Grant Woodward: Are we seeing our children’s education being sold to the highest bidder?

Are academies really the answer? PIC: PA
Are academies really the answer? PIC: PA
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As a parent, I’m worried the academy model being championed by this Tory government is more about privatising education than actually improving it.

CLEARLY the privatisation by stealth of the health service isn’t enough. The Government is now handing over our children’s education too.

By forcing every school to become an academy, as Chancellor George Osborne announced in yesterday’s Budget, that’s exactly what its doing.

What’s particularly troubling about this announcement – the latest phase in the Conservatives’ bid to dismantle the state – is that it comes hot on the heels of scathing criticism of the academy system.

Last week, Sir Michael Wilshaw, the head of Ofsted, said there were “serious weaknesses” in the country’s largest academy chains – further proof that academy status is no guarantee of academic success.

The schools inspectorate looked at seven of them and flagged up issues including weak leadership, poor performance and lack of oversight.

Three of them – E-ACT, Academies Enterprise Trust and School Partnership Trust Academies – run schools in Leeds. The seven also included Wakefield City Academies Trust.

Wilshaw claimed there were examples of them failing their poorest children and their shortcomings were as serious as those of the local authorities they were intended to replace.

What’s more, their top executives are on some seriously eye-watering salaries.

The average pay of those who run the seven academies put under the microscope by Ofsted is higher than the Prime Minister’s £142,500.

Ian Comfort, of the Academies Enterprise Trust (AET) which runs Cottingley Primary Academy and Armley’s Swallow Hill Community College along with 65 around the country, earns £225,000.

What’s more, Sir Michael Wilshaw said the trusts were sitting on millions of pounds that should be used to raise standards.

At the end of August last year, these seven trusts had total cash in the bank of £111m.

Ofsted also claimed some of these trusts are spending money on expensive consultants or advisers to compensate for deficits in leadership.

Put together, they spent at least £8.5m on education consultancy in 2014/15 alone.

Former education secretary Michael Gove suggested he was open to the idea of allowing those running academies and free schools to make a profit, but current incumbent Nicky Morgan has ruled it out.

However, while the academy chains are designated as charities, there are still a host of opportunities to make money.

In 2013 it was revealed that AET had paid nearly £500,000 into the private business interests of its trustees and executives.

The payments were for services ranging from “project management” to “HR consultancy”. In each case the services had not been put out to competitive tender.

Meanwhile, E-ACT was slammed in an official government report for endorsing extravagant expenses claims, first-class rail travel and “a culture of prestige venues” for its meetings.

But then if you set up academies to be independent along the lines of a private business, you shouldn’t be too surprised when they behave like one .

Nor can anyone deny that for some schools, turning them into academies has driven up standards.

But at the same time there must be serious concerns about the path this government is taking us down.

The original academies set up by Labour were all failing schools, and ones that had been failing for a long time.

They would be taken over by a sponsor who – along with the government – would give them an injection of cash and a new school building. On the whole, it worked.

But, as a parent, I’m worried that the model now being championed by this Tory government is more about privatising education than actually improving it.

Thanks for nowt, George

SO then, a share of £150m for long overdue flood defence schemes and £60m towards the electrification of the rail link between Leeds and Manchester.

George Osborne wasn’t exactly pulling up trees yesterday as he sought to silence those who reckon the Northern Powerhouse is one big con trick, was he?

The flood money will come from putting an extra 0.5 per cent on Insurance Premium Tax – which insurance providers will no doubt make us pay for anyway.

As for the £60m for cross-Pennine rail services, it’s cash that will pay for “detailed plans” and not much else.

And in the grand scheme of things it’s a mere drop in the ocean.

The Government, let’s remember, is spending £32bn – or, to put it another way, 500 times more – to connect Surrey and Hertfordshire via central London under the Crossrail 2 scheme.

When the Government is committing a further £43bn to a high-speed line to the capital with questionable benefit it seems ludicrous that we’re still waiting to be told when we might be able to catch an electric train between two of the country’s biggest cities.

Insert your own “left in the slow lane” joke here.

The fact is that improving links across the Pennines is just as important to the North as Crossrail is to the South.

But, as usual, George Osborne effectively told us yesterday that we can go whistle.

Coming up roses in Happy Valley

IT may not have done much for our tourism industry, but wasn’t the second series of West Yorkshire-set drama Happy Valley an absolute belter?

Having been let down by the lacklustre – and in some cases, faintly ridiculous – fare served up by the second outings of Broadchurch and The Fall, I worried that writer Sally Wainwright wouldn’t be able to live up to her own incredibly high standards.

How wrong was I? In fact, I reckon series two was perhaps even more gripping than the original.

I know some people have still got it to watch on catch-up so I won’t give too much away.

But the way Wainwright tied up all the loose ends was a masterclass in TV writing. The BBC may have its critics, but this and The Night Manager show why we pay the licence fee.

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