The use of taxpayers' money by academy chains has been called into question after it emerged that the UK's largest sponsor is to spend pound;1 million on public relations.
United Church Schools Trust (UCST) and its subsidiary United Learning Trust (ULT), which sponsors 20 academies across the country, is advertising for a PR company to take care of its external communications for pound;200,000 a year over the next five years. The chosen company will be asked to look after the media coverage of ULT's 11 private schools as well as its academies.
According to the trust's tender, it is looking for "an external supplier to handle its communications, public relations and stakeholder relationships" to complement the charity's existing in-house marketing team. A spokesperson for UCST, which has an annual turnover of around pound;200 million, said the pound;1 million was "just a guide price" and that it hoped applicants would offer less than that in order to make "serious savings".
The trust's academy arm has suffered a turbulent few years. Both of its Sheffield academies were judged to be inadequate by Ofsted in 2009, with Sheffield Park placed in special measures. Then education secretary Ed Balls banned the group from taking on any more schools until their existing academies improved. Last year, a third ULT school, Stockport Academy, was judged to be inadequate, placing the chain in fresh turmoil.
However, the current Government has lifted the ban on expansion and the trust's rehabilitation has continued with the announcement that Jon Coles, the Department for Education's director of standards in schools, is to be its new chief executive (see panel, left).
The trust's decision to employ a PR company has been heavily criticised by heads' and teachers' unions, which believe public funding is being sucked out of the school system. Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said money being spent on public relations was money not being spent on "books and teachers".
"Parents should already have all the means necessary to judge whether they want to send their child to a certain school," Mr Hobby said. "You have to question whether you need that kind of level of spin to be in education."
Mary Bousted, general secretary of education union the ATL, said the trust's move showed there was a growing lack of accountability when it came to how academy chains were spending public money. "It is becoming harder and harder for the Government to track how these charities are spending taxpayers' money," Dr Bousted said. "The point is we don't know what the spending plans of these chains will be."
However, David Carter, executive principal of the Cabot Learning Federation, a cluster of five academies in Bristol, said there was a need for PR in education. The federation employs an in-house director of communications, who works to boost its profile in the area.
"While I think pound;1 million is an awful lot of money, I do think there is a place for PR in schools and I certainly see the value of it," Mr Carter said. "Our communications director has the skills to publicise our success in the local press, as well as designing all our marketing material and controlling our websites."
UCST finance director James Nicholson said: "We will be judging bids on value for money and expertise. We have made no commitment to the budget, but the ballpark provided represents 0.1 per cent of the group's turnover.
"We operate 31 schools and academies across England, dealing with external stakeholders locally, regionally and nationally on a daily basis. We value the importance of open and transparent communication very highly."
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UCST and ULT have recently appointed Jon Coles, one of the most senior civil servants working in the Department for Education, as their new chief executive. Mr Coles, currently director general for education standards at the DfE, will take up his post in the new year.
Speaking of Mr Coles' move, education secretary Michael Gove said: "Jon is an extremely talented public servant. He has played a hugely influential role in all aspects of education policy during his time at the Department, and it is no exaggeration to say that he has had a profound impact on improving the education that many millions of children have received in this country."
The announcement follows the anticipated departure of Sir David Bell, permanent secretary at the DfE, who will take on the role of vice- chancellor at Reading University.
Original headline: In a spin over an academy sponsor's pound;1m PR bill