Funding of Academies - Children, Schools and Families Committee Contents

Examination of Witnesses (Question Numbers 1-19)


29 MARCH 2010

  Chair: May I welcome you to this short session on the funding of academies? As I said outside, this is an historic meeting as it may be this Committee's very last sitting. I have been assured by John Bangs that he has several bottles of champagne in his large bag—I will be deeply disappointed if that is not the case.

John Bangs: I'm sorry about that.

  Q1 Chair: It is good that you are here. When we look at an issue like this, we give our witnesses a couple of minutes to make comments on the generality of what we are looking at, which, in this case, is the funding of academies. Interpret that in a reasonably generous spirit. The academies programme is quite mature now. A large number of academies are being built and have been completed. We are learning the lessons. People argue that the rules have changed significantly in terms of sponsorship of academies and the way in which they now relate to local authorities. Imagine that you are taking the patient's temperature: how are academies at the moment? Let's start with Nick.

  Nick Weller: I think they are in a very healthy state and that this summer's results will demonstrate that going forward. There has been an interesting move to have different models of sponsorship. Maybe we will touch on that later. I think that, over the next few years, the relative success of those various models and the individual sponsors within them will become clear. I think the movement will have even more direction after that has emerged.

  Q2 Chair: Tell me a little bit more about your involvement.

  Nick Weller: I am the principal of an academy in Bradford. We are a high-performing school—an outstanding school. We are a former CTC and were converted in 2006. Last September, we opened our second academy, Dixons Allerton, in Bradford. It is on the site of the former Rhodesway School and has been going for seven months or so now.

  Chair: Being a West Yorkshire Member of Parliament, I was trying to give you a chance for a bit of a commercial there.

  Nick Weller: Yes, thank you very much. We recently bid for another school in a neighbouring authority, but, unfortunately, we did not get it. Our general plan at the moment is to build a small federation of geographically concentrated schools. We believe that about three to five is the ideal number for our federation, where we can maximise our impact on standards and get some financial efficiencies across the group. That will obviously end up being spent on students' education.

  Q3 Chair: So if you had a cluster, would they all be with the same sponsor?

  Nick Weller: As a CTC, the school built up sufficient funds to sponsor itself as a city academy. Although originally the school was sponsored by Dixons, now we are self-sponsored. Now, of course, as an educational sponsor, we don't have to put up money to sponsor other schools.

  Chair: Thank you for that. Andrew?

  Andrew Baisley: We believe there are still a lot of questions to be answered about academies. I am here representing the Anti Academies Alliance, which is a still growing and broad-based campaign of parents, teachers, governors and trade unions. We dispute the claims of academic success of academies. We are concerned that the improvement in results is often at the expense of a broad-based curriculum. Particular concerns were raised by last year's Civitas report. The single largest reason for the growth of our campaigns relates to problems with and a perception of a lack of consultation. A campaign recently started in Trafford. Two schools—Stretford High and Lostock College—have outstanding and good Ofsted reports respectively. Four weeks ago, the council announced that they would be closed and re-opened as a single academy in September of this year. At the same time, it was announced that Stretford's grounds will be sold to Tesco for £21 million, which instead of being invested in education, is being given to Lancashire county cricket club to renovate Old Trafford. The still-sketchy plan is to build a new multi-storey school on that Stretford site. In the meantime, the new academy will be opened on the two sites, four miles apart. Key Stage 3 will be taught in one and Key Stage 4 in another, so siblings will no longer be able to travel to school together, and collaboration between teachers across that school will be extremely difficult. Parents have collected 7,000 signatures so far in this four-week period, and have held a march to the town halls, supported by their Liberal Democrat and Labour councillors. The question is, how does that relate to the core aims of the academies project? I think it fails in that the academies project is about the attainment of children from deprived backgrounds and increasing parental choice. The final irony of this story is that the money that's been taken out of education to give to cricket will not be of much service to the children, because there will not be enough space on the new site to play a game of cricket.

  John Bangs: May I first say, since this is the last meeting of the current Select Committee, that the National Union of Teachers has always taken the Committee seriously. There is a good reason for that, because this is a Select Committee that has literally made the weather. We appreciate the attention that you've given us, the invitations to give evidence and the fact that the reports have actually made a big difference.

  Chair: Thank you for that, John.

  John Bangs: I am serious. I'm not being egregious; I mean it. First of all, I want to say—this is a disclaimer that Steve Sinnott, our general secretary who died, always made—we are not against academies as schools. We want to see all schools be effective—to work and be successful. This is an issue of academy status. My mind goes back to the meeting held by Neil Kinnock, Estelle Morris, Steve and a range of other speakers in front of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, when there was a big debate about the direction of travel, which was Estelle Morris's phrase, and also to her more recent evidence to your Committee, with the four ex-Secretaries of State, when she said that she wished she'd focused on standards and not structures and that that was the biggest mistake for this Government. All I can say is that we agree. There is an ugly word that's beginning to emerge in relation to the United States, which is "exceptionalism". That is, "You'll just have to understand that we do things differently around here." Unfortunately, that has a greater relevance—in a sense, in terms of this Committee—to home. Academies operate under that label of exceptionalism. The argument for them is somehow separate from every other argument. When I was doing some interviews for a book I'm jointly writing, the sense of annoyance among heads of outstanding community schools about the claims made about academies is palpable. There are critical issues that any new Government has to address. The totally unfounded claim that, by virtue of academy status, you will create school improvement was effectively shot down by PricewaterhouseCoopers in its report. You can't get around the issue of a democratic deficit. There is a major democratic deficit created. Neither can you get round the issue of professional isolation of teachers and head teachers within local authorities and academies. We picked that up in interviews. Nor can you, in many cases, get round the very high staff turnover in schools. Nor, incidentally, can you get round the fact that there is this extraordinary coalition of people within the Anti Academies Alliance and outside it, including Civitas, which are addressing the Anti Academies Alliance meeting at our annual conference on the issue of a need for a fundamental review in relation to the claims made by academies before any new ones are created. They remain highly controversial, essentially because of the groundless claims made for many aspects of them.

  Chair: Thank you. Paul?

  Q4 Paul Holmes: When looking at academy schools, one of the things that educationalists are interested in is whether they are improving performance. As we heard from Andrew and John, and from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the jury is certainly out on that overall. If their performance is improving, the question is why. One argument is down to intake, but we are not here to talk about that today. The other is that they get more money and therefore can do more things. I want to explore that a little. We know that academies get more money in the sense that their new buildings cost more than those of equivalent state schools. No one can argue with that. We know that the first wave of academies got some more money. They had sponsorship money, although not all of that has been paid and we no longer have to pay that money. We then come down to the core funding, which will be the vast majority of academy funding from now on. The National Audit Office is about to produce a new report. The previous report, which was produced in 2007, said on page 35 that "The Department aims to provide academies with funding for running costs that is equivalent to other maintained schools in similar circumstances." On the very next page it points out that "the 12 academies that opened had received an average of £1.6 million in start-up funding", whereas "27 Fresh Start secondary schools", which are in exactly the same position as academies in trying to improve failing schools, had received £750,000 extra. In short, the NAO is saying on page 35 that they get exactly the same money but on the next page that they get twice as much. Does anyone wish to comment on that?

  Nick Weller: I think it is true, if you are looking at the first NAO report, that those are based on early academies. It would be quite predictable if, say, the Conservatives win the next election and start up parent schools, that the first few parent schools probably will have money thrown at them. That was true of the early academies; those that got in early did get more start-up funds. Any new school, a local authority school or any new school, would get start-up money to appoint a head teacher and so on.

  Q5 Paul Holmes: So it would have twice as much?

  Nick Weller: In the early days, yes. That is not our experience now. In fact, the start-up money for some schools, particularly in the second year, has been cut quite significantly. It is less than was anticipated. You may well be right, but when you see the next NAO report you won't see that. In terms of academies costing more, again I think you're referring to the time of the early bills. Academies are now built within the Building Schools for the Future programme. Our second academy will be built within the BSF programme. It has been funded in the same way; it is exactly the same funding per square metre, per pupil, as any other BSF school. Again, for the last couple of years, I wouldn't agree that academies cost any more money. Obviously, you can point to some early examples, when there were architects and some extravagant buildings, arguably. In terms of income, academies are funded at the same rate as other local schools. The only difference is that there is no local authority top-slicing. The money that I get, and the money that our second school gets, is about 10% more than local schools, because it is not top-sliced by the local authority. What that means, of course, is that you don't get free HR advice, or free legal advice and other services; you have to buy that in. But local authority services are variable, and having choice in the way that you spend money and having extra discretion in how you spend that money obviously leaves you greater flexibility. That is a financial advantage. However, in terms of the direction of travel, it would be a better model for local authorities, particularly as funding becomes tighter, to look at slimming down the centre and trying to devolve as much money as they can to schools directly—more along that model. Sometimes, we decide to buy services from the local authorities, as with HR, for example. At other times, we will go to our own solicitors. You don't just get your money top-sliced; you are making buying decisions. That is more efficient and it does give you a financial advantage. It is a financial advantage that I think should be extended to schools. We touched on local authority roles in setting up academies and I will come back to that later maybe, if I can.

  John Bangs: I agree with Paul's comment. The reality is that new academies are set up with major financial advantages. We have done some work on examples of the financial advantages. In fact, Parliament has been assiduous in getting those answers. For example, Austin Mitchell asked about the amount spent on three academies in north Lincolnshire—it was over £97 million. The start-up costs were well over £1.5 million in two cases. The sponsor payments were nil on the basis of two of those, and £500,000 for the Havelock academy. There is a sense that—along with the ring fence that there often is on bought-in and purchased advice going to the sponsors, who will actually direct the head teacher to get school improvement advice from that ring fence, for example—academies actually do get a boost for quite a long time after their start-up costs. Then, of course, there are capital costs. You are talking in many cases about double the amount spent on a new academy, compared with a community school. On the issue of funding, it is clear that—not in all cases but the majority—there has been extraordinarily generous funding compared with new community or foundation schools.

  Q6 Chair: I would have thought that, as a teaching union, you would be dancing in the street every time a school got lots of money. Is it a little bit strange that you are complaining that schools get lots of money?

  John Bangs: I think trade unions are founded on the basis of equity. It is the inequity of the allocation. It is a good point that it has been a common cry from teacher organisations that, if some schools can get that, why can't all schools? Or, if the argument is that there are in the end financial constraints, how about equity? The basis for that is not profound jealousy or anything like that. It is the claim that because you do get more money, you get that special attention; ergo, your results are far better. I absolutely agree with the argument that schools in deprived areas with children from socially and economically deprived backgrounds deserve better than they have got. But there is a far, far better formula that you could apply to all schools in those circumstances, rather than some.

  Q7 Chair: So you would like middle-class areas to get the same money as more challenged areas?

  John Bangs: No. I think there is an issue about the current funding formula, which is separate from academies. Academies seem to have a kind of curious hermetic funding formula of their own, outside the funding formula applying to the rest of schools, whether in socially deprived or middle-class areas.

  Q8 Chair: Tony Blair's original intention surely was to put more money into schools with greater degrees of challenge, in terms of both economic and social background and of the results that the children were getting. I would have thought that, theoretically, a teaching union might have been in favour of that.

  John Bangs: Yes, but there is the expense of creating a wide democratic deficit and real anxiety among teachers and head teachers. The turnover rate in the early academies for head teachers was very, very high because of the unbearable expectations placed on their shoulders. The claim was that because they were academies, they would automatically improve massively. I would go back to William Atkinson, who argued strongly and rightly for community schools at the centre of their communities. He argued that schools in deprived areas, wherever they are, deserve the extra funding, irrespective of their status, to make links with their communities and to create a situation in which the staff are stable and have the resources to do the job. That is the criterion that should be applied, not whether or not they are separate from the maintained family of schools.

  Chair: Andrew?

  Andrew Baisley: I think I agree with all of John's points. I would just reiterate them if I took up your time with that question.

  Chair: Okay.

  Q9 Paul Holmes: Just as a final extension to that particular point, the National Audit Office report in 2007 also pointed out that the first wave of academies not only got twice as much start-up funds as Fresh Start schools but got them for longer, as well. The money didn't tail off after two years—it was still going after three or four years. Certainly, the first wave of academies got much more generous funding.

  Nick Weller: It is now two years. As I say, in terms of bill costs, you are funded exactly the same as you are under any other local authority school under the BSF formula. There is no academy premium.

  Q10 Paul Holmes: You cannot look at the new academies to judge academies because they are too new, so you have to look at the older ones that have been around for four, five or six years. The point remains that they have a lot more money, smaller classes and better facilities. They could afford breakfast clubs and after-school clubs because they have more cash.

  Nick Weller: What gives them that cash is that they do not have the local authority top-slicing, and that is what will give them that money going into the future.

  Q11 Paul Holmes: What if they choose not to use that money to buy in the special educational needs services that a local authority normally provides?

  Nick Weller: If they choose to do that, they can. It will depend on their reading of the quality of those services or whether they can provide those services themselves. Those children still have to be served. It is a question of who can provide that service better.

  Q12 Chair: Could you enumerate those services?

  Nick Weller: Well, as a local authority head in my last school, if I needed something like legal advice, I would just pick up the phone. If I needed HR advice, there were behaviour advisers and SEN advisers. As long as you didn't ask them to talk to children directly or have any dealing with children, they would quite happily come along and give the staff any advice that they needed. I would say that most local authorities are very variable in terms of the quality of their services. I do not think that that is a very controversial thing to say; everyone would probably agree with that. Therefore, because there is a local monopoly of those services, the money of a local authority school is top-sliced to pay for those services. It is far better, I think, to devolve that money to schools. Schools will naturally spend the money where it is most effective. They will do the best for their students and they will try to get the best results for their students.

  Q13 Mr Timpson: May I just pick on Andrew for a second? I am trying to get a sense of what you are standing for. "Anti Academies" probably spells it out quite well, but I am just trying to understand why you are so anti-academy. In answering that question, you gave us some examples of where you see academies failing or where the public reticence about academies is greater than we are led to believe. Do you think that in some parts of the country, in some local education authorities, and in certain circumstances, there is a good case for academies, and that your objection to some academies is not necessarily a reason to object to all academies?

  Andrew Baisley: The slogan for the Anti Academies Alliance is "a good local school for every child", which is a bit motherhood and apple pie really. We are in favour of schools that are locally accountable and that, like any community school, have councillors and parents as governors so that there is stakeholder governance and no one party has an outright majority. Every academy has a sponsor with a controlling majority on the governing body, which severely limits the input of parents and teachers in the running of the school. Do I think that there are ever grounds for an academy? I think that there are often grounds for interventions in schools that are in difficulty. However, I do not see academy status, with its sponsors, as the key part of that or as a particularly helpful addition to the running of a school.

  Q14 Mr Timpson: Just to understand, are you advocating the status quo? Are you happy with the amount of control and power that teachers and parents have in the current education system, or do you have some other formula for education in local communities that you have not told us about yet?

  Andrew Baisley: No, I think that education has become very diverse and that there are so many different models that there is little cohesion across the different sets of schools. We are in favour of moving towards more cohesion rather than less. I suppose that we want to go in the opposite direction of travel from the one we are currently heading down.

  Q15 Mr Timpson: Who would you want to run these schools?

  Andrew Baisley: We like the model of local authority control.

  Q16 Mr Timpson: When you say "we", who is that?

  Andrew Baisley: The Anti Academies Alliance as an organisation.

  Q17 Chair: How many academies are there now?

  Andrew Baisley: Two hundred odd, isn't it? Two hundred and three or four.

  Q18 Chair: Does it not seem extraordinary that we have 3,500 secondary schools, and this is somebody trying to do something different in 200 of them? I made this point to Lord Baker, who has an aspiration to have 100 university technical schools. It is a rather small element if you're trying to do something new, isn't it? Are you against all innovation, Andrew?

  Andrew Baisley: No, Chair, I am not against all innovation, but I think that even with 203 academies, you can have quite a profound effect. You only need one academy in a local authority to change the outlook of that authority. I come from Camden, which famously has the highest rating local authority level. We have just had the first funding agreement signed for an academy. The result of that is that the other schools in the borough are looking at how they respond. I'm sure you think this is a good thing, but they have to respond with trust school proposals. What has been an extremely successful borough in the provision of education, where you have a family of schools that work closely together to support each other and work collaboratively, is now looking at competition being brought in, at chasing after pupils against each other and at the collaboration starting to subside and break down. That collaboration is one of the great strengths of our local authority. One academy can make a much greater difference than on just the particular school itself.

  Q19 Chair: But only a stone's throw from the London authority you have described is another where all the evidence shows that children were being so badly let down across the piece that something dramatic had to be done. That was the case, wasn't it? Are we going to let young people, who only have one chance at their education, languish in local authorities that don't deliver on the educational aspirations of children or their parents?

  Andrew Baisley: Chair, I think that the problems in London's education were the result of many years of underfunding. There has been a dramatic rise in—

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