The outraged reaction to the Government’s plans to privatise all our state schools by forcing them to become franchises of private companies called “Multi-Academy Trusts” continues apace. Tory councillors, the Financial Times and even the Economist have now criticised the plans. The response to the White Paper has been one of genuine shock that a government department could produce such an odious document of propaganda, fantasy and downright lies. Morgan was openly laughed at as she went to the NASUWT conference to explain to teachers that the recruitment and retention crisis has nothing to do with her own Government’s policies, but was because the unions were “too negative”. Oh dear. Meanwhile, however, the true believers, the hardcore of Govian Faithful (and more than a few people already benefitting personally from the largesse of MATs), are desperately thrashing around for arguments to justify or disguise the true motives : moving the education budget into private hands. I’ve collected their various attempts at arguments here, largely because, like Morgan at the NASUWT, I like to laugh at their vacuous stupidity. I’ve even marked them for you, using my own special scale. Feel free to disagree with the scores.
We’re just tidying up the system
This argument is that it’s inefficient or confusing to have both an LEA system and an academies system running alongside each other. So forcing everyone to become an academy is just an administrative convenience.
Let’s leave aside the fact this argument is coming from the people who actually created this fractured mess in the first place, and simply note this: roughly 20% of schools are academies; 80% are LEA-maintained. By far the least disruptive, and cheapest, way of “tidying up” would be to force academies back into LEA-overseen structures. So this argument is the equivalent of a swimmer making it 4 miles across the English Channel before realising dry land is immediately essential, and then deciding that the best course of action is not to turn around, but to swim the next 16 miles instead.
Illogical Rating: 10/10 for madness of “solution”. This has no logic at all. It’s the reverse of logic.
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 0/10 for recognising fragmentation, 5/10 for creating fragmentation in first place.
Total Score: 15 Goves
The Education System after the Govians have “tidied it up”
Academy chains will bring higher standards
There’s nobody left in the world who knows anything about education who isn’t now aware that this is, well, bollocks. The Sutton Trust, the Educational Select Committee, even Ofsted – all have noted that there is no connection at all between “standards” and academy status. I mean, come on lads, you’re not even trying.
Illogical Rating: 8/10. The education policy equivalent of saying “If we repaint the car, it’ll go faster”
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 9/10. This statement is played on a recurring loop on tiny speakers implanted in the brains of Govians. It’s possible that they genuinely believe that the clear evidence that there is no impact on “standards” is some sort of NUT conspiracy.
Total Score: 17 Goves
Gove, Osborne, Morgan and Policy Exchange head off to find higher academy standards
Schools will have greater autonomy and freedom in MATs
No, stoppit. Really. My sides hurt.
Illogical Rating: 10/10. There’s no topping this one. Leaving a system where the school is a self-governing autonomous institution to be absorbed into a corporate entity where you lose even your legal existence. That’s greater autonomy, is it? Deary me…
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 10/10. There’s only two options here when someone makes this argument. Either they’re completely lost to the world, and believe Hogwarts is actually a real school somewhere near Huddersfield, or they’re the most cynical liar you’ve ever met. Neither is a good quality for someone directing our education system.
Total Score: 20 Goves
Morgan gets a shock when she makes that “autonomy” argument again
MATs bring economies of scale
Economies of scale are savings you make by pooling functions, so not every school has to pay for its own back office requirements. They are usually said to occur when smaller organisations come together as a larger one. Now think on this for a moment. LEAs are larger than MATs, and this pooling of functions was precisely what they did before, er, the Government tried to stop them. So the argument the Government is making is that you will gain economies of scale by leaving a large organisation, and going into a smaller one. Hello?
Illogical Rating: 9/10. I’m knocking off 1 because they used an actual economic term. They didn’t understand it, to be sure, but they did use it.
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 5/10. At least it’s not complete fantasy to recognise that schools benefit from working together under the umbrella of a larger central organisation. It’s called a “Local Education Authority”.
Total Score: 14 Goves
An economist attempts to explain concepts to a DFE Board meeting
MATs allow teachers to be transferred to other schools to spread best practice
This one (from the White Paper) was raised by Sam Freedman, ex-Gove “Senior Policy Advisor”, this morning. It gave me a good chuckle. Some might argue that one of the problems Sam and his friends at Teach First have brought to the education system is the expectation that all teachers should be under-25, have no family commitments of their own, and should live in London. So you can see how he thinks the idea of a large MAT forcing a teacher to commute for hours, or move house (well, she’s under-25, she’ll be renting, and won’t have childcare issues, right?) to a school in a different area, might work out in his head. Sadly, his head isn’t the place most teachers live.
Of course, some cross-school teacher movement or advice does happen. The problem with basing the privatisation policy on it is (1) you don’t need MATs for it to happen – LEAs used to do this all the time through their advisory services which the Government has more or less killed off, and my own standalone academy does it with other schools in its local Umbrella Trust (I think it’s over-rated, but it still happens); and (2) it tends to work best when geographically concentrated, so that you’re not reliant on that very small proportion of the workforce who are completely footloose and fancy-free. Given that the same Govians arguing for this will also argue that MATs should NOT be geographically concentrated because this would create “a monopoly” which would “distort the market”, you start to see just how flimsy this argument is.
Illogical Rating: 2/10. There is some logic here. It’s a mad idea to base such an enormous policy on the concept that a few schools might find it easier to organise a teacher exchange or a spot of light CPD, but there’s not much illogical about it. The two points are for the failure to recognise that an individual teacher is an actual person. They can’t be in two places at the same time. So when you put that “outstanding” teacher in your other school, you remove that “outstanding” teacher from the first school. How does that work for your students and parents ? Oops.
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 7/10. Most teachers are older than this, have their own families, and are under the mistaken impression that they joined a school to teach in that school, as opposed to being conscripted into the army with no future control over their lives.
Total Score: 9 Goves
Policy Exchange and Teach First unveil their vision of the new MAT Empire teaching staff
It allows “Great Leaders” to emerge
Ah yes. Great leaders like Moynihan. And Martin. And Nolan. The only thing “great” about those greedy bastards is the “great” weight of their wallets after they’ve finished sucking cash out of our children’s classrooms. Let’s have more of them, shall we?
Illogical Rating: 0/10. It does indeed allow “Great Leaders” to emerge. And while it would be true to say that I’m yet to meet any teacher who thinks that the current problem with education is too little focus on a North Korean-style Cult of the Leader, it’s nevertheless logical that, without MATs, these robber barons wouldn’t be able to do what they do.
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 8/10. Define “Great” for me? Or explain why our schools will all be much better when we have a whole extra layer of non-teaching, enormous-salaried people with “executive” in their titles?
Total Score: 8 Goves
This man will be looking for a Great Leader job after November. MAT Director, perhaps?
It’s not privatisation because MATs can’t make profits
Privatisation does not always look like the sell-off of British Gas in 1986. It is, at its most basic level, the transfer of assets, income streams, and economic activity from the public sector to the private sector. Which is exactly what is proposed here. LEAs are public sector organisations. MATs are private companies. I’m not entirely sure why Govians struggle with this. Oh, yes I am: it’s because they’re desperate to avoid people seeing the “Privatisation” word, because they know parents wouldn’t stand for it.
Moreover, there are many, many ways for the well-connected to make large amounts of money from MATs without ever recording a profit on a set of accounts. Large multinationals often claim to make no profits from their operations in the UK, yet strangely keep generating large amounts of cash for shareholders and the Director class. MATs will be able to do the same; quite a few already are. We’re already not short of examples, and Moynihan’s monumental greed at the Harris MAT is only the most straightforward of examples of self-enrichment from the backs of students.
Illogical Rating: 8/10. If it looks like privatisation, smells like privatisation, belongs to a private company, and allows well-connected men to become very rich by sucking cash from our classrooms, then it’s privatisation.
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 5/10. They know what they’re doing. Follow the money. With this mob, always follow the money.
Total Score: 13 Goves
MAT Bosses are Good People
The counter argument I expected to my original piece has already emerged. It goes like this: “You are criticising MATs for allowing unscrupulous people to benefit personally from the privatisation of our schools. Therefore you are saying that every person in a MAT is unscrupulous.” This, of course is a logical non-sequitur. Not all bankers are greedy and corrupt, but their system allowed them to be, and plenty were. Not all privatised industry executives were greedy after the wave of 1980s privatisations, but their system allowed them to be, and plenty were. Not all MAT Members and Trustees are greedy and corrupt, but their system allows them to be, and plenty have been, and still are.
The argument “Trust me, most of the guys at the top aren’t crooks” is not a basis on which to establish an education system overseeing £90 billion of public money.
It is a very good rule in life that the more public money you control, and the more power you wield, the greater the daily scrutiny and the more rigorous the checks and balances you should be subject to. Yet in education policy, we have designed a system in which the greatest scrutiny and openness applies to those with the least control over power and money – classroom teachers – and the least scrutiny and openness in MATs applies to those with the greatest access to power and public cash : the MAT Bosses. That is a recipe for corruption. And in saying that, I am not accusing all MAT members or Trustees of corruption. This is such an obvious point that I wonder at the motives of those who suggest otherwise. More chaff, perhaps.
Illogical Rating: 9/10. Me: “This new ‘no-discipline policy’ allows some students to act very badly, I think we should change it.” Govian: “Awww! You just said all students are bad people!”
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 2/10. Not much fantasy here. Just thrashing around trying to find a way to pull the curtain back over what has been exposed.
Total Score: 11 Goves
MAT CEO addresses the assembled teachers
MATs can save small rural schools
This is a variant on the “economies of scale” argument above. It was being pushed today by Policy Exchange. The line goes : funding is being cut. Small rural schools can form a MAT, share “back-office functions”, and stay alive. The economies of scale angle remains a bit mad, given that no MAT of small rural schools could ever have access to the same potential for shared resources as an LEA. But let’s leave that, as there’s another issue, which is funding.
As we’ve established, individual schools don’t have their own protected budgets within MATs. The MAT receives all the cash and decides how to dish it out. In doing so, it can decide to push more funding per head towards Franchise A than Franchise B. However, if the MAT is a collection of similarly small rural ex-schools, then such cross-subsidisation would be pointless, as both Franchises A and B would be in the same position.
So cross-subsidisation is possible only if Franchise A is a small rural ex-school, while Franchise B is a larger school bringing more cash to the MAT budget. Ex-School B, however, might be miffed. The good news though, is that ex-school B doesn’t exist any more, they’re just a local office of the MAT, so the only way they can express that miffedness is to have the Head appeal: first to the MAT Board, and then to the Secretary of State. That’s right folks, a Head can seek to protect her ex-school’s share of the MAT budget by first appealing to her employers, the people who made the decision in the first place, and then by complaining about her employers’ decision to the Secretary of State. I expect the queue to appeal will stretch around the block, obviously.
Close observers will note that the only way this “protects” small rural schools is by removing cash from students in non-small rural schools. Here we hit a separate problem : MAT Boards don’t have a specific duty to keep ex-schools open. They do have a duty to manage their budget to achieve “Value For Money“. This is helpfully defined in the DFE’s Academies Financial Handbook as “Achieving the best possible educational and wider societal outcomes through the economic, efficient and effective use of all the resources in the trust’s charge, the avoidance of waste and extravagance, and prudent and economical administration.” It goes on, to define “economical” specifically as “obtaining an outcome for the least possible input of resources“. Now, maybe you think that these are words of comfort for small rural ex-schools in MATs with larger, more cost-effective ex-schools. I wouldn’t, if I were you.
Illogical Rating: 7/10 – a combination of “Couldn’t help small schools in MATs of just small ex-schools”, with “wouldn’t help small schools in MATs with larger schools” makes this a fairly doolally argument.
Detached-From-Reality Rating: 10/10. I can’t believe the Govians reckon that anyone’s falling for the line that every large urban school in the country is being forced into a private company because somehow some different private companies might help a few small rural schools.
Total Score: 17 Goves
Harris announces economy of scale for its small rural branch. Savings on roof, walls, teachers, students…
Policy Exchange: the new market leaders in fantasy fiction
The Govian gnomes are beavering away in the bowels of Policy Exchange making up new specious arguments, and pumping out more downright lies, every single day. Yet each one is stripped away by the application of logic or reality. If you hear any new ones, send them to me, and I’ll mark them.
There’s a serious point to this, other than me having fun poking Govians, and it’s this : Occam’s Razor. This is the principle that, when you strip away the less likely (or downright silly) explanations offered for any event or action, whatever you have left is likely to be the true cause.
The Govian establishment are proposing what even they admit is a huge, monumental upheaval in education, using the hammer of primary legislation to force the great majority of our schools, against their stated will, into the arms of private companies. For such a huge policy, there has to be a huge explanation. Yet it takes very little effort before the offered explanations fall away:
- We know it’s not about “standards”, because academies and MATs don’t improve standards.
- We know it’s not about “freedom” or “autonomy” because MATs reduce freedom and autonomy.
- We know it’s not about administrative reform, because there is a much easier, less expensive administrative reform available (returning all schools to LEAs).
So, having stripped away all those, what’s left ?
This is about privatisation. It’s about who controls the money, and where that money goes. It is about removing the education budget from scrutinised, accountable public control, and placing it in the hands of unscrutinised, unaccountable private companies competing in a private “marketplace”. Many of these companies not only have strong links to the Conservative Party, but some hold official positions within the education policy-making structure at DFE.
Every other argument is demonstrable nonsense.
Privatisation? Of course it’s bloody privatisation.