What price academies?

7th December 2012 at 00:00

So now we know. It's not just the bankers who have been running amok with our money, displaying the frenzied abandon of cider-swigging teenagers in a children's play area.

Last month we learned that the Department for Education has overspent its budget on the academies programme by #163;1 billion. Surprisingly - and with unnerving echoes of now-tarnished golden boy Fred "the Shred" Goodwin - it didn't sound entirely repentant.

According to the BBC, the DfE said it made "no apology for spending money on a programme that is proven to drive up standards and make long-term school improvements". I must save that line for when I present a wayward budget to my governors next March.

I do understand that the concept of academisation is as fashionable as the word is ugly. I've even read Andrew Adonis' book Education, Education, Education, which might have been subtitled: "The answer is academies, now what's the question?"

But even the most zealous flag-waving fan of the academies programme ought to have some concerns about such profligacy. Because, as is so often the case, there will be consequences. In order to make up the shortfall, money will have to be raided from other, less favoured budgets - from schools, perhaps, like our neighbourhood comprehensive.

Verily, as the Book of Matthew pointed out, the rich shall get richer while the poor shall get poorer.

Then there was the long-awaited publication by Ofqual of its final report into the causes of this summer's English GCSE fiasco. It was a snip at a mere #163;150,000. That's the amount paid to consultancy firm Capgemini. Its motto is "People matter, results count", which could seem ironic to 50,000 GCSE students and their teachers, who may feel that this summer they did not matter and their results did not count.

The report, conveniently published on the Friday of half-term week, might have been expected to shine a coruscating light on the causes of the grading crisis. But, in a twist that even Agatha Christie would have rejected as too ham-fisted, it transpires that it was the teachers' fault. Cowed by the pressure of the league tables, we were caught like guilty toddlers at the pick 'n' mix: we had pushed the grades beyond their limit and the system had imploded.

Since Ofqual is claiming that there are no records of the 100 interviews that apparently formed the basis of this woeful report, one does begin to wonder whether it was money well spent.

Finally, there was news of the eye-watering salaries some academy chain bosses are earning (several on over #163;200,000), courtesy of the National Audit Office. We are consistently told that academies and free schools are not for profit but merely benefit from economies of scale. To which we can only say: some economies; some scale.

From where I sit, it feels as though something in our system is fracturing, with a growing divisiveness between schools that is both unhealthy and deliberate. I'm not convinced it is in the interests of young people or their communities. We have to hope that the collective sense of moral purpose that once united us isn't also starting, like public money, to be squandered.

Geoff Barton is headteacher of King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds.

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