Thursday, April 05, 2007
Who could oppose Building Schools for the Future (BSF)? Brand new shiny schools with state of the art facilities, classes of eager pupils engaging with learning through cutting edge information technology. As ever, the devil is in the detail. Let’s put it another way, badly designed schools built by penny-pinching private contractors who will be paid back at extortionate rates of interest over 25 years, education services sold to rapacious low-cost private firms and teachers marginalized with an over reliance on ICT.
Knowsley Council on Merseyside is part of the ‘first wave’ of twelve councils implementing BSF. They plan to close all secondary schools between 2008 and 2009 and re-open them as ‘Learning Centres’, all teachers will have to re-apply for their jobs. Given Knowsley’s poor results the Blairite ‘newspeak’ is, ‘doing nothing is not an option’.
Knowsley is one of the poorest boroughs in the country, it is in the top ten for child poverty and 17% of adults claim either Job Seekers’ Allowance or Incapacity Benefit. When local government was reorganised in 1974, Knowsley was cobbled together from the district councils (Huyton, Kirkby, Prescot, Halewood, Cronton) that nobody quite knew where to place.
Labour has always had a thumping majority on Knowsley Council (current composition 49 Labour and 12 Liberal), some wards return Labour councillors without a contest. It regularly features in Private Eye’s ‘Rotten Boroughs’. Most of its councillors are close to, or over retirement age and critics accuse them of being more interested in claiming expenses and locating the nearest free buffet rather than representing the interests of the electorate. The turnout at elections is 20% and falling.
When league tables for primary and secondary schools were introduced Knowsley was firmly anchored at the bottom. In 1999 Ofsted inspected the LEA and they produced a highly critical report. In response Steve Munby was parachuted in from Blackburn to ‘turn the LEA round’.
Munby made an immediate impact, the school advisers were replaced by School Improvement Officers with a remit to ratchet up results – “poverty is not an excuse”, “zero tolerance of failure”. Primary advisers in foundation subjects were also shown the door and Literacy and Numeracy Consultants targeted schools with low SATs results for “intensive support” – blanket surveillance of teachers, centralised planning of lessons imposed.
In 1999 only 23% of Knowsley students gained five GCSE passes at A-C level, one of the lowest in the country. By 2005 the pass rate had shot up to 43%. Steve Munby was fond of saying that, ‘Knowsley is the future’, starry-eyed academics like Michael Fullan lauded him for creating ‘positive power bases’ and he was getting rave reviews in ‘The Guardian’.
How did he do it? Ruthless pressure on primary head teachers and intensive coaching saw Year 6 SATs results rise. In secondary schools with an eye on the main chance Munby was an early convert to vocational GNVQs, which counted as 4 GCSE passes. The cost? Subjects like history, geography and foreign languages were sidelined. Teachers became fixated with exam results and students were ‘assisted’ with course work. Interestingly, Knowsley still has one of the lowest rates for pupils staying in higher education after 16.
With results increasing exponentially Munby left in 2005 to become the chief executive of the National College for School Leadership (NCSL). A few months after he left the government reconfigured the GCSE tables to include passes at English and Maths, Knowsley plummeted to the bottom, behind the DfES’s favourite whipping-boy Kingston upon Hull.
At ‘consultation’ meetings on BSF the line from the council is, “it’s either us or a private contractor”. A bit like suffering 100 lashes as opposed to 110 lashes. The rumour is that Lord Adonis felt Knowsley was a small enough morsel to offer to a private company as an “experiment”. Either that or the component parts of Knowsley would be farmed out to other authorities – Prescot to St Helens; Cronton to Halton; Kirkby to West Lancs and Halewood and Huyton to Liverpool.
After wasting thousands of pounds on consultants who drew up unpopular re-organisation plans for schools (they were swiftly amended by the council - loss of seats concentrates the mind) they employed more consultants to produce their BSF plans.
Recently secondary school teachers were treated to a slick presentation about the new ‘Learning Centres’. With soft focus camera shots and soothing music in the background they watched as a child awoke, opened her lap top and began to communicate with e-pals from around the world, she tripped merrily into her bright new shiny school and went to lessons in the computer pod. The Knowsley model is based on one in Kent where over 100 pupils are given a lecture and then work with teaching assistants.
Questioned about absenteeism or discipline trouble the consultants (none of whom are thought to have ever taught in Knowsley) reassured them that with bright new shiny schools this would no longer be a problem… cue laughter.
The preferred supplier for ICT is RM, not exactly a by-word for reliability. This dream of an ICT-enabled future? Some consultants have even enthused about bookless schools. However, the Knowsley Internet system crashes with alarming regularity. Thousands was spent on a one-stop-shop ‘Content Stream’ for education web sites, depending on teachers level of ICT use, the reaction to the words ‘Content Stream’ will range from a cynical smile to hysterical laughter.
All secondary schools will close either in 2008 or 2009, with six schools merging into three, two relocating and one closing outright. Despite pressure for one common date, Knowsley are ploughing ahead with two dates a year apart. For teachers, who all have to re-apply for jobs in the new ‘Learning Centres’ there’s the question do I jump now or wait?
Already there is an exodus of experienced staff and there is a fear that in the run up to 2009 schools will be left with temporary supply teachers. Knowsley’s unspoken logic is that poor results = poor teachers. In many schools moral is low, if you tell people they are rubbish eventually they will believe it. However, will teachers be flocking to Knowsley schools? “Welcome! We got rid of the last lot!”
Knowsley’s BSF not only hands council services over to private contractors it is a ‘Fresh Start’ scheme writ large, close the school, sack the teachers and re-open it under a new name. Watch Channel 4’s documentary about Firfield School in the northeast for details on how it doesn’t work. School mergers? Research shows that this can be highly problematical (The Ridings one example).
The constant mantra from Knowsley Council’s officials is that, “no change is not an option.” No one could disagree with that on the other hand “chaos” is not a good option either. In the name of “change” during the Chinese Cultural Revolution all the schools and universities were closed down and the teachers and professors were sent to work in the fields, it took years for the education system to recover.
So what’s the alternative? Spending money through targeted programmes like ‘Excellence in Cities’ has raised achievement, alongside behavioural support and mentoring schemes. Excellent nursery provision and early intervention at Key Stage 1 with Reading Recovery has a proven effect. Lastly, investing money to train and motivate a confident, innovative group of teachers can be a real ‘agent for change’, not top-down bureaucratic centralised programmes driven by consultants and ambitious here-today-gone-tomorrow council officials.
Do the Parents in Knowsley know that their children will not necessarily have to go to School. Or that they could be timetabled in the evening or any time of the year, except Christmas Day. Although even that is not certain!!!
the hardware side ofthe Fisher Family Trust. Certainly when one of our local sleuths did some digging on FFT three
years ago, and followed up key personnel, they all semed to be directors of RM.
No surprise there then, and absolutely no corruption of course!
Just another nail in the coffin of public services - and another proof of the lack of competition
and diversity that capitalist markets produce.
Mr Kenneth Brooks
Mr Michael Fischer
Mrs Deborah Fischer
(Mr R A G Girling)
In 2002, Michael Fischer donated 6.6 million quid's worth of shares in RM PLC to the trust. This
was it's entire donated income for the year. In addition, Mr and Mrs Fischer coughed up another
half million quid's worth of RM shares in 2002, which comprised the vast majority of donations
for the year.
In 2001 and 2002, the trust purchased £278887 and £333643 worth of equipment and consultancy from RM PLC - Both Michael Fischer and R A G Girling were directors of RM PLC at the time.
It seems that they have a habit of buying things from themselves, or making donations to organizations with which they are affiliated. £400000 to Oxford Maritime Trust (Trustees as per the Fischer Family Trust); £450000 to Oxford Health Project Limited (directors as per the Fischer Family Trust); £50000 in legal fees to Brookstreet Des Roches solicitors (former partner and
consultant: K W Brooks) and investments in Medipharma PLC, 3DM Worldwide PLC and Multimedia
Television - all companies in which K W Brooks has a shareholding.
In 2002-2003, the Trust made donations of £1.7m to Fischer Education Project Limited - the
company set up to provide funded services to Islington LEA. Directors of this company include Mr M D Fischer and Mr K W Brooks. In 2003-2004 they coughed up another half million to the same
outfit, with a similar amount being donated in the following year. Purchase of equipment and
consultancy from RM dwindled post-2002, but still averaged £40000 a year.
BSF plans to be finally revealed in June after a 12-month "review".
All secondary schools to become learning centres, etc.
part time job