Education correspondent GENE BRODIE reports on how a government agency fobbed off Croydon Council’s legitimate concerns over dozens of academy pupils who “vanished” just before they were due to sit their GCSEs
Well done Sylvia McNamara, Croydon Council’s erstwhile director for learning, school improvement and inclusion – for once a lengthy council job title in which the latter two elements prove to be most significant. You’ll discover why as you read on.
The Guardian newspaper has reported this week how, when she was working at the council, McNamara had the temerity to take on the Harris Federation, the academy operators founded by a Peckham carpet salesman who receive millions of pounds from the tax-payer each year to operate state schools but who, in certain cases in Croydon, somehow manage to misplace large numbers of pupils just before they are about to take their life-shaping GCSE exams.
The Guardian broke the story two years ago of Harris’s disappearing pupils, including at its flagship Crystal Palace “academy” where according to Department for Education statistics, 1 in 5 vanished into thin air.
Many educationalists, including the Anti-Academies Alliance, suspect that Harris is deliberately excluding pupils whom it fears may not deliver the GCSE grades that its schools need to maintain or improve their position in the exam league tables. What happens to the under-qualified and unqualified “discarded” teenagers becomes someone else’s (ie. the local education authority’s) problem.
At least, that’s when the local education authority knows about the disappearing pupils: in the case of Harris’s South Norwood academy, 26 pupils dropped off its school roll between January 2012 and May 2013, of which 24 had their subsequent education destination registered as “unknown” by the council.
McNamara, to her credit, followed-up on the worrying newspaper reports by writing to the chief executive of the EFA (another quango, the Education Funding Agency, which doles out our cash to Harris), to ask what he was doing about the troubling disappearance of so many pupils from its schools.
She also sought the advice of Peter Lauener on what action Croydon Council, as the LEA, ought to be taking.
Lauener’s response was along the lines of “move along quietly now, nothing to see here…”
His reply, in March 2014, hardly fills one with confidence, as he managed to misspell the addressee’s name: “Slyvia”. At least, we hope was only a typo.
It drips complacency. Or cover-up.
“The pupil number data submitted to the Department via the school census over a three year [sic] period for Harris Federation academies in Croydon show a level of pupil turnover consistent with the LA as a whole,” he claimed.
“Having reviewed and compared data from the Alternative Provision Census and Harris Federation, we can find no evidence to suggest that any decrease in cohort size is from anything other than natural in-year movement.”
Croydon’s McNamara saw through this for the bullshit that it is/was.
She wrote straight back, and provided more detailed data from the borough showing four sponsored academies, two of them run by Harris, with the largest number of pupils disappearing before the age of 16.
“I am concerned about this for two reasons,” McNamara wrote, “firstly it appears there is substance to the figures published in the Guardian and second, there are potential safeguarding issues for learners whose destination is unknown.”
And now the council director dropped the bomb: the Harris Federation had failed to fulfill its legal requirements of advising the LEA of pupils leaving their schools in advance of their moves.
“You point out in your letter that all schools must follow clear regulations when removing a pupil from their roll … our school admissions team have confirmed to me that the Harris Federation do not inform us of pupils who are deleted from their register … we are subsequently unable to track them,” McNamara wrote.
“I would be grateful, therefore, if this could be followed up and investigated and if the academy could be instructed to conform with this requirement.”
Harris says that it had reported pupils leaving it schools, but to Croydon’s behaviour welfare service, rather than to the local authority’s admissions team. According to Lauener’s response to McNamara, Harris “…are very keen to discuss and resolve any issues”. And according to the Department for Education, “A follow-up conversation took place between the EFA and Harris Federation to remind them of their obligations.”
Those cosy chats only appear to have made a fractional difference. Harris’s 2013 GCSE year group was 12 per cent smaller than they were in Year 8 by the time they were about to sit their public exams. This week, The Guardian reported that, “The 2015 Harris GCSE cohort was 8 per cent smaller than when the same pupils were in Year 7.”
McNamara no longer works for Croydon Council. Last year she moved on – well, over the road, actually – to take on the role of chief executive of the Octavo Partnership, which is part-owned by the Croydon Headteachers’ Association and the council, and provides “support services” to schools. Some might see Octavo as another example of the outsourcing and privatisation of our public education service.
McNamara says she was not approached by The Guardian before it published its report, with her letters, this week. “I would imagine that Warwick Mansell…” meaning the journalist who wrote the piece, “… did his homework on what was available re Harris. He did not contact me in advance,” McNamara told Inside Croydon today.
But what her two-year-old correspondence with the EFA over Harris demonstrates is how difficult it is for the local authority to exercise any diligence or influence, in the interests of residents and their children, when dealing with those bodies running our state schools, such as Harris, who supposedly are answerable to civil servants in Whitehall.
Lord Harris, the academy operators’ founder, it is worth reminding ourselves, is a donor to the Conservative Party and a Tory peer.
Still, everyone must delight in further news in The Guardian: that the Harris Federation’s Croydon-based chief executive, Sir Daniel Moynihan, enjoyed a 5 per cent pay rise last year, so that he is now being paid more than £395,000, plus employer pension contributions of £40,000-£45,000. That must make him the best-paid employee based in Croydon. And to think that much of Sir Daniel’s “package” will come from the money the Harris Federation receives from the Government.
Not bad for someone who works for a rug salesman, eh?
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