Senior teacher speaks out about culture of ‘systematic bullying’ at ‘collapsing’ academy trust [EXCLUSIVE]

school education
Ed Sykes

Wakefield City Academies Trust is currently “collapsing“. And its story highlights the potential for catastrophic failings in the academy system.

Now, a senior ex-employee has spoken out to The Canary. Their account reveals a story of financial abuse, incompetence, and bullying. All at the expense of students’ education.

Financial abuse

On 4 November 2016, Tes (formerly The Times Educational Supplement) leaked a report by the Education Funding Agency (EFA). This outlined serious charges of “inadequate” management of public funds by Mike Ramsay, the former interim CEO of Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT). These included paying himself £82,000 for 15 weeks of work. WCAT also paid £440,000 for clerking and IT services to companies Ramsay co-owned with his daughter.

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The government has reportedly refused Freedom of Information requests seeking to access the final EFA report. The Canary, meanwhile, has received no response from WCAT to a Freedom of Information request made in late 2016.

While huge amounts of money were apparently going into the coffers of the CEO and his family businesses, spending on students’ education was erratic. Our source, whose educational experience and track record we have confirmed, explained that:

Finances were in such a mess that headteachers of schools and financial directors didn’t know what money they had to spend, and had to do what they were told by Ramsay. The individual school budgets were not accurate and left headteachers and local governing bodies uncertain and powerless.

The Guardian, meanwhile, cites National Education Union activist Sally Kincaid as saying that WCAT had been “asset stripping” its schools. She stressed:

The amount of money that has been taken out of those schools is scandalous… We’ve got GCSE students having to use the back of last year’s kids’ work to do their work on for this year.

Incompetence

Our source also reported being shocked by the lack of educational experience of those that Ramsay directed to carry out huge school improvement tasks and build educational operating procedures. They said, for example, that inexperienced school leaders were brought in to support schools in Special Measures in Bradford after an experienced school improvement colleague left the Trust, despite a £0.5m budget for school improvement which previous CEO Alan Yellup had secured.

In fact, some experts considered Ramsay himself to be unsuitable for a role in educational leadership. According to our source, an insider from another academy claimed it had ‘got rid of him from governance’ because it saw him as both untrustworthy and incompetent.

“Bullying”

What’s perhaps most worrying of all, however, is that our source spoke about the “systematic bullying” of anyone who questioned or challenged Ramsay. They said:

All he did was bully staff and bully headteachers into doing what he wanted them to do.

When at least one experienced school leader challenged Ramsay (not himself an educationalist) about the soundness of educational practice, for example, he asked them to “stand down”. Our source described this as part of a culture of “put up or shut up” – which encouraged fear and discouraged open discussion. At one meeting, this became particularly evident when Ramsay reportedly told staff “not to ask questions or they would lose their jobs”. And when challenged on his behaviour with school leaders and the lack of collaboration, our source said he told a senior member of staff they were “nothing but a tree hugger”.

Tes recently supported such claims of a ‘put up or shut up’ culture in an article called Wakefield City Academies Trust run on ‘basis of fear’.

Mike Ramsay stepped down as WCAT’s interim CEO in May 2017. He said at the time that staff had “embraced change and the challenges that we faced together to position the trust in a different and more positive place”.

Is the academy system fit for purpose?

The Conservative Party has previously come under fire from experts (like the National Foundation for Educational Research and the Local Government Association) for the lack of accountability at academies. And in 2016, talk of forcing all schools to become academies sparked uproar, with educational professionals denouncing the policy and threatening to strike. The government eventually backed down quietly; and its push for academisation has faded away ever since.

But academies still exist. And the public continues to fork out millions of pounds a year just for the handful of people at the very top of the system, with little idea of exactly who’s receiving that money. All at a time when too many schools are getting by with “inadequate” funding.

Our source says things need to change. They believe the “failure of checks and balances” in the academy system has been damaging children’s education, while lining the pockets of people like Ramsay. To make sure this stops, they stress that there needs to be a “proper forum to support the concerns of people who feel they are being mistreated”, and guidelines “to allow people to whistle-blow”. At the same time, they call for investment in “high quality educationalists to inform decisions and implement school improvement” in order to ensure that inept, under-qualified, and unscrupulous people can no longer get into positions of influence.

WCAT declined to comment on the allegations in this article. Instead, it referred us to the Department for Education (DfE) and an earlier statement in which it admitted it did “not have the capacity to secure the rapid improvement required in the majority of its academies”. The Canary contacted the DfE. We had received no reply by the time of publication. The Canary has also attempted to contact Mike Ramsay but has received no response.

Our children deserve better

The story of Wakefield City Academies Trust is an alarm bell that we all need to hear. Because when a system can allow financial abuse, incompetence, and bullying to become the norm, something is seriously wrong. And our children deserve so much better than that.

Featured image via Flickr/Alan Levine

Get involved

  • If you, or someone you know, have worked at WCAT or any other academy and have had similar experiences, please contact the author at ed@thecanary.co with more details. We will protect your anonymity.
  • Read other Canary articles about education.
  • Follow the Anti Academies Alliance on Twitter.
  • Write to your MP and Theresa May to ask for stronger whistleblowing guidelines and greater checks and balances at academies.

 

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