Aditya Chakrabortty writes:
This is a story they don’t want you to know. Much of it had to be prised from the grip of officials in Whitehall and the local town hall.
Yet it demands to be told, because it shows how democracy and accountability are being drained from our schools, and how a surreal battle now rages over who knows what’s best for a child: the parents and teachers, or remote officials and financiers.
The school in question is Waltham Holy Cross primary in Essex. Helping on a school run last week, I found an entire small world.
It was the last day of term, and teachers joined hands to form a human arch. The bell rang and all those leaving to start secondary ran under their teachers’ arms.
Parents whooped while staff hugged overwhelmed pupils. There was barely a dry eye in the playground. More than a school, this is a community – yet officials judge it a failure.
Just days before last Christmas, when a classroom’s mind is normally on the nativity play, Ofsted inspectors dropped by. Three long months later, they damned Waltham Holy Cross as “inadequate”.
In the Conservatives’ “all-out war” on mediocre education, that is all the excuse needed to take it off the local authority and turn it into an academy. A trust called Net Academies will soon turn it into a “model school”.
This version of events does not match the views held by any parent I’ve spoken to, nor does it fit the facts brought to light by numerous freedom of information requests.
Reported today in a newspaper for the first time, those requests reveal how little say parents and teachers have over the future of their children and school once it is forced to become an academy.
In 2016, the then chancellor George Osborne ordered all schools to make the same conversion. Public outrage forced the Tories to back off then, but next time this story could be about your child.
That Ofsted inspection prompted a furious letter from the headteacher and chair of governors, alleging that before the visit had even formally begun, the lead inspector told staff that “based on the previous year’s [SAT] results, our school would be inadequate … judgment had therefore been made from the very first instant”.
The private complaint reports inspectors shouting at the head, and telling staff they wouldn’t move their car away from the electric gates because “I’m Ofsted, I can park wherever I want”.
Even being told that a child with autism is in his safe space didn’t stop an inspector barging over, “sitting next to him and quizzing him on what he was doing”.
Ofsted tells me the allegations are “simply untrue”, and that “inspectors do not go into schools with a preconceived idea of what judgment the school will receive”.
Yet last August, a high court judge attacked the department for believing its views “will always be unimpeachable”.
Ofsted’s draft report – which only emerged through freedom of information – is shot through with errors. The headteacher is given a new surname and the number of nursery classes somehow halved.
When the report was finally published, with its “inadequate” ruling, many parents could not square it with the happy place they knew.
“The day we were told, I took my daughter into nursery – and she skipped all the way,” remembers Jayshree Tailor. “Is that a failing school?”
True, Waltham Holy Cross had been through rocky times, but over the past few months it has got a new headteacher (“fabulous”, say parents) and some vim.
This month’s SAT results for Year 6 show a remarkable double-digit improvement in reading, writing and maths.
Once absorbed by an academy, Waltham Holy Cross has no way of returning to local authority control. This is a form of outsourcing, but with even less control than a contract with Carillion.
Ignoring my other questions, Net Academies asked why I wanted to know about its top salaries.
Public interest, I replied: you’re taking taxpayers’ money to run schools. Stories of lavish pay and expenses are rife in this industry. I received no reply.
Those leading the fight against this academisation aren’t politicians or unions, but parents.
On being told in March their children’s school was going to be forcibly converted, the meeting exploded.
A group of them began firing off freedom of information requests and peppering officials with awkward emails.
They have become what one councillor from a neighbouring borough calls “the most dogged parents I have ever come across”.
For Shaunagh Roberts, it began when she first looked up Net Academies – and got a jolt. “I just sat there researching for days, wearing the same pair of pyjamas.”
She’s been told how Net Academies successfully runs four academies in Harlow, Essex. Two of Net’s seven academies in Warwickshire and Reading have been ranked “inadequate”, a third “requires improvement”.
According to the latest Education Policy Institute report, Net Academy Trust is the sixth-worst primary school group in England, falling below even the collapsed Wakefield City Academies Trust.
Its board is stuffed with City folk: PFI lawyers, management consultants, accountants – but apparently no working teacher.
Even as it drops three of its schools, the trust’s aim is to run 25 to 30 institutions. Waltham Holy Cross will be the latest notch.
“My kids are my world – and this school is their world,” Roberts says. “Why should Net spoil that?”
Senior staff don’t want Net either.
In April, headteacher Erica Barnett sent a heartfelt private letter to the regional schools commissioner at the Department for Education (Dfe), Sue Baldwin, who has ultimate say over her school’s fate.
If it must be an academy, Barnett says, at least let it be run by a rival local trust, Vine, which also has an “incredibly strong community feel”.
Come visit, she urges the education official: see what a special place we are. Baldwin doesn’t visit. She picks Net Academies.
And we have no idea why – despite this being a taxpayer-funded public asset, parents have been given no full reasoning for the decision. Perhaps because there is no good reason.
The DfE told me it was because Vine “did not have the same level of capacity” as Net, the group struggling with almost half its schools.
Yet the head refers to Baldwin’s “concern” about Vine being a trust of church schools, which Waltham Holy Cross is not (neither Barnett nor Vine see this as a problem).
But the letter contains another clue.
When the school got its Ofsted result months ago, Barnett writes, “the local authority told us that the director of education, Clare Kershaw, would want us only to go with [Net Academies]”.
Essex county council’s Kershaw was also a trustee with the charity New Education Trust, out of which came the Net Academies.
Both the council and the government assured me that the two were separate entities, and her interest had been properly declared. Net denies any conflict of interest.
Yet the charity’s last set of accounts describes the academies as “a connected charity”, affording it “direct involvement in improving [school] standards”.
Kershaw also appears on an official document for the academy trust.
Faced with potential conflict of interest in other areas, officials would have ensured they were seen to be a million miles away from the decision.
What’s most striking about academies is that there appears to be no such pressure – perhaps in part because private meetings between officials and business people allows everything to happen.
And the people who know most about what their kids need – the parents and teachers – are shut out.
Academisation laughs at the idea that Britain is a modern, transparent democracy. Under it, the needs of the child are trumped by the demands of rightwing ideology.
And as Waltham Holy Cross is discovering, it tries to reduce parents and teachers to mere bystanders.
Battling that are mothers like Roberts and Tailor. Never the sort to go on marches, they are now activists.
They’ve learned about freedom of information, and used it to unearth scandalously bad decisions.
They’ve done it in spare minutes, with cracked smartphones and against official condescension.
While trying to preserve their children’s school, they have received another education – and taught officials a few things.
Watch these women, because I think they might win.