30 Turning in their graves? A tale of two coalitions
King's Manor School: an experiment in privatisation?
© copyright Derek Gillard 2001
In accordance with the conventions set out by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, you should seek my permission to reproduce
In accordance with the conventions set out by the Society of Authors and the Publishers Association, you should seek my permission to reproduce
I began my teaching career in 1966 at Queen Eleanor's CE Primary School and then went on to teach at Westborough County Primary School, both feeder primary schools of what was then Park Barn County Secondary School in Guildford. My concern at the recent events surrounding King's Manor School relates to the direction of government education policy and, in particular, the creeping privatisation of state education.
The school and its area
Park Barn County Secondary School (pictured) was opened in the late fifties to serve a large area of north-west Guildford including Onslow Village and the Park Barn and Westborough estates. Its name was changed to King's Manor School in 1991, when parents were being given the right to choose their children's schools and it was felt that the Park Barn tag might limit the appeal of the school to residents of the estate.
The Park Barn and Westborough estates have always suffered from public perceptions of the area. Indeed, in a report on King's Manor School (11 September 1998), The Surrey Advertiser described Park Barn as 'one of the most deprived areas of Guildford'. In response to the resulting wave of protest, the paper published a piece by Simon Wicks: 'Park Barn - a crisis of identity' (The Surrey Advertiser, 2 October 1998).
In his piece, Wicks pointed out that Park Barn comes 28th in the county's league table of thirty deprived areas. Quoting Wendy Allison of the North Guildford Project, he wrote, 'Park Barn and Westborough have one of the lowest income per capita ratios in Surrey and the educational abilities of young children entering school there are considered to be relatively low.' According to the Surrey Area Profile, Westborough has 7.3% unemployment, 18.9% of children are in low-income families and 43.6% of the residents rent from the local authority. In terms of resources, however, the area is relatively well off. The council houses are 'smartly double glazed and centrally heated.' There are plenty of play areas and a new £1.3 million day centre for the over-55s.
Community worker Jonathan Hayes told Wicks, 'This is a mixed community, with university lecturers and the long-term unemployed among its residents. Crime is low. It has been tagged "deprived" because of the concentration of rented housing and the fact that national housing policies mean tenancies are only awarded to those with "genuine need".'
'It is partly the contrast between the various sectors in the community that has affected King's Manor School. Parents, given more choice nowadays, choose not to send their children there because the area is deemed to be "deprived" and the label becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Inevitably, a label that is appropriate for a section of the community ends up colouring the whole area. A falling school roll means less funding which in turn means the school cannot function as well as it should. Under-resourced and with falling morale, it becomes a "failing" school according to Ofsted's criteria.'
Today, the school roll stands at just 395, with 23 in the sixth-form.
Ofsted itself (1998) identified a number of factors affecting the school, including
In 1997, the school carried out an internal review, and this was followed by an LEA inspection. As a result of these, the school began to address a number of urgent priorities including standards of achievement, the quality of teaching and the school's ethos. Guidance and policies relating to these were put in place, and the senior management team and heads of faculty began a programme of monitoring the effects of these initiatives.
The 1998 inspection
Ofsted inspectors visited the school on 14-15 May and three HMIs carried out a Section 10 inspection of the school on 6-7 July. Following these inspections, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector concluded that 'the school requires special measures, since it is failing to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education'.
The following are extracts from the 1998 Inspection Report, which drew on the evidence of both the May and July visits.
'The main findings of the inspection are:
'the school began to run into difficulties ten years ago. It was under-subscribed, and children excluded from other schools were sent there. Matters came to a head last year when the local education authority published a paper on the Future of Education in North Guildford. They recommended closing the school. As a result, the Community Group was set up. We won that battle, but the next thing the LEA suggested was privatisation.'My correspondence
I first became aware of the situation when letters supporting the school began to appear in The Surrey Advertiser.
On 22 September I wrote to the Head Teacher, Greg Gardner, 'to offer my moral support to you and your staff in your present circumstances'. In his reply, he said he was sad that the strategies which he and his staff were putting in place were not to be allowed to bear fruit. Of himself, he said:
'I am thinking of joining voluntary services - something they cannot sack you from - to carry on the fight to correct some of the appalling inequities in a society where the gap between the rich and the poor has reached grotesque proportions.'On 17 October I wrote to Heather Hawker (Chair, Surrey County Council), Dr Paul Gray (Director of Education, Surrey County Council), Andrew Smith (my MP) and Education Secretary David Blunkett.
I pointed out
However, my main criticisms were not of Ofsted, nor of the County Council, but of the policies of both the previous and the present governments which, in my view, had caused this situation:
'The combined effect of league tables and parental choice is, inevitably, to cause good schools to become more popular and poorer schools (usually those in less affluent areas) to become less so. As these schools become less popular, so they find it increasingly difficult to recruit and retain good staff. It is a vicious circle. Rather than improve the situation for pupils in the poorer areas, therefore, it actually exacerbates the problem and widens the divide.'In my letter to David Blunkett, I asked why he was not prepared to end the iniquitous practice of selection of pupils by ability or aptitude. I reminded him of the words he had used before the election: 'Read my lips. No selection.'
In her reply, Heather Hawker said she was 'pleased that the Education Committee has committed itself to the continuation of a school on the King's Manor site. My personal belief is that everybody involved (the school, the community and the LEA) share a common goal which is to see the creation of a thriving school to serve the Park Barn area. We are pursuing a range of options including a partnership with the private sector but at this stage no decisions have been taken.'
Surrey's Director of Education, Dr Paul Gray, wrote:
'It is precisely because King's Manor has, in effect, become a "poor relation" locally that I decided some fifteen months ago to intervene directly. For all of the reasons you have described, the roll at King's Manor has plummeted and its intake is unbalanced. LEA inspectors identified serious weaknesses and there then followed a period of even more intensive support from the County Council. In the event (and despite the best efforts of all concerned) we have been unable to turn the school around and my politicians felt strongly that it should close. I took a different view, believing that it is possible to have a successful school on the Park Barn site but that it must be sufficiently distinctive to be attractive to parents in the Guildford area.'Replying on behalf of David Blunkett, Andrew Smith wrote:
'We have encouraged LEAs to use innovative approaches to tackle failure. These may include seeking private sector advice and consultancy. I hope that Surrey will bear three principles in mind. First, the law does not allow the governors or the LEA to abandon their responsibility to raise standards. Second, the choices they make about how to carry out that responsibility must be motivated by the best interests of pupils. Third, they must ensure that any expenditure represents the best possible value for public money.The process
At the Education Committee meeting on 2 November, Paul Gray promised to 'keep the options open for King's Manor School' and said that one of these options would be 'keeping the school under local authority control.' Concerns were expressed about the costs of the tendering process and the timescale, and doubts about the legality of paying a management fee over and above the cash provided per child (The Surrey Advertiser 6 November 1998).
There were nine replies to the request for 'expressions of interest'. The parents' preferred bidder was the Guildford Community Education Trust. It was the only local one, set up for the purpose by fourteen local churches. It was not shortlisted. Surrey County Council would not say why, though it is believed it is because, being newly set up, it could not demonstrate a track record, financial resources or expertise. However, when the Edison Project, the American backers of one of the four shortlisted bidders, withdrew their support for the bid, the Council was obliged to think again. They couldn't be seen to reject the local bid on the basis of a lack of track record whilst allowing a bid from an organisation which also now had no track record.
Proposals had to be submitted by 18 January. Francis Beckett, writing in The Guardian (19 January 1999) said, 'It was all done with obsessive secrecy ... Substantial bonuses were secretly offered to the successful bidder if pupil numbers rose.' Surrey County Council 'refused to tell parents, governors, teachers or even Mr Gardner anything at all about who is bidding or what is on offer.' The Parents' Action Committee request to have a representative on the King's Manor Contract Sub-committee was refused, even though one could legally have been co-opted. Dr Andrew Povey, Conservative Education Chairman said, 'Some of the Parents' Action Committee have a political agenda.'
In the event, the contract was offered to 3Es Enterprises. Jamie Wilson and Rebecca Smithers reported that 'the 3E's bid was the unanimous choice among local people' (The Guardian 9 February 1999). 'Inside the school, a small band of parents cheered when the Head, Greg Gardner, announced the result.'
3E's Managing Director, Stanley Goodchild (former Chief Education Officer for Berkshire), told Simon Wicks (The Surrey Advertiser 26 February 1999) that his firm was pledged 'to transform the ethos of the school and drag it from a downward spiral that has seen pupil numbers fall by 50%. We want this school to be a school of distinction and we want it to be owned by the local community.' He believed that, with local support, it could become a 'college of national and international repute, with very clear specialisms.'
3Es will set up a voluntary aided school on the King's Manor site in September 2000. The firm will be paid 'a management fee and generous performance bonuses'. The county has also promised £1 million for refurbishment and £150 000 for new technology.
The contest was won on the basis that 3Es would set up an arts and technology college, with an emphasis on vocational qualifications and commercial sponsorship. Their plans include a name change - possibly to Kings' College for the Arts and Technology, entry tests to ensure a fully comprehensive intake and extensive community involvement.Greg Gardner remains puzzled. Why is Surrey County Council, which is proud of the reputation of its education service, so keen to enter into an arrangement which will, inevitably, take away a level of local control? What is the nature of the contract about to be entered into? What happens if it goes wrong? And will the parents - who have campaigned so effectively for the retention of the school - still feel it is 'theirs' when it is run by a trust whose approach may cut across their interests?
I don't know the staff of King's Manor School. I don't know how good they are as teachers and managers. I don't know how far they themselves have contributed to the situation in which they now find themselves.
But it does seem to me that here is a school trying to offer a good, humane education to all its pupils, a large proportion of whom are disadvantaged or disabled. I am not alone in this view. From the many letters which have appeared in The Surrey Advertiser, it is clear that the school enjoys a high level of support among parents and the local community. Francis Beckett, writing in The Guardian (19 January 1999) pointed out that the school's unit for pupils with physical disabilities was 'widely admired'. And Jamie Wilson and Rebecca Smithers reported that:
King's Manor, a 1950s red brick structure, lies in one of the most depressed areas of the town. But from the inside you would not know it was a failing school. There are no broken windows or litter; instead the rooms are bright, with decorations on the walls. Last night pupils were rehearsing for a production of The Wizard of Oz. (The Guardian 9 February 1999)So why does the school find itself in its present situation? The following factors have all played a significant part:
But what is that vision? Perhaps there is a clue in Hackney. Following a fairly damning Ofsted report, some of its services are to be hived off to outside contractors. (Rumour has it that Downing Street wanted the whole LEA contracted out but apparently the Ofsted report wasn't quite damning enough).
Why should Blunkett want private contractors to run Hackney? Decca Aitkenhead (The Guardian 12 March 1999) offered two possible explanations:
The more hopeful one would be that Blunkett is in torment with every day that passes and every Hackney school pupil doesn't have a place secured at Oxbridge ... Alternatively, it might be the case that the Department for Education is currently awash with advice from consultants, all "advising" that schools would be transformed if only the Government would let private companies such as Nord Anglia or Edison get their hands on them ... the Chair of the Local Government Association's education committee warns of "shadowy creatures" lobbying in their own interests ... it is clearly the case that these consultants stand to profit in the long run if they can convince the Government that local authorities have no right, God given or otherwise, to run their own education.In practical terms, having a private contractor run some of Hackney's services will actually make very little difference, since local authorities now have very limited responsibilities and very little to do with the day-to-day running of schools.
If you wanted to make a dramatic improvement to Hackney's schools, changing the organisation which looks after data analysis and the like would not be your biggest priority. If, on the other hand, your main concern was to start setting precedents for privatisation; if you wanted companies to secure some experience; if you wanted to steer towards a system where state education was no longer the norm, it would make sense to start in Hackney. (Decca Aitkenhead The Guardian 12 March 1999)Or in King's Manor?