Sunday, April 10, 2011

Will we get Free Schools Milked ?

WHEN I was a kid we got free school milk. We took it for granted, as well we might. As Winston Churchill, no less, had opined, there were few things more useful that governments could do than putting milk into kids. Someone remembered that when Margaret Thatcher came in as Education Secretary, and set about taking the milk away. A taster for things to come. One bit of Churchill's legacy she did not invoke. Now they are back, offering wondrous things, to anyone silly enough or, in some cases, selfish enough, to believe them (isn't that how every con-man works, or con-dem man in this case?) And it looks like instead of free school milk we may get 'free schools' milked.

Cognita is a private education firm involved in education secretary Michael Gove's free schools programme. It is run by a man called Chris Woodhead, who first made his name as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of schools, slagging off "progressive teaching methods" and claiming the nation's schools were full of "incompetent" staff. Hated by teachers and naturally loved by Tories, he still kept his job when Labour took office, in 1997, thanks to Education Secretary David Blunkett, who renewed his appointment.

An ex-wife raised a breath of scandal about Woodhead's relationship with a former school pupil, though the two insisted it had only started later when they met at college. He did seem to step outside his conservative image later by saying sexual relationships between teacher and student could be educational, though I suspect he would only have had relationships between male teachers and female students in mind. In November 2000 he resigned, going on to find employment with the Times and Telegraph newspapers as a columnist, and a post at that valhalla for backwoods Tories, the University of Buckingham.

In February 2005, The Guardian obtained information] using the Freedom of Information Act, which confirmed that in 1997 Woodhead had overruled a unanimous decision by his own inspectors, and a subsequent inspection visit by HMI inspectors, in order to declare that Islington Green school was failing and required special measures. According to the head of the school at the time, "the consequences for staff and pupils were catastrophic". Despite Woodhead's enthusiasm for evidence-based inspection, he has never made public the reasons for this decision. (Wikipedia).

In 2006, Chris Woodhead founded Cognita, as a company to run independent schools. It has become the country's largest owner of such schools, with a turnover of £150 million. Now parents at one of its institutions, the Southbank International School, are accusing Cognita of turning the school into a "money-making machine". As a report in the Observer says "The row threatens to embarrass the government as it pushes through its plans for schools to operate outside local authority control".

"Cognita is one of a number of for-profit companies keen to get involved in the government's vision for education as set out by Gove, who admits having no 'ideological objection' to their involvement. At present free schools cannot be owned by profit-making institutions, but parents are permitted to lease premises, buy products and contract out the school management to private for-profit companies".

"Cognita claims on its website to be working with a number of parents on free school projects. It also continues to advertise its services on a website run by a government-funded charity, the New Schools Network, set up to assist parents in launching a free school. Woodhead last month urged ministers to 'bite the political bullet' and allow for-profit companies to run publicly funded state schools. He said unless Gove 'involves the profit companies he's never going to get the number of free schools that he wants'".

Martin Johnson, deputy general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the development confirmed his worst fears about the involvement of private companies in free schools. "Our members are growing increasingly concerned by the movement of unelected, unaccountable, profit-making organisations into our education system", he said. "There are a number of big holes in the government's plans, but by far the largest is accountability."

The parents who have taken exception to Cognita's ways at Southbank seem like the sort of people to whom the government should appeal, but they also know a bit about business. " In letters circulated last month by parents, including billionaire hedge-fund manager and philanthropist Chris Cooper-Hohn, it was claimed the company had 'no serious interest in maximising the educational experience of... children if it impacts on their bottom line'. They claim that Cognita made £3m in profit from the school in 2010 with 'almost 20% operating profits', had 'provided no added value to the school since they became owners' three years ago, and had 'cynically underpaid staff' before an intervention from parents last year.

"A letter circulated by the parent group adds: 'The reason for this aggressive milking of the school is to pay interest on debt and maximise profits for a sale of Cognita likely via an IPO in the stock market. They paid £22m for the school, which had no real assets since the school buildings were all leased. In order to pay back this purchase debt, their strategy has been to aggressively raise fees and minimise investment in teachers and facilities."'

Cognita denied the allegations, claiming that its profits were in line with others in the sector. In a letter to parents, Woodhead claimed that the "hostile campaign... being waged against Cognita is threatening the stability of the school and the ability of our teachers to do what is best". He wrote: "Cognita is not, as the SPI would have you believe, 'milking Southbank for profits'. To the best of our knowledge, our profitability is comparable to other private operators in the sector. The figures which have been bandied about by the SPI are wholly inaccurate."

Woodhead insisted that Cognita would not sell Southbank and criticised Cooper-Hohn's confrontational manner. He wrote: "He has tried to use his wealth to intimidate and threaten." Oh dear.

For the last five years Chris Woodhead has been suffering from degenerative motor neurone disease, and last year the Motor Neurone Disease association said he was spearheading their campaign for better provision and treatment, but it looks like he is not ready to hang up his hat and change to charity work just yet. He says some common ground has been found with Southbank parents and denies Cognita has been 'milking' the school. He admitted Cognita had shown interest in the free schools project, but said talks to run Toby Young's school in Hammersmith and two further schools elsewhere in the country had "come to nothing".

I'm not surprised. I hear Toby Young has been persevering against opposition from nasty leftie teachers with his plan for a 'free school' for his offspring, only to realise that as he lives in the London Borough of Ealing his kids would not be in the right catchment area for a school in Hammersmith. I'm not well up in educational matters, but if that's true, it suggests Mr.Woodhead may have had a point with regard to incompetent geography teachers.

Catching up

STAYING in Hammersmith, but turning from education to housing, back in February last year I wrote about the Notting Hill Housing Trust and discontent among its staff, going on to remark about how its chief, Kate Davis, appeared to have changed her views as well as her name since the days when she was Kate Marshall, of the Revolutionary Communist Party. Now she could get along with Hammersmith Tory leader Harry Phipps, though perhaps since both her youthful 'Living Marxism' and his Young Tory crowd had developed 'libertarian' tendencies, maybe parallel lines do converge at Hammersmith Broadway rather than wait for infinity.

In my original piece, or rather not original enough, I followed another blogger in saying Kate Davies had hitched up with a guy called Nick Johnson, and getting the wrong Nick Johnson in,who works for the CRE. The true story is much better. As readers told me, the Nick Johnson whom Kate Davis partners works for Hammersmith and Fulham's Housing Department, or Hammersmith and Fulham Homes, as the Tory council's arms length housing body is known. As its interim boss he has collected £528,000 in the past two years, according to an item in Private Eye's 'Rotten Boroughs' column. (PJ Probe, PE 1285, 1 -14 April).

But nemesis, or at any rate the district auditor and the Inland Revenue, may be catching up with Nick, or so the Eye suggests. Back in 2007 he took early retirement on health grounds from another Tory council, Bexley, after having a heart attack. He has been collecting a £50,000 a year pension from Bexley, while apparently becoming fit enough to run the organisation that looks after Hammersmith's housing stock. In reply to questions on the council, chief executive Geoff Alltimes (sic) said he had seen Mr.Johnson working from 7 am to 7pm.

Very commendable, though perhaps ill-advised for a man with a dodgy ticker. But in local government, as in health authorities, there are meant to be rules about retiring from one authority and walking into a job with another. Particularly when retirement was on health grounds. At any rate, Stephen Cowan, leader of the Labour opposition on Hammersmith and Fulham council wrote to local government and communities minister Eric Pickles, asking whether Johnson was breaking the rules. Junior Minister Baroness Hanham replied on Pickles' behalf, suggesting that it might be a matter for the District Auditor.

This might seem a bit mean, picking on someone who had a heart attack, but considering the lengths the government is going to, to stop benefits for people on much less than Nick Johnson, I don't know whether he will arouse that widespread sympathy. Indeed, having heard at the weekend from a couple of Bexley trades union council delegates how their Tory council is intent on cutting everything it can, I am surprised that Bexley has not made more effort to claim some of its money back from Johnson. These are, as we are told, difficult times, when everyone has to do their bit.

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