2022 has seen most schools return to near full normal working albeit with strict criteria applied on mask wearing, separation, hand wipes, PCR testing and daily monitoring of Covid symptoms and remote learning if warranted. But like going back into any building near abandoned for well over a year and in a period radically different from anything school managers, governors and teachers have ever known before, the cracks already there will begin to show pretty quickly.
Back to work warning from Schools North East
Just before Christmas, the umbrella body for Trust Schools in the region – Northumbria University based Schools North East (SNE) – issued a ‘back to work warning’:
“Throughout the pandemic, schools have taken on significant additional responsibilities and put in place measures to ensure premises are Covid-safe, all at a cost to school budgets, and often without clear offers of compensation from the government.
“With budgets already strained by the pandemic, feedback from schools in our region is increasingly highlighting rapidly growing, unforeseen operational costs, such as rising energy bills, a potential national insurance increase, and difficulties in obtaining supply staff. The international crisis in demand for gas has meant that the cost of gas and electricity is rising rapidly. All schools will be affected by this, which won’t have been budgeted for in this year or in longer term projections. North East School Business Managers have told us that vastly increased rates are now being quoted for contract renewals, and many schools have been informed by suppliers such as the North East Purchasing Organisation that they will receive an approximate 50% increase on gas costs, and over 25% on electricity. One trust predicted, across two schools, this will lead to an additional £18,000 in unforeseen expenditure. Another with one secondary and five primaries, said this would amount to £56,000 in additional costs.”
“Alongside rising costs of utilities, there remains uncertainty about planned government rises to national insurance contributions. Although the government has committed to compensating departments and other public sector employers in England, schools urgently need a guarantee that this will also apply to them. Schools have also reported rising difficulties in some areas in respect of accessing supply staff as regional capacity issues have impacted on day-to-day school support roles.
“Schools in the North East, and across the country, proved to be a fourth emergency service and vital national strategic infrastructure during covid ensuring their communities and young people accessed appropriate support and education. It is crucial now that the government recognises the role schools have played, by giving them the appropriate resources they need to fulfil their critical roles.”
Will the government step up?
Will they? Probably not. There’s no real mandate now from local people for the running of their children’s school now that academisation has pretty well entrenched itself in every local authority. The overarching role of what were once Council LEAs has largely vanished, to be replaced by desultory planning for SEND children, school health, looked after children and child protection, health and safety and as a provider of goods and services if the schools wish to take advantage of them.
A “sea of academies”
There are still a few LEA schools but these are remote islands in a sea of academies, often run by chains of companies based hundreds of miles away from the region. Some are more local and ‘worthy’, others, like the Emmanuel Schools Trust, associated with evangelicalism. But most others are effectively ‘national’ chains like the Harris Academy Trust (the oldest such), the Academies Transformation Trust and the Academies Enterprise Trust. These often have headuarters in London and act under the aegis of the sponsors in commerce and industry. Others are ‘super regional’. The Outwood Academies Trust – controversial for punitive disciplinary methods such as solitary confinement ‘isolation booths’ and massive levels of exclusion – are run by founder Sir Michael Wilkins from Wakefield in an arc covering the North East, Yorkshire and Humberside and parts of the East Midlands.
Outwood was controversial from the start. In 2015, the Conservative Education Minister, Nicky Morgan, announced she was giving the Outwood Academies Trust, a million pounds for “improving performance for pupils in some of the most challenging and disadvantaged areas of the country”. The money was awarded to raise standards in deprived areas in South Yorkshire, Bradford, Northumberland and Tees Valley.
The then Northern Powerhouse minister, James Wharton (now Lord Wharton who, despite lack of experience, has been appointed to head the government’s Office for Students), said:
“Experience, leadership, and a strong track record of success will mean northern school children can now fulfil their potential.”
It was pointed out at the time that Sir Michael Wilkins had been previously criticised for taking £500,000 consultancy fees over and above his salary.
Who guards the jailer?
So in the classical Latin (not much in evidence in most academy schools) “custodiens custodi?” or “who guards the jailer?”
This may be an appropriate question in Outwood’s case.
It is not now the local council who once had pastoral care for their schools. They can only watch from the sidelines and pick up the pieces. But surely the Trusts appoint governors? Not really, they are appointees of the company by and large and reflect the values of the employer. I recall on Teesside that the governors for one school in an especially deprived part of the patch had the rare governing body meeting made up entirely of a team who flew up to Teesside Airport in the morning and rushed to catch the evening flight back down to Heathrow, leaving any business unfinished at the discretion of the chair.
So is it the Department for Education itself? Yes and no. The Ministry back in 2016, still then doing battle with LEAs and local communities fighting the forced imposition of academisation on them, set up a shadowy network of largely detached ‘Regional School Commissioners’ to fight to get academies forced onto communities. That battle largely won, they are now tasked with acting as ‘super, one man or one woman LEAs’ who are tasked with:
- intervening in academies where governance is inadequate
- deciding on applications from remaining LEA schools to convert to academy status
- intervening in maintained schools judged to be inadequate by Ofsted by providing them with support from a new ‘strong’ sponsor
- encouraging and deciding on applications from sponsors to operate in a region
Regional School Commissioners
The identity of these commissioners is largely hidden away from public view, and it’s a fair bet that not one local teacher in a hundred can name the Commissioner for the NE (which also covers Cumbria), one Katherine Cowell.
Cowell’s anonymity is well guarded. There is no phone number listed for her office (believed to be in a part of the DFE’s Mowden Complex in Darlington), no details of her staff and only a generic email address to hand. All queries on the work of these commissioners, the DFE website says, “is to be obtained from the DFE – not the Commissioner direct”.
Cowell has a twitter account, but this is simply a regurgitation of how “brilliant” every academy or free school she has visited with a minister is, interlaced with links to DFE sites on how to set up free schools and the like. She is ‘advised’ by a panel elected in part by academy trusts in the region, and these include people from the Wise Trust, the locally based Lunedale Learning Trust and the NE Learning Trust. There is also a rep from the Cumbria LEP, a representative from the Trinity Roman Catholic Multi-Academy Trust and the seemingly ubiquitous Sir Michael Wilkins (there by appointment).
Who is Katherine Cowell?
Katherine Cowell’s biography is sketchy but what is apparent is that unlike her predecessor, Janet Renou, she has had no ‘hands on’ teaching experience (even if, as with Ms Renou, this was as the headmistress of a swanky Girls High School in the Yorkshire dales.) Instead, it has been a steady uphill grind in the Education and Skills Ministry starting with senior positions in the Skills and FE section and then to the levelling up agenda through the ‘Cities and Local Growth Unit’. Salary scales seem impossible to obtain.
Now as the glacial ice of the Covid lockdown slowly retreats, her real test is to come. She will now have to work hard – and with the oft despised local councils – if full recovery is to be attained.