Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Response to Consultation about conversion to Academy

All schools in Richmond which are not yet academies are consulting about converting to academies. Here's my response:

I can no longer find details about the academy consultation on the school website. I think there was an FAQ issued after the single open meeting which I was unfortunately unable to attend but cannot locate it or the questionnaire. Although you put a link to the DoE website for the information in support of academies you have put no links to organisations who are against academies  or even just trying to ascertain the facts ( like Local Schools Network, the Anti Academies Alliance or the NUT). The law requires that "Adequate information should be given to enable consultees properly to respond" (Lord Justice Stephen Sedley QC, in the Court of Appeal) and this has not happened and is not happening.

Will  the collated results of the consultation be made public, i.e. numbers for and against, with arguments and comments made public. If stakeholders cannot be made aware of other people's arguments during the consultation period, how can they decide whether they are important or not. There is no way back as the conversion is irrevocable so governors, staff, parents and children must be sure and how can they be sure when the facts aren't made available to all the stakeholders.

Again, I cannot refer back to the website, but who is considered a stakeholder, who is being consulted? It's not just the current parents but also the existing staff and parents of primary school children as well as the local community and council.

The principle argument for conversion seems to be increased finance but it is unclear, once all the changes in provision of services have been sourced and budgeted, whether any financial benefit is either real or long lasting. As a parent I cannot judge this and so cannot make a reasoned decision. The NUT says "The government has confirmed that academy status should not give schools a financial advantage".

What is the evidence for any claim that the school will be better funded as an academy?
Does any such claim take into account the fact that we will be unable to achieve the economies of scale possible for the local authority? If so, how has this been assessed?
How do we know the school will be better funded when we don’t know details of the future academy funding changes planned by the Government?
Is there a business plan that has been put together by the head and governing body, to show how our finances will be affected in the short, medium and long term?

I note that all the secondary schools in Richmond are either converting to academies or consulting on converting.
What changes will be made to the services offered by the borough if all schools convert?
What is the long term impact?
What happens to those specialist services like SEN needs and all the other support services for vulnerable children?
In the long term, funding is shifting towards academies rather than local government support services. This is quite simply unfair and amoral.

How will we ensure that the school is able to access support services of a similar quality to those provided by the local authority, given that the private market for such services is undeveloped?
How can we be sure that, in an undeveloped market with few providers locally, we won’t be tied in to a poor deal with one provider?
How long will any fixed price contracts with a service supplier last and what guarantee will there be against future price rises after any loss-leading period is over?
What plans have been put in place to ensure that we can replicate the services we currently receive from the local authority?
Has a needs assessment been made of services that we will require in the future, including details of how we can access such services outside the local authority family of schools?

The facts, as they are to date, speak of academies quietly getting rid of, or not admitting those children with statements of special need; academies are no longer representative of the community. How will they be protected and what recourse will parents have?

Does the governing body have the technical expertise or the time it will need to take on its new responsibilities to protect the school in areas such as finance, the law, personnel and other technical areas?

Who will pay for training of the governing body once conversion has happened. What will be the constitutional change; how will the role and responsibilities of the governors change?

If parents are not satisfied with the governors after conversion, what recourse do they have as the council is no longer able to step in?

While the school guarantee not increasing costs of items like school meals once it has the power to do so? What other hidden costs may rise?

There is no evidence that academies deliver higher standards of education.

With the council no longer acting as back up in case of emergencies, what happens in case of major fire for example, how would the school cope.

What information is there about the insurance costs we will face as an academy to cover the significant risks posed by potential emergencies such as fire, flood, pupil accidents, major crimes etc?

Won’t our insurance costs be higher, either in the short or longer term, once we move out of collective insurance arrangements for the local authority family of schools?

What start-up costs will the school face on transfer to academy status?

Teachers will no longer be protected by national collective bargaining and will not have the same rights in terms of working hours, maternity and leaves of absence. New staff joining the school will have different contracts to that of existing staff. How does conversion affect their pensions? Will you guarantee to maintain the same rights and rates of pay as stated nationally? How will this affect your ability to recruit and keep experienced staff?

How will academy status affect our ability to mentor and support NQTs? Will the school take on fewer such staff?

In addition to all these practical queries, I think the further stratifying of the school system does nothing to improve English education as a whole or community cohesion. There has not yet been time to show useful data about the impact of academies on non-academy schools. There is already a total lack of choice re secondary schools, even in London with its greater density of schools. Furthermore if I had know this consultation was planned I would have thought harder about sending my children to [my schoool] .The short of it is that I am against the principles of academies and would rather not convert.

If we want to really improved the quality of education given to children we need to improve the resources available, from finance to staff across all different types of schools, not change the type of school.

I appreciate that I have asked a substantial number of questions, but these all need answering before a reasoned decision can be made. I do not have the specific technical expertise, let alone the time, to research all the information and data available. In essence, I feel I'm being asked to buy a product because the box is pretty, and I don't do that.

I am also publishing these questions on my blog to increase awareness of these issues.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Faith by Tick Box

I don't like defining myself by a selection of tickboxes on a form and get annoyed when forms ask me to tick a religious category as I rarely agree with the categories. It is apparent that although it is easy to categorise people by their faith when they have one, everyone else gets lumped together. Terms such as humanist and secularist also get misunderstood.

Firstly we have those who belong to a religion. They are always happy to tick the box that says Christian, Muslim, Bahai, Jain... There might be different subdivisions of these faiths and difference in beliefs but these people know where they belong even if they don't necessarily agree with all the tenets of their faith. And, let's face it, many who tick that they belong to a religion never actually go to their place of worship and participate but nevertheless consider themselves a member, leading to phrases like "cultural Christian" coming into use.You can include adherents of the Flying Spaghetti Monster within the religious belief category. You may consider it to be a pretend religion, but what's a real religion and how are they different?

Secularists believe, quite simply, in the separation of church and state. This means that any faith group should not hold a position in the state or have their views counted more than anyone else's. In Britain secularists campaign for removing bishops from the House of Lords and for the abolition of faith schools. There are many other campaigns that are run by the National Secular Society, Britain's largest secular society. The NSS has recently decided not to allow faith members in on the basis that although there are many believers who think that faith should stay out of government it should stay a non-faith movement. The Accord Coalition is a truly secular group of people and organisations that includes faiths and non-faiths who are campaigning, amongst other things, that admissions to faith schools should not be based on religious belief, believing that such discrimination is divisive and does nothing for community cohesion.

Humanists are more difficult to define in a clear cut manner. There are many different definitions. Essentially humanism is about a belief in collective responsibility and connection with other humans. For me that means we have a duty to consider how our behaviour affects people on the other side of the world, people whom we will never meet or know but who we can affect indirectly. It's about recognising our common humanity as well as our connection with future generations. Many people of faith could if they choose define themselves as humanists as it doesn't necessarily conflict with their beliefs. The British Humanist Association is the largest group of humanists in Britain and they define 3 main tenets of humanism to be trust in the scientific method rather than the supernatural (thus rejecting faith),  we create our own ethical system based on reason and empathy and that we give our own lives meaning.

So these two groups include people with or without faith, depending on how you define them. Article 9 of The Human Rights Act protects people's "religion or beliefs" and various court cases have determined that humanist views form a belief system which should be considered equal alongside religious faiths.

Agnostics believe that there may be some sort of deity but they're not sure what and don't know. It can be anything from hitherto undefined deity or a universal consciousness, Both religious believers and atheists tend to rudely consider this as fence sitting.

Atheists have made a conscious decision that they do not believe in a god. Some declare that they would change their mind if faced with evidence of a god; others won't. (Others argue that if you're prepared to change your mind then you're agnostic.) Any rational scientist would be happy to change their mind if the evidence suggested the necessity as should atheists and anyone else with a sceptical healthy enquiring mind. There is no sacred book, no deity or set of beliefs that you must sign up to in order to be counted and that freedom is one of the joys of not believing.

Atheists are, by definition, defined by what they don't believe in. It's very difficult to define yourself by a negative (one of the only other groups I could think of is those against a third runway at Heathrow). How then to redefine this as a positive? One of the few places I can put a user-defined entry for religious views is Facebook. I thought about putting sceptic by which I mean someone who questions facts and authorities and who tries to look at the evidence rather than someone else's interpretation. I regard that as a state of mind rather than a belief so I settled on freethinker, a word that has fallen out of vogue but means that I am free to think for myself, that I have no creed  that I must follow; I will try and think rationally to further my understanding rather than follow someone else's beliefs.

Then there are those who have never really thought about it and/or who really don't care. Should they be included with the atheists? Some would argue that people are born atheist and have religion or doubt taught to them, that we are all atheists by default. There are of course many people who class themselves as believers who have simply never really thought about it. I think I'd like to see an “Uncommitted” category for these, to include both believers and non-believers.

So what am I? I am above all a person, a human who doesn't like tick box categories. If I have to choose then I am an atheist who is a secularist and a humanist. I define myself differently according to the company I'm with as they all mean slightly different things and if I call myself a freethinker I get looks of incomprehension. Hence the confusion with those who find it easy to tick boxes. What do I believe in? I think that we have to find our own way through the ethical quandaries that will face us in life, by thinking things through for ourselves and making decisions based on the evidence, constantly questioning facts and searching for the truth. I also firmly believe that I must be prepared to change my mind if I'm wrong. I strongly believe in the value of separation of church and state including the abolition of faith schools. I had no sacred books to follow; those authors who I read extensively as a teenager who helped form the way I think include Upton Sinclair, Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein.