In a heavy sign of the disastrous impact of the government’s ongoing austerity programme, a number of schools in West Sussex have been forced to consider reducing their working week to four days.
Worryingly, some schools have already established larger class sizes, introduced a more basic curriculum, cut back on cleaning and site maintenance, and reduced spending on technology and books.
The ‘four-day week’ proposal was contained within a letter sent out by headteachers of all the primary, secondary and special schools in the county, warning of the “crippling effect” of consistent underfunding. West Sussex has received £200m less funding than an average London borough.
Mark Anstiss, headteacher of a school in Felpham, lamented the idea of cutting the week short:
It would be terrible. I recognise the burden it would place on parents with the childcare costs and so on that they would have to incur if we did this. But we can’t run the school the way that we have been with the money we get at the moment.
Why are they so underfunded?
It appears that the government has its own reasons for the chronic underfunding of our schools. From 2010, the government cut the education budget by 25% over four years. At the same time, it told schools that it would award them £25,000 and increase their budgets by up to 10% if they became academies.
When schools become academies, the property deeds are handed over at almost no cost to unaccountable academy chains. Often, the ownership of the public land, institutions, and school equipment is entirely transferred to the private sector. This amounts to the privatisation of huge swathes of our education system.
David Cameron’s government took money from schools and then appears to have effectively bribed them to become academies. Considering the mountain of opposition the government received when it tried to force the academisation of all secondary schools in England earlier this year, one can see why it began with different tactics. This opposition eventually led Cameron to U-turn on the policy.
But the underfunding is ongoing. By 2020, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) predicts that spending per pupil in secondary schools will have dropped by 7%. This represents the sharpest cuts to funding since the 1970s.
Academies can be used to make money. And while the government may maintain that academy chains have no way to profit, this is disingenuous.
‘Top slicing’ is used by a number of the largest academy chains to extract profits disguised as executive salaries. In Yorkshire alone, academy chains had already leeched £9m from schools by 2013. Several ‘chief executives’ take home gut-wrenching six-figure salaries at the expense of the children at the schools.
This is a trend across the country. These academy chains are listed as nonprofit charities (because they don’t have shareholders), but are in fact using taxpayer funds to make huge profits, with some senior staff on £200,000 or more. As blogger Another Angry Voice writes, these are essentially ‘insider dividends’ to get around the ‘charities can’t have shareholders’ problem.
Remember that these eye-watering salaries are awarded by so-called ‘charities’ that run academy chains and are overseen by the Conservative government. The very same government that is imposing a relentless austerity programme on the rest of the country. An austerity programme that has been used to take free school meals from children, take mobility scooters and support from disabled people, and cripple the NHS and welfare system.
Chancellor Phillip Hammond signalled that austerity would continue by maintaining the public sector pay freeze, stating “the work we began in 2010 is unfinished”.
But in this environment, it is flabbergasting to compare the extortionate taxpayer handouts to academies with the salaries of the teachers who are actually doing the work.
Expenses are the bread and butter of robbing money from the public purse. It is a favourite of entitled MPs themselves.
According to its website, the large academy chain ‘E-act’ runs 23 academies across England with the motto ‘delivering education excellence’. In 2013, the pseudo-charity was criticised for a “culture of extravagant expenses”. These included first-class travel and the use of “prestige venues”.
Transfer pricing is when two enterprises that are part of the same parent company trade with each other– for example, the UK-based subsidiary of Coca-Cola buys something from the Germany-based subsidiary of Coca-Cola. The technique can be easily exploited to avoid tax or to profit from the public sector.
Aurora Academies Trust, which runs four academies in East Sussex, is just one example of this exploitation. The Trust demands that all of its schools use the American ‘Paragon curriculum’ at a cost of £100,000 per year.
This is the very same curriculum patented by its parent company Mosaica Education Inc, representing a direct transfer of £100,000 per year from the British taxpayer to an American company, which now owns our schools. The company is orchestrating a transaction between itself, but using our money to do so.
Profiteering Tory insiders
Many of the beneficiaries of this upcoming wholesale leap to nationwide academy schools will be Tory insiders themselves.
In 2013, the academy chain Future Academies made the headlines for employing a 27-year-old headteacher with no teaching qualifications. The pseudo-charity runs four academies in London and is directed by Tory party donor Lord John Nash.
David Cameron apparently saw no bias at all here and decided to make him Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools in 2013. He remains in this post in May’s government. The above are just a few of the Tory insiders directly benefiting from the transition to academy schools.
Let’s ditch academies and take a more teacher-centred approach. As is true in Finland, increasing the pay and qualifications of teachers is a truly effective way of improving education. Frontline teaching staff should be respected as the professionals they are and given the autonomy they need to exercise their expertise. More people would then seek to get into teaching, and only the most able and passionate would enter the classroom. The public education system would subsequently see significant improvements.
This is exactly what the Finnish example has taught us.
The teaching profession should not be pushed to the point where it has to consider introducing a four-day working week. While reducing working hours can improve productivity, the current four-day week proposal is merely a hallmark of crippling cuts.
There is an alternative. But for that to be realised, austerity and backdoor privatisation must end.
– Read other Canary articles about government education policies here.
– Write to your MP to tell them what you think about the government’s plans for the education system.
– Follow 999 Call 4 Education on Twitter.
Featured image via Wikimedia