The Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) has become a symbol of everything that is wrong with the academy system. Its schools have been let down badly.
The local NEU secretary Sally Kincaid sums this up as asset stripping. Funding from our taxes has found its way into private pockets, including a Chief Executive’s salary of nearly £300,000, and £440,000 paid to a company owned by the CEO and his daughter. Reserves saved for emergencies and major improvement projects have been lifted – even £220,000 raised by parent volunteers.
This is not a unique case: there are numerous similar examples across England. 111 academy trustees are paid over £150,000, and 700 more above £100,000. One in three trusts hands lucrative contracts to firms belonging to their own families – 50 of them worth over £250,000.
Parents across West and South Yorkshire are up in arms. They have seen the Government force their local schools into the arms of an academy trust that was supposed to raise standards. After bleeding the schools dry, the academy trust has decided to walk away with no change in the Ofsted label.
The trust was built round a successful small school which voluntarily converted into an academy. The Government assumed that it must have the ‘leadership’ to transform other schools. It continued pushing schools into the trust even though audits had revealed serious financial problems.
Out of the frying pan, into the fire
Since WCAT decided to walk away, the Government are trying to transfer the schools to other academy chains. Wakefield Council have rebelled against that option, calling for the schools to be consulted and for the Government to allow them back into the local authority.
The Government have failed to act on reports of financial mismanagement in this chain. Indeed, some of the financial reports on WCAT are still being kept secret. There is no way of knowing where the next scandal will erupt.
Local authorities have strong safeguards against such misuse of public money in their schools. The Multiple Academy Trust system, on the other hand, is wide open to misuse of public funds.
The autonomy myth
Local authority schools have been self-managing since 1988, with full control of their own budgets. It is only academies that do not have this autonomy. A recent legal investigation judged that schools joining Multi-Academy Trusts have no right to hold onto their own budgets.
There is a widespread myth that academies achieve higher, and improve more, than local authority schools. This stems from early evaluations which took no account of manipulation by changing the student population or easier students for easier exams.
Once researchers looked below the surface, it became clear that there was no advantage to pupils from attending an academy. Many schools have gained from being academies, but so also have many schools from staying within the Local Authority.
Some academy chains have found dubious ways to ‘improve’ results:
- covert selection, to admit more higher-attainers
- expensive uniforms and sports kit to deter poorer families
- barriers to keep out pupils with special needs
- narrowing down the curriculum, to focus only on what scores highly in government statistics
- imposing ‘bootcamp’ discipline and other ways of removing less successful pupils.
A return to Local Authorities
The Government have deliberately run down local authorities and their capacity to support schools. That doesn’t mean they can’t be redeveloped. It is iniquitous to force WCAT schools into other academy chains.