Our schools are being stolen. Are you angry yet?

Guest blog from Corinna Edwards-Colledge, joint branch secretary of Brighton & Hove UNISON

As I stood in the light drizzle, surrounded by hundreds of chanting people, I had that peculiar tearful feeling that you get when you’re in a large group with a shared purpose.  It might be a gig, or a minute’s silence, or a protest, but there is something about the feeling of camaraderie that is unlike anything else.  Maybe it’s because there is, at least, hope in collective action.

‘WHO’S SCHOOL?’ the speaker demanded over the PA.

‘OUR SCHOOL!’ The crowd shouted back.

The speaker had just told the crowd about her recent experiences as a teacher in a northern school that had been academised. She told a story of reduced terms and conditions for staff, and the replacement of experienced teachers with ‘cheaper’, less qualified ones. At one point she nearly broke down in tears and had to be comforted by a friend.

‘The thing is I’m tired, so tired. Sometimes I think I can’t go on, but then I remember the penguins. When it’s freezing cold and stormy, they make a big huddle, and the ones on the edge take the brunt of the weather and keep the ones in the centre warm.  When they can’t take it anymore, the ones in the middle move out to the edge and take their turn.  That’s the only reason I can keep going, because people around me have taken their turn on the outside.’

The speeches marked the end of our march into the centre of Brighton from Moulsecoomb Primary;  a small school on the North East edge of the city that serves one of the most deprived areas in the UK. Along the way, support for our march was clear, hundreds of cars honked their horns in support, and people waved at us from shops and windows.

So why had hundreds of parents, teachers, children, local politicians, and trade unionists come together on a Saturday morning to march in the rain?  Why was this amazing, committed teacher, who had served children in her community for 30 years, at the edge of breaking down?

The reason should make you angry, very angry, and it’s almost unbelievable. Private academy trusts are hoovering up our schools against the will of their communities. And not only is the government not fighting this, they are actively encouraging it. In the case of Moulsecoomb Primary, the school that we had just marched for, 96% of parents don’t want the school to be academised, and neither do children, teachers, the local education authority or local politicians and their constituents.

Over the years, government rhetoric has made much of devolving power back to local communities, and in the context of schools: giving parents more choice. So how, you may ask yourself, is it possible, that the will and choice of parents and local government can be so recklessly and ruthlessly ignored?

The process of forced academisation, for many schools across the country, amounts to a hostile takeover. In nearby Peacehaven, when school governors pledged to fight forced academisation, they were all sacked by their local County Council and replaced by more biddable members. If teachers fight it, they suddenly find themselves managed out of jobs they love and may have held for decades.

And there is little to no evidence that Academies perform any better than state run schools. In fact, evidence suggests that schools in Multi Academy Trusts (MATs) of more than 16 schools actually do worse. 12 of the 20 lowest performing Primary schools in the country are now run by MATs.

Getting angry yet?

What if I were to tell you that we understand the head of the Pioneer Academy Trust is paid over £150,000 – considerably more than the Local Authorities’ education head – yet is responsible for just a fifth of the number of schools? The highest paid Academy boss in the UK earns an eye-watering £450,000. That’s nearly three times the pay of the Prime Minister.

Moulsecoomb Primary school was built in 1929, the same year as my house in Brighton. For nearly 100 years it has been a part of the fabric of this tight-knit working class community.

It was moving and humbling to see parents and Teaching Assistants from the school, many of whom had never marched or campaigned in their lives, coming together to fight for their kids and their school.  Their resilience is amazing. They have already seen off three other potential academy trusts, and in their fight against Pioneer Academy they have been on strike, marched, and campaigned across social media and at the Trust’s offices.

Right now you may well be thinking ‘so why on earth does this Trust want to take over a school when nobody wants them to?’ That’s a good question. It’s important to know that Academy Trusts don’t mean any more money for schools.

It is true that Academy Trusts are not allowed to be profit making; but it is clear that a significant number of senior executives are making a great profit by extracting significant wages from budgets that would otherwise be going towards the education of our children.

It is also the case that once academised, the finance of schools becomes shrouded in mystery and local accountability falls to the wayside, as decision making shifts from school governors to distant boardrooms.

So, are you angry yet?

If you’re not, I have one more thing to tell you and if this doesn’t tip the balance, nothing will.

The reason our treasured local school is being stolen from us is because back in 2019 Ofsted rated it as ‘inadequate’. As has been the case for literally thousands of our schools, this sets the Academy Trust vultures circling and the starting gun sounds on moving a school away from local authority control.

However, there is strong evidence that our school has continued to improve and a monitoring visit in February 2021, praised the school’s ‘continued effective action and progress’.

A further twist in our Brighton tale, is that the Regional Director of Schools for the Pioneer Academy was one of the original Ofsted inspection team that downgraded the school in 2019.  I’ll leave that little fact with you and let you draw your own conclusions.

Moulsecoomb has a high percentage of children with special educational needs, and 63% of pupils get free school meals. Research has shown that two in three academy chains are failing poorer students and Pioneer Academy Trust has no track record of improving the outcomes for schools in disadvantaged communities.

It is also well known that Academy Trusts love league tables and, disturbingly, there is evidence starting to emerge that some MATs are finding ways of stopping some students from taking exams.

Put all of this together and you can see why the parents and teachers of Moulsecoomb Primary are very afraid of the consequences of forced academisation.

Google ‘forced academisation’ and you will find hours of reading, and it all comes back to the same fundamental question: what is behind the motives of a government and the private companies, that want schools?

Is it just about money? The chance to create a layer of elite high-paid managers? To take land from local authorities by the back door? Is it a power grab by central government? Or an ideology at odds with the needs of local communities?

Whatever the motivation is, it certainly doesn’t seem to be the welfare of children. If our local school is forced into academisation, our city and its children will not be the winners. It will leave our council footing a massive bill and there is a strong likelihood that the school will close, as over 100 parents have already committed to removing their children if forced academisation goes ahead.

So, the fight for our community schools and the people who learn and work in them must and will go on. We may all be tired and disheartened, but there are a lot of us, and like the penguins, we will work together and take turns facing the storm. Giving up simply isn’t an option. Our children’s future, and the wellbeing and rights of hundreds of thousands of school workers is at stake.