Back on the Chain Gang

I’m deliberately digging this out, dusting it off, and putting it back out there. They say those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. It’s also true that those who DO learn from history are doomed to sit by impotently while others repeat it. Today’s announcement that the Government is finally giving up any pretence at local autonomy, and is imposing a structure on schools which is essentially competing firms running school franchises in what is essentially a private marketplace is shocking. Not just because of the clear attempt to privatise a key public service (and the determined attempts to pretend this isn’t what is happening), but because it has been tried before. On a smaller scale, to be sure. But it was tried, and it was a disaster. And guess which DFE civil servant was clearing up the mess last time ?


This article appeared in the Guardian today by ex-Secretary of State Estelle Morris. It prompted a bit of a trip down memory lane. You see, I worked for Estelle Morris when I was at the DFE.

I always found her to be pragmatic, sensible and non-ideological (although ferociously committed to retaining swimming as a compulsory activity in schools, which I always thought was a bit random). Unfortunately, during her time at DFE, she was frequently undermined from No 10 by Andrew Adonis, one of those classic New Labour figures who still manages to be popular with ideological elements in all three Thatcherite parties. Presumably on the grounds that he promises fatuous simplistic structural solutions which suit a “free-market” philosophy and, coincidentally, place rich men in receipt of education budgets. I suspect his contempt for her was rooted in the fact that she had once been a teacher, and Adonis, like so many of those who have come since, is convinced that the very last people who should ever have an input into education policy are teachers. After the final occasion upon which this unelected advisor who’d never taught a single lesson, overruled the elected, experienced, ex-teacher Secretary of State on matters of education policy, she resigned. And university tuition fees were born – but that’s another story.

Get your cause and effect the right way round, Estelle

Estelle Morris says in this article that academies came along in the wake of the demise of LEAs. She’s wrong here. Academies helped cause the demise of LEAs. LEAs remained largely intact, and with the capacity to fulfil their key responsibilities, until the 2010 Academies Act and the 2011 Education Act. They could cope with occasional schools being taken out, such as New Labour’s original academies. It was small beer, and to all intents and purposes those academies were almost inevitably the intractable local sink school where the LEA was content to play along with the idea that somehow a new “ethos” would change the day, whereas in actual fact it was usually a huge increase in budget and smashing new buildings which, combined with a change of key staff, would do enough to attract aspirant local parents and thus change the intake of the school. The original academies programme was always about changing the intake, not about changing the ethos – even if that was never publicly admitted by Ministers or LEAs.  Unfortunately, as a senior academic at the Institute of Education once said to me : “this is where Blairism comes back to bite us on the arse”. Along came Gove.

Gove took a concept designed to inspire a change of intake in a handful of historically difficult schools, and used it to create the market-based education system he sought. LEAs have been eviscerated in the name of a market ideology which sees private companies like academy chains as the ultimate destinations for all our schools. It’s been privatisation by any other name, and it was never necessary – it was a choice. It was this mass academization and the corresponding reduction in both budget and powers for LEAs which has destroyed capacity and led to the now looming school places crisis. All three main parties have their hands dipped in the blood of what is now a chaotic mess. This is where market ideology leads in a core public service like education. But I’ve dealt with this elsewhere. The purpose of this blog is merely to point out that history doesn’t have to be very old before idiots can fail to learn from it, and thus repeat its mistakes. And so it is with Gove and academy chains.

chain gangAnother school is welcomed into the Harris family

A bit of history

The DFE has always had a bit of an antipathy towards LEAs. I guess it was partly due to the innate sense of superiority which central government civil servants always felt over their local namesakes, and partly down to just the natural tendency of all bureaucracies to accrue power unto themselves. I never shared that distrust of LEAs myself. While I was working at the Department in the late nineties and early noughties, I was offered a job running a team in the DFE’s early LEA-interventions policy, which was already trying to shoehorn private companies into previously public spaces. I refused it on the grounds that LEAs were education’s equivalent of Bismarck’s Austria-Hungary : if they didn’t exist, we’d have to invent them (yes, I do believe – cocky bugger that I was – that I actually used that exact quote to an unsmiling superior, who was not generally of the view that ambitious young civil servants should turn down offers to join their division).

I felt then that any attempt to remove LEAs would ultimately result in chaos, because there had to be a co-ordination role which operated at a higher level than schools, and that role could not be performed by the DFE trying to co-ordinate 25,000 schools from Sanctuary Buildings. Well, bugger me, it turns out I was right. Perhaps if I’d stayed in the civil service, Chris Wormald would now be slapping me on the back as a policy prophet. More likely I’d have been sacked on Gove’s arrival as “not fully committed to the corporate agenda” (which were the exact words which were written on my personnel records after one promotion board, I seem to recall).

The thing is, my deep suspicion of this goal of destroying LEAs was based not just on theory, but on actual experience of what transpired when it was done. Which takes me to the near-forgotten policy of Education Action Zones. Reader, persevere, as I think this may be worth it.

Getting In The Zone

On return from a secondment elsewhere, I was heading up the Education Action Zone team in the department (my direct boss, as it happens, was then Chris Wormald – now Permanent Secretary at the DFE, and a very intelligent, nice chap he was too). This policy will sound awfully familiar to many looking at academy chains today. It involved :

  • “Freeing” schools from LEA “control”
  • Inviting “sponsors” from business who would get involved in governance in return for a donation to show their commitment
  • EAZ “Directors” who would oversee the Zones
  • A funding agreement direct with the DfE, not the LEA
  • Groups of schools working together with a specific “ethos”

You’re probably now getting my point. This was a flagship policy, and so the full New Labour spin operation was behind it. Results were exaggerated and misrepresented; gushing articles were pushed celebrating the marvellous things these EAZs were doing; self-publicizing “Directors” and headteachers were promoted as inspiring leaders whipping their schools into shape through personal genius. Again, this is probably sounding a bit familiar to anyone who has had to read a DFE press release about academy chains in the last five years.

The problem was, it was all cobblers.

As a conscientious civil servant, when I took the job, I had a bit of an audit of what was going on in my new empire. I knew that zones had come under a bit of criticism from academic studies doubting the claims made for their results. Even Ofsted had a pop at them in 2001. But these criticisms had been answered with panglossian DFE press releases which simply denied the criticisms and promised sunlit uplands in the future.

What I found horrified me.

civil servant

How I saw myself in the DFE

EAZs were usually inefficient, often the “head office” were borderline incompetent, and they were reliant on an exponentially growing – and very expensive – bunch of civil servants in Whitehall and Darlington who were having to try to replicate the previous role of the LEA the schools had been “freed” from. Frequently their relationship with other local schools was very hostile, and the much-trumpeted “sponsorship” of the Zones, which was supposed to be millions of pounds in total, was nearly always nothing of the kind. The most common “donation” was usually for a sponsor’s company to send along a guy to a couple of meetings, and then claim that this was a donation “in kind” worth the value of the supposed sponsorship they were required to put in. If a Zone was really lucky, a company would offload its old ICT equipment into schools, which had no balance sheet value to the firm, but would still be written up as a hugely valuable act of sponsorship. I became increasingly uncomfortable as it became clear to me that the DFE had been complicit in this charade. But nowhere near as uncomfortable as I became when I dug a little deeper, and discovered what I considered to be downright unpleasant.

Increasingly, many Zones seemed to be being milked as cash cows by unscrupulous men. Some of these guys were ex-heads who had seen the possibility of lining their pockets. It was also the case that EAZ Directorships attracted the kind of well-connected, self-publicizing chancers with fictional CVs who talk a good game. The most common form of this graft was “directors” paying themselves (and their companies) very large salaries to do very little (except posture about how great their leadership was in glowing DFE-promoted articles). But there was also evidence of large amounts of cash from school budgets being directed into companies which had links with EAZ directors and the business “sponsors”. And of course there were fairly frequent “consultancy fees” being paid to people who were supposedly doing this either (a) as their job, or (b) as a “sponsor”. Again, although this was hard to prove, I got the very clear sense that the department was – at best – trying very hard not to look, in case it saw what was happening. And then there were the results : these results, it turned out, were also fiction. Some EAZ schools improved results. Others stayed the same. Others got worse. There was no pattern at all. There was no way that anyone could claim that all this effort, cash and time had resulted directly in a single additional GCSE grade. It was all emperor’s new clothes.

Unfortunately, and being the boyscout that I am, I started shouting about it, ordering more investigations and audits into specific cases, and looking harder at the spurious claims being made for results. So I built up the evidence, made the case, and recommended the closure of the entire EAZ policy, the stripping out of the excessive and wasteful local mini-bureaucracies, and the return of their finances to much tighter LEA oversight. To her eternal credit, Estelle Morris was the Secretary of State who agreed to lance those festering boils. To this day I remain proud of this contribution to public life. I saw a case of public money being squandered in the name of ideology, with no evidence of impact, and quite a bit of evidence of petty corruption, and I took what action I could to stop it. Probably at the expense of my civil service career, although I was far too naive to realise this at the time.

I should probably add here that I don’t think DFE officials were complicit in a pocket-filling, wilfully-corrupt sort of way. It was more fear. When Blunkett arrived in 1997, he made it very clear that his concept of civil service advice was not so much a neutral and expert view of the pros and cons of any possible policy, but merely the fastest and most presentationally-advantageous way of delivering a decision which was Not To Be Questioned. One senior civil servant I knew well actually dared to offer cautionary words about one particularly illogical policy position; Blunkett fired a missive off at the then Permanent Secretary about the “obstructiveness” of this official, and he was told that he needed to find another berth, fast. He ended up working on an airbase in Hertfordshire. That’s a true story. Being anything but gushingly positive about even the maddest of policies was a seriously career-limiting move.

Chains = Zombie EAZs ?

So here we are, more than a decade later, and we have academy chains – in every way the descendent of EAZs. What do we see : chains are often inefficient, the “head office” of some are incompetent, and they are reliant on an exponentially growing – and very expensive – bunch of civil servants in DFE and the EFA who are having to try to replicate the previous role of the LEA the schools have been “freed” from. Frequently their relationship with other local schools is very hostile, and the much-trumpeted “sponsorship” of the Chains, rarely seems to involve much in the way of cash transfer from sponsor to schools. Increasingly, many chains seem to be being milked as cash cows by unscrupulous men. Some of these guys are ex-heads who have seen the possibility of lining their pockets. It is also the case that chains attracted the kind of well-connected, self-publicizing chancers with fictional CVs who talk a good game. The most common form of this graft is “directors” paying themselves (and their companies) very large salaries to do very little (except posture about how great their leadership is in glowing DFE-promoted articles). But there is also evidence of large amounts of cash from school budgets being directed into companies which have links with chain directors and the business “sponsors”. And of course there are fairly frequent “consultancy fees” being paid to people who are supposedly doing this either (a) as their job, or (b) as a “sponsor”. Again, although this is hard to prove, I get the very clear sense that the department is – at best – trying very hard not to look, in case it sees what is happening. And then there are the results, which it turns out, are also fiction. Some chain schools have improved results. Others have stayed the same. Others have got worse. There is no pattern at all. There is no way that anyone could claim that all this effort, cash and time has resulted directly in a single additional GCSE grade. It is all emperor’s new clothes.

Do you see what I did there?

corruption Future Academy Chain Director

Somebody’s been paying attention in class

To be fair, I do think that lessons were learned from the EAZ experience:

  1. Aim big. When the EAZ directors were local nobodies and the “sponsors” were small beer, it was easy for those dastardly civil servants to pick them off. Get the big money men involved in chains. A Lord or two will do; some guys from the City; well-connected serious party donors.
  2. Don’t leave the chains out there in isolation where some goody-two-shoes civil servant can start looking at their bloody numbers. Get the chain owners on the DFE Board so that they can properly squash any serious investigation into what’s going on (oh, and also ensure policy steers more school budgets into their possession).
  3. Make sure the schools aren’t actually independent within the chain; in the last model of EAZs, the schools themselves were often the canaries in the mine, singing about what the EAZ Directors were doing, and we can’t have that. So take away all school independence and make sure the chain owners can hire and fire headteachers at will.
  4. The Zones collapsed because someone was allowed to look at the totality of what they were claiming compared to what they were actually doing. It’s really important not to allow that level of scrutiny. So whatever you do, don’t let any organisation inspect them. Even a normally tame one like Ofsted.
  5. Finally, EAZs could be rolled back because there were still LEAs ready and waiting to step back in. If there are no LEAs, there’s no alternative, so you can just, say, employ unaccountable “brokers” to simply arbitrarily move budgets (sorry, “academies”) from one chain to another at whim.

Still, the Tories will be out in May, and we all know Tristram Hunt isn’t a big fan of these unaccountable, highly-paid, well-connected “sponsors” exploiting their blatant conflict of interest on the DFE board to further the interests of their own companies.

Oh, hang on…


8 thoughts on “Back on the Chain Gang

  1. Frightning stuff. You made a very interesting point about academies with big budgets and new buildings changing intake rather than ethos. Much food for thought with elections looming on May. I’d be interested to know your views on Green Party education policy proposals.


    • In terms of the ethos of Green education policies, I’m quite a fan.

      They put children and teachers back centre stage, and there’s a clear indication that they’ve tried to base policies on evidence, not ideology. Some of the specifics I think are absolutely essential to a recovery of teacher morale and Recruitment & Retention : particularly getting rid of the odious and pointless PRP, the abolition of Ofsted and the end of crude league table comparisons. You can also probably guess that I’m keen on their idea of kicking out these private parasites and restoring state schools to the oversight of their communities via their local councils.

      I also like the later start for academic education, although I’d agree with Emma Hardy about the need for slightly greater compulsion of attendance at pre-academic high-quality pre-school placements.

      There are some bits I’m less convinced by (stronger student councils are not top of my to-do list), but it’d be incredibly arrogant to want a party to promote all my personal beliefs and nothing else. I leave that to Gove and Wilshaw.

      The bottom line is that the Green education policy is by far the best when compared to the three main parties (I’m not even bothering to read UKIPs, although my prediction will be it’ll involve demanding grammar schools, the return of the cane, and probably racially segregated schooling for all I know). Mostly because it reads like a policy written by people who actually understand education and children, rather than politicians who think anything opposed by teachers must automatically be a good thing.

      It’s a shame they haven’t a hope in hell of putting it into practice. For the time being, tripartisan consensus on a market-based approach to further privatisation of schools is the order of the day. I don’t think Nash, Harris, Agnew et al need to worry about their trough being swiped away just yet.


  2. I’m a contemporary of yours at DFE(E), and can vouch for pretty much everything said here. I am also one of the ones who was stupid enough to work on LEA outsourcings in the early noughties. Possibly working for the very same senior official who you defended LEAs to.

    I hold no torch for local government – I live in Lambeth. Some of the authorities which were “intervened” in were total basket cases. In one, teachers weren’t being paid because the authority’s HR system didn’t work. In another, school governors were handed out by councillors as a prezzie for their mates. These were not high-performing organisations. But they *were* accountable. In fact in one case, the regime was booted out at an election halfway through being outsourced, which was fun.

    But what Ministers (in reality, Andrew Adonis) wanted us to do was just as bad, and shared a lot of characteristics with the EAZ and academy chain examples. Dodgy consultancies, no transparency of anything, inflated salaries for “leaders” etc.

    On the subject of academies though, it is worth getting hold of a record of the Public Accounts Committee’s session this Monday. “Sir” Greg Martin, head of Durand Academy in south London, was utterly eviscerated by Margaret Hodge. It is equal parts hilarious and shocking. Watching his utter outrage at being asked to defend his (£300k) salary, his, er, “tax efficient” payment arrangements and the way he pays himself (via a shell company) a management fee for operating the school swimming pool as a separate business is a sight to behold. And that’s before he has tranferred the £5m site for a new school (paid for with public money) to a separate trust to make sure the public purse can’t take it off him.

    Oh and this is a school which spends 6-figure sums a year on PR advice. To a firm which just happens to be run by one of the governors.

    What really shocked me about this, though, is that Chris Wormald was sitting next to him. When challenged about this, his response was “Look, we agree with the committee, but the bugger is so slippery we can’t lay a glove on him”. (I am paraphrasing a bit. But only a bit) More of this sort of thing please!


  3. Nice twist at the end. There’s no way that Tristram Hunt (aka ‘Rhyming Slang’) will do anything to reverse the assault on State education anymore than Ed Balls will have the, eh, intestinal fortitude, to stop the rot that is PFI. Interviewed about league tables, Hunt didn’t pause for thought before reiterating the neo-liberal mantra of falling standards.


  4. Its now March 2016 and after yesterday’s announcements, that all schools should be academies, this article is as, if not more valid.

    I increasingly wonder who actually voted these people into number 10…..


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