the governing body to convert and invited to a governing body meeting a number of organisations – including the local teachers union – to get a more balanced perspective and then decided not to convert. These experiences are little different to the behaviour of Toby Young’s free school or other MATs desperate to conscript schools into becoming academies and join their chain. Put together they tend to reinforce the view that the policy prevents MATs set up by universities behaving any differently from other MATs.

In other words, rather than MATs set up by universities reflecting or inheriting the characteristics of the university an emerging view is that the establishment of the MAT has a negative impact on the university and its relationship with local schools. This is why many universities (including the University of Sussex and University of Oxford) believe that sponsoring academies and free schools is inconsistent with the mission and responsibilities of a university. Here are a few relevant articles (one by an academic from the University of Brighton School of Education on the reasons why some universities have chosen to establish free schools and academies): http://theconversation.com/what-business-do-universities-have-in-academy-schools-50805 AND/OR http://antiacademies.org.uk/2015/03/do-universities-make-good-academy-sponsors/ AND/OR https://www.theguardian.com/teacher-network/2016/nov/30/should-universities-take-control-of-schools-the-government-thinks-so

Educationalists in Sussex have also asked if the track record of the University of Brighton’s corporate management in closing a campus – in the face of opposition from students and staff, the community, the local (Labour) council and local (Conservative) MP – suggests UBAT (set up by the University of Brighton corporation) will be more responsive to parents and teachers than other MATs. Read the views of the community, staff, students and local politicians on the handling of the closure of the Hastings campus here: http://hastingsonlinetimes.co.uk/hot-topics/campaigns/save-hastings-university-campus AND/OR http://www.itv.com/news/meridian/2016-05-14/students-and-locals-protest-in-hastings-about-campus-closure-plans/

Those monitoring the development of academies and free schools in Sussex are fully in favour of parental engagement but sceptical of a MAT (UBAT) encouraging parents to get involved at the margins in one (free) school while taking schools out of public accountability without full consultation and, it seems, without any intention to give parents a key role in decisions taken by the MAT. They’re concerned that whoever runs a free school it will operate little differently to other free schools and academies – whatever the level of parental engagement – because the free school and academy policy and structure works against parental (and even head teacher) involvement and in favour of business decision making and competition.

Reluctantly it seems that if parental engagement with free schools and academies was enough to alleviate the disadvantages of the free school and academy policy or change the business decisions of a MAT, community engagement would have slowed or prevented the takeover of schools elsewhere by MATs or prevented Prospects or Aldridge pulling out of academies for business reasons (or prevented the closure of the Hastings Campus).

Local educationalists, teachers and parents are critical of a MAT (UBAT) that hasn’t consulted with neighbouring schools on the impact of competition from the free school and suspect that the new free school will be no more successful than the free schools and academies already created by MATs and will not be as successful as local authority schools. The evidence of the last six years confirms the general failure of the academy and free school policy.

These are the reasons we continue to oppose any MAT, including UBAT, taking over a local school and so see no good reason to prefer or favour a UBAT sponsored free school over other schools. We continue to believe that a partnership of accountable local authority schools working together would have found a better solution to the city’s need for more secondary school places. Embracing the failed and divisive free school policy and imposing a free school on the city – no matter that the MAT uses the University of Brighton’s name – is not in the best interests of the city, its schools or children.

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