Education Bill

Memorandum submitted by John Burn OBE (E 59)


1. I am writing to you to ask you to amend the Education Bill to prevent Federations of Academies from

a) controlling and acquiring individual Academies in a way which results in individual academies having fewer operating freedoms than ordinary maintained schools;

b) acquiring schools from other Federations without prior consultation with the staff, parents and communities concerned;

c) creating centralised bureaucracies which are imposed upon their schools and paid for by siphoning money away from those schools; and

d) escaping proper scrutiny and accountability through exemption from any form of inspection of the central body.

The submission

2. I write to you as some one now retired, but a former Head teacher of two large urban comprehensive secondary schools, a former member of the National Curriculum Council and the Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education. I was the principal of Emmanuel City Technology College, Gateshead in its early years and was responsible for its expansion and development. It was my privilege to lead a team of committed teachers in a challenging urban setting to envision the team, determine the structure and the ethos and to help establish it as an institution of excellence with a national reputation for high academic standards. In our very first year of existence we achieved a creditable academic performance. 75% of the year group gained 5 or more higher grades at GCSE. In succeeding years this figure quickly rose to 95% and in following years to 98%. That figure has been maintained to this very day. With the advent of the new Labour government, the College was visited by Andrew Adonis from the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit and he would confirm that Emmanuel College became the model and pattern for his new concept of Academies.

3. After I retired, I was the educational adviser to Sir Peter Vardy, the sponsor of Emmanuel College. In that capacity I worked with Andrew Adonis and in that role played a part in the setting up of three new Academies – The King’s Academy in Middlesbrough, Trinity Academy in Doncaster and Bede Academy in Blyth in Northumberland. I set out this for you by way of background.

4. The Education Bill now before Parliament seeks to implement the legislative proposals in the Department of Education’s Schools White Paper, "The Importance of Teaching" and amongst other things amends the Academies Act of 2010.

5. I am a strong advocate of Academies, believing that they can help set schools free to make best use of public money and develop initiative. But in my considered view the Academies Act has a fatal flaw in allowing Academies to be grouped into bureaucratic Federations and so put to an end the very freedoms that individual schools were supposed to enjoy. Putting Academies into Federations can lead to individual Academies losing a large measure of control over their budgets and the appointment of staff, something which even maintained schools enjoy.

6. The Academies Act 2010 made provision for schools to secede from their Local Authority and become Academies and thus be freed from unnecessary bureaucratic imposition and control. In my view the law needs to be amended to ensure that once a school becomes an Academy its operating freedoms should be preserved, even within a Federation. This flaw in the legislation should be rectified.

7. Becoming an Academy is not necessarily a route to freedom and autonomy as is assumed. I can best illustrate this by what has happened to the school, Emmanuel College, of which I was Principal. I must emphasise I now have no day to day involvement in its affairs. However, as its former Principal I retain an interest and I have watched, from a distance, with concern and growing dismay as I learnt that its sponsor first introduced a large, and in my view, unnecessary and unaffordable system of central services based in an office set up in Durham. In many ways this arrangement seemed to resemble the old local education authority structure that used to operate in the early 1980s. It appears that there is little to deter any Academy Federation from re-creating such a centralising model.

8. After a number of years this sponsor felt unable to sustain a continuing family interest in this work it and in effect gave away Emmanuel College and its three sister schools (The King’s, Trinity and Bede) to another Federation, the United Learning Trust. The negotiations by both parties were conducted in secret. An announcement was made as a fait accompli that control of the schools had passed to another charity. Everything was done behind closed doors without the knowledge of the school Principals, the governors, the parents or the local communities which these schools serve. There was no consultation either with the staff or with parents.

9. The subsequent history of these schools means that they now work to the central control of a body (ULT) which I understand is apparently uninspected, and unaccountable to its own schools. Individual schools may have Funding Agreements with the Department for Education but it is unclear to me what public accountability there is for a Federation.

10. In many ways the Principals of these institutions have less freedom to manage their affairs than their counterparts in maintained schools. The Governing Boards are effectively stripped of all powers and responsibilities, which are transferred to ULT’s National Board hundreds of miles away in Northamptonshire. Within such a structure, therefore, it appears that ULT is not properly accountable to its own schools, their leaders and their communities.

11. The academic standards of a number of this Federation’s schools have also been a matter of great public concern.

12. I would like to propose that at this Committee stage the nettle is grasped to achieve two key objectives:

(a) successful Academies within Federations must retain their self governing status as individual Academies. Co-operation is one thing, submitting them within a new and profoundly centralised bureaucracy quite another.

My proposal would provide a route to freedom for any school which finds itself subject to a similar scenario as has just been outlined. This would also allow such Academies the same freedoms currently being offered to all maintained schools but which, ironically, are now in danger of being denied to Emmanuel, The King’s, Trinity and Bede.

Such a change would also render all Federations highly accountable to their schools ensuring that they supply services that the schools, their head teachers and their communities really want and thus that public money is spent in an efficient and transparent way. At present, there appears no restriction upon those Federations imposing services of their own choosing and paying for them from the unilateral top-slicing of their schools’ funds. In my view, this reverses the view that authority and responsibility for running schools is best vested in trusted professionals operating on the frontline.

Unless this change is made, schools which join Federations seeking the freedoms promised them as Academies may opt out of their Local Authority only to find themselves ultimately within a structure that is more restrictive, less accountable and from which there is no escape, thus negating the very advantages championed by the White Paper.

An Academy would then also be free to release itself from any Federation which, however good it might be at one point, may deteriorate at a future date because of a change in leadership at the top.

(b) There should be legal restrictions on the transfer of Academies between Federations. I am not suggesting that individuals profit when academies are transferred from one Federation to another. But there is something unseemly about state-funded schools being transferred behind closed doors as if they were commodities to be simply "traded" between those sitting at the top of Federations. Such transfers must in future require open consultation with the schools themselves and the communities they serve prior to any final decision being made.

Similarly, it should be beholden upon the Secretary of State to ensure that such consultations have taken place before sanctioning any such transfer.

13. I trust that the Committee will feel I have identified some very real issues and concerns and will be moved to amend the Bill in the ways I have suggested.

March 2011