Letter sent to Councillors and MPs

Below is a copy of a letter sent by one of our team to the local MP’s and councillors.

I am writing in relation to the proposed creation of a multi-academy trust of seven primary and secondary schools in Kings Heath and Moseley, about which parents received letters two weeks ago (example attached). I and other parents wanted to learn more and share insights, particularly since another local primary school, Colmore, successfully fought off academisation in 2014, so in the last fortnight a Facebook group has been set up (470 members and rising)  https://www.facebook.com/groups/KingsHeathMoseleySchoolsAskTheParents/ , as well as a website https://kingheathasktheparents.wordpress.com/ , leaflets, posters and a petition https://www.change.org/p/governing-body-of-kings-heath-primary-keep-kings-heath-schools-under-local-authority-control

Although this would be a voluntary move on the part of the schools (although who exactly is driving this I don’t know), there seems to be a rather fatalistic mentality along the lines of ‘we’re going to have to become an academy sooner rather than later, so better to jump rather than be pushed’. To be fair to my children’s schools (Wheeler’s Lane Primary and Wheeler’s Lane Technology College), they have not yet entered formal consultation. My impression has been formed on the basis of feedback from parents who attended recent meetings at fellow schools (Park Hill and Kings Heath Primary), as well as informal conversations with some parent governors and staff at several of the schools. That message has been resoundingly unanimous. A common theme that is also ‘doing the rounds’, again from informal exchanges with parent governors and staff, is that the LEA is ‘on its way out’, so, again, a move to academies is allegedly inevitable. NB although carefully worded, both messages are contained (or at least strongly implied) within the attached FAQs from the Stirchley Primary School MAT consultation.

From the responses that some group members have received from councillors and local MPs, there is also a message coming back (whether intentional or not) that because the schools are going into this voluntarily, the LEA/local councillors and MPs cannot (or are reluctant to?) do anything to challenge this. There is an awful lot of conjecture and misinformation (as I outline below), so I am communicating this not to criticise but in the interests of allaying as best I can some of the Chinese whispers. School heads and some governors may indeed be proposing the MAT voluntarily, but the staff I have spoken to informally at both of my children’s schools (I recognise that they are in a very tricky position so cannot speak candidly) are very concerned, and are also operating with incomplete information and being told the fatalistic messages I outlined in the previous paragraph.

I should point out that I have never worked in education nor been a governor, so am by no means close to the intricacies of this complex and opaque area, but I am yet to hear compelling reasons for good schools (as these are) to have to convert to academies: no extra funding or improved outcomes for children, but a whole host of risks, not least to the pay and conditions of staff. I am but a humble and very concerned parent, who rates my children’s schools and their hardworking, dedicated staff very highly and fears for the risks opened up by the irreversible conversion to an MAT. If indeed conversion is inevitable, then I am not convinced that this grouping of schools is a natural fit, with the hugely varying sizes of each school, the mix of primary and secondary schools, and very different starting points in terms of demographics, SEN, site ownership, to name but a few factors. I am not writing this on behalf of our group.

Below I elaborate on the issue of misinformation, and some suggestions of the nature of support I would very much welcome from the LEA/local councillors:

There is incomplete information, rumours and many unanswered questions

One of the parents who attended last night’s (Thursday 1st) meeting at Kings Heath Primary about the proposed MAT posted on the Facebook group that he came away with the understanding that a school with a deficit (as that school has) can be forced to convert to an academy. He commented that this factor alone persuaded him to support the proposed MAT – is it indeed true that a school with a deficit would be forced to become an academy? Are you able to provide information/a web link/an email to confirm or refute this point, and to outline the criteria for this to apply (if it is indeed the case)?

Similarly, are you able to provide information to counter the widespread assertion that the LEA is ‘disintegrating’? We have shared the blue ‘Core Education Services’ document with the group, but if you are able to provide any data/evidence that the LEA is here for the long-term it would be good to share with the group (and more broadly – see below). Perhaps some historical, current and projected financial/budget information might help, for example?

I was made aware that Stirchley Primary School (as an example) is in the process of converting to an MAT. I had a quick look at the consultation documents on their website http://www.stirchly.bham.sch.uk/academy-consultation and was surprised to see that they do not seem paint the full picture in relation to the transfer of staff pay and conditions, for example. The FAQs document on their website (attached) says:

Will the staff stay the same? When a school converts from a local authority maintained school to a new academy, all permanent staff are entitled to transfer to it under the same employment terms and conditions. The process of conversion assumes ‘as is’ for staff and that they continue to teach the same classes as previously.

If I understand correctly (and please do correct me if I’m wrong), the TUPE only applies for a temporary period, and after that MATs have the freedom to change pay and conditions for existing staff (and certainly to have different contracts for new staff). If that is correct, it is misleading (to say the least) for Stirchley Primary School not to make this clear in their materials. Maybe it is mentioned elsewhere in their documents, but certainly not prominently if at all. Our group has heard from teachers who have seen big staffing changes after their school converted to an academy, with all staff required to re-apply for their jobs and many more experienced staff leaving. At a time when the profession is losing valued staff on account of the stressful workload and ongoing changes to the curriculum, SATs, GCSEs, etc., risks to pay and conditions will only serve to drive out more staff.

Members of the group are also concerned about SEN provision, as we have heard that SEND pupils with more complex needs get pushed out of academies due to issues around achieving targets and financing the provision to meet their needs. Again, it would be good to know whether this is indeed a risk.

While the current leadership of our schools may be keen to preserve the balanced curriculum, ethos, staff pay and conditions, etc, is there a legally enforceable means to ‘future-proof’ these intentions? To my mind, a grouping of seven schools does not constitute ‘critical mass’ in the long term, so presumably there is the risk of being acquired by a larger group in future.

We need help from the Council/LEA – and quickly!

Distributing leaflets/information packs

There is an urgent need for the LEA to make its voice heard (loudly and widely!) to put right this misinformation, as many people are operating under the assumption that the LEA will ‘disappear’ or be scaled back to the bare minimum, and that academisation of all schools is inevitable. Information needs to be shared with parents, schools and staff across Birmingham, and as quickly as possible – can the council require all schools to send home to parents a succinct, impactful leaflet about this, perhaps in a Q&A format, for example? How soon could this be done? Things seem to be moving very quickly.

The information should include (and this is by no means a comprehensive list!):

– alternative ways of schools collaborating, and the implications, pros and cons of each. (is there something you can share about this in the meantime?);

– clarifying the circumstances – if any – under which schools would be forced to convert to academies (e.g. if they have a financial deficit, a poor Ofsted rating, etc);

– the risks of what could happen to staff pay & conditions after the TUPE period (whatever the duration actually is) is over, given that staff costs account for >75% of a school’s expenditure;

– the impact on funding per pupil if a school converts to an MAT or other models, including SEND pupils.

Holding schools to account re their consultation (and pre-consultation) information and processes

For any meeting relating to potential changes to the school’s status as a maintained school, it would be great if schools could be obliged to include representatives of the LEA and at least one teaching union (preferably not the union rep at the particular school, who may not feel able to speak freely), so that some of the assertions being made can be challenged in real time by informed and credible speakers – is there a way to ensure this happens? Does the council have a means to require this, given that these schools remain (for now at least) accountable to the LEA?

Are councillors able to hold schools to account to make sure that the information they share is transparent, balanced and complete? My sense is that schools seem to be creating their own materials about this, which, apart from anything else, is hugely wasteful of resources; are there template information packs/meeting agendas/guides for schools, to avoid them reinventing the wheel and potentially heaving information gaps?

As I mentioned above, the schools have not yet entered formal consultation. I understand that Wheeler’s Lane Primary has a governors’ meeting scheduled for Thursday 8th December to decide whether to go into formal consultation; other schools also plan to make decisions at their December governors’ meetings. Given that the parent governor I spoke to informally admitted to knowing very little about the implications, pros and cons of an MAT or the alternatives to this (including remaining as is), I am very concerned (as she is) that governors are being ‘railroaded’, under pressure (she didn’t know from whom) to make decisions too quickly and without a comprehensive and balanced view.

If and when a school chooses to enter formal consultation, does the council have a mechanism to require that formal consultation starts only on the day that parents receive a full and fair information pack? Ideally, each school would hold an open meeting one week after parents receive the information pack, including speakers presenting both ‘for’ and ‘against’ the proposals. Schools should be required to share all information ahead of such a meeting, such that no new information is shared at the meeting, and the meeting is therefore a discussion, rather than parents being on the back foot because they are trying to absorb new information.

****

This is all incredibly complicated, so I have no doubt missed other crucial considerations from this email, but I hope it serves to emphasise that there are many parents with a lot of questions, who want to support our schools in making the best decision, and preserve a thriving LEA. Although I am primarily concerned with the proposed Kings Heath/Moseley MAT, this is a much broader issue and could provide useful learning across Birmingham and indeed beyond.

Any support would be very gratefully received. It might be most efficient to convene a meeting with appropriate councillors and members of our group, to form a ‘working group’ of what we can do and how best to do this. Our group includes a great deal of insight and expertise, and we could put forward a small number of representatives to make it more workable, if appropriate.

I appreciate that you are undoubtedly very busy, but I would welcome your suggestions (and those of the people c.c.ed on this email) of how best to proceed to ensure a considered, transparent and balanced discussion about this subject.

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