You can’t escape the stink of dodgy deals at the DfE
Less than a month into the new academic year and the former principal of the Kings Science Academy in Bradford finds himself heading for the clink, found guilty of treating the free school he set up back in 2011 as something of a cash cow.
Staunch defenders of academies and free schools will – with some justification – decry the Kings Sciences of the edu-world as isolated cases that should not be used to knee-cap the whole Govian manifesto of freedoms for all, not the few.
But the uncomfortable truth is that dodgy deals abound. And I’m not talking about renegade free-school founders, or avaricious CEOs of MATs. No, the real closet wide boys are none other than our lords and masters in Sanctuary Buildings.
The fact is that many of us have had to hold our noses while highly questionable deals were done behind the scenes. This is not about lining their own pockets: this is all about sweeping up behind the elephant. There is a giant, steaming pile of excrement regularly being shipped out, with most people none the wiser.
This stream of effluent is the product of a policy rich in promise but impoverished in delivery. When Michael Gove took the helm of the Department for Education in 2010 with missionary zeal to bring academies to all, punishing poor performers and freeing the enslaved, it was politically important to act quickly. Any politico knows that to get anything done, you have to get off to a flying start and be able to implement your golden policy at breakneck pace. But, in the rush, things go wrong.
'The backroom deal was born'
One problem was that already festering in the tank were a couple of academy chains that had gone hell for leather and stockpiled academies left, right and centre with little or no care as to whether this was making a positive difference to the schools.
And while with Gove came a new breed of exciting new education reformers, this also brought out of the weeds all sorts of characters to whom you wouldn’t entrust a child, let alone whole schools: the chancers, the mavericks and the downright incompetents. They had to be dealt with. And on the QT.
And lo, the backroom deal was born. But of course, these days there is no need for furtive meet-ups: the nod and the wink have become digitised. With a pesky Freedom of Information request only ever an email away, you can pretty much guarantee these deals were all – and are all being – done via text on private phones (email is not to be trusted – just ask Mrs Blurt).
Courtesy of my gossipy peers, here are two examples to make your toes curl. There’s the problem with the jobs for the boys that didn’t quite work out: ministerial chums who weren’t quite up to the job of running an academy were ushered out with minimal fuss and a new sponsor silently sidled in. Let’s not embarrass anyone.
And what does the DfE give in return for taking over underperforming schools? Even a cursory glance at recent news shows this one writ large: “Well, if you take on this basket case, facepalm of a school that is going to sap not just your finances but your will to live, then we will allow you to take on some lovely, life-affirming converter academies, or perhaps some jolly new free schools. How does that sound?”
What does all of this tell us? Well, the bungled execution of a rather good set of reforms means that senior players in the DfE are having to pick up the pieces of their colleagues’ incompetence, spending not insignificant time and money doing such deals. As a result, the boom in rebrokerage looks set to continue for some time. But make no mistake, this is a game of high-stakes poker: blink first and you lose; play hardball and you win – because otherwise that pile of poo ain’t going nowhere.
The Secret CEO is the chief executive of a multi-academy trust somewhere in England