Safeguarding threatened in privatised system

1 Jan

I        Ofsted inspection focus

When Ofsted inspects a school/academy, the inspectors tend to focus on three issues – pupil progress (and achievement), the impact on children’s progress and achievement of measures taken to assist those on free school meals (FSM) with the Pupil Premium Grant (PPG) and Safeguarding. We tend to view pupil progress in narrow terms – i.e. the distance covered by youngsters in English and mathematics – instead of their overall development.  Many inspectors, sadly, do the same.

However, it is always useful for governors and school staff to draw inspectors’ attention to the ground made by shy pupils who become confident, ill-behaved children who become polite, civil and helpful to others, youngsters who constantly need help and guidance who become independent learners, self-centred young people who learn to collaborate and work co-operatively and, of course, the strides made by classes of children in all the other subjects such as science, geography, history, modern languages, design/technology, art and music, among other disciplines.

While the focus must not be constrained to any one group of pupils, the government, rightly, wants to ensure that the resources it is forking out for pupils entitled to FSMs through the PPG is used well. Inspectors expend much energy ensuring that this duty is discharged properly.

However, it is impossible for children – whatever their economic condition – to make progress if they do not feel safe and are happy.   Consequently, Safeguarding is the third issue which inspectors view under the microscope.

Where it is in peril, Local Authorities (LAs) have a responsibility for taking measures to redress the balance.   However, in an environment where LAs have lost considerable powers and resources, safeguarding Safeguarding has become increasing difficult and daunting.  The problems are being exacerbated by the “privatising” of education through an increasing number of schools (now well over 5,000) having become academies.  At least this is the view of the former Chief Inspector, Michael Tomlinson, who, until recently, was Birmingham’s Education Commissioner.

II       Sir Mike Tomlinson’s concern on Safeguarding

In an exclusive interview with The Times Educational Supplement (TES), he said that ministers lack powers to deal with a repeat of the “Trojan Horse” scandal, should it ever raise its head again.  In particular, ministers don’t have any powers to remove staff in such circumstances.

He added that ministers also need powers of intervention over a significantly increasing number of academies that were constantly underperforming.  He said: “The Department (for Education) may well argue that it does have powers. But my view is that, whatever powers it has, I don’t think they’re sufficient to deal with the sort of situation that happened in Birmingham, nor with the situation where we have a significant proportion of academies which are described by Ofsted as ‘inadequate’ or ‘requiring improvement’.”

He said that he had raised this matter with the DfE in August 2016 but till the end of the last calendar year he had not received a reply.

Readers may remember that the Trojan Horse scandal became manifest in 2013 when Birmingham City Council received an anonymous letter alleging that some Muslim groups were plotting to take over schools in the city and run them on strict Islamic principles.  Nicki Morgan, the then Education Secretary, appointed Sir Mike to oversee the council’s work and redress the situation.  His appointment ended in July 2016.

Ministers’ powers of an academy takeover are restricted to cases where they are mismanaging their finances.  In Birmingham’s case, Colin Diamond, seconded from the DfE as Deputy Education Commissioner, had to “persuade” individuals at the schools to resign, said Sir Mike.  There were no formal powers for him to get rid of them.  (Colin Diamond is now the Education Director of Birmingham.)

There are wider implications, Sir Mike remarked, in particular, where academies and Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) were underperforming.  “Even if an academy is not performing well, there is limited statutory power within ministers’ hands to do much about it,” he said.   “How can you possibly accept a situation in which you know young people are receiving a less than good education?  It is simply not possible to sit on your hands at that point.  Just as a local authority can be held to account, it seems to me that there needs to be similar powers (for the government) to exercise over MATs.”

When pushed further about the powers of Sir David Carter, the National School Commissioner, Sir Mike said that while he had every faith in Sir David, he was unconvinced that the Regional School Commissioners (RSCs), whom Sir David directs, had the tools to improve failing academies.

“Their main role is to help with the conversion of maintained schools into academies and to that end, obviously, that’s where their focus will be,” he remarked.   RSCs have limited resources.  While they can remove an academy from a MAT, this happens only in an “extreme situation” he said.   “They can lean on a MAT, but nothing more.”

III     Education Otherwise

There is another threat which can act against children’s safety and that is where parents/carers choose to educate their children outside of school.   The law puts an onus on parents and carers to arrange for their children to be educated at school or otherwise.   Most do so by seeking admission for their children in neighbourhood schools/academies.  However, there are increasing numbers of pupils who are being home-schooled – in particular, in Birmingham.  Sir Mike revealed in his interview that they could well be exposed to extremism.  When he took over as Commissioner, there were 750 pupils being educated in “otherwise” arrangements.  Two years later, when he stepped down, the number had increased to 1,000 (circa).

Across the country, many more children are being educated in unregistered independent schools and LAs have no powers to close them down.   When parents/carers are challenged, if such places are discovered, they inform the officers that it is their right for them to make alternative educational provision for their children.

Across the country, a number of unregistered schools sprouted, many based on different religions.  Sir Michael Wilshaw, the then Ofsted supremo, declared that these were a “serious and growing threat” to the welfare of hundreds of children.  In November 2015, he warned the then Secretary of State Nicky Morgan that the number of children being educated in such unofficial schools was “far higher than is currently known” by authorities.  He said that inspectors had found 15 unregistered schools educating about 800 children, some in squalid conditions and/or the apparent segregation of genders on religious grounds.

These were discovered after members of the public had tipped off the watchdog.  The “schools” had exploited loopholes in the law which permitted study clubs, so that they did not need to register.   Some had emphases on Islamic and Jewish religious studies, while others had no obvious religious affiliation.

Three – in Birmingham – had fire hazards and operated in “unhygienic and filthy conditions”.  Sir Michael said that the schools had a “narrow, Islamic-focused curriculum”, with evidence of misogynistic, homophobic and anti-Semitic teaching materials.  Staff members were not properly checked to work with the children.  Ofsted took every possible action to close the “schools” down, but they had continued to operate.  He stated that this was the case because the DfE had sent confusing and unhelpful advice to those running the “schools” saying they could apply to register retrospectively.

In 2015, Ofsted inspectors visited 162 suspected illegal schools – focusing on those in London, Birmingham, Luton, Wolverhampton and Staffordshire.

Sir Michael wanted the proprietors to be prosecuted because their “schools” represented “a serious and growing threat to the safety and well-being of hundreds of children in several English regions”.   He urged Nicky Morgan to review policies on tackling unregistered schools and allow Ofsted to lead prosecutions.

A DfE spokesman said that the department was happy for Ofsted to lead any prosecutions. “We agree with Ofsted that more needs to be done and will be strengthening our communications to potential providers.  We are also introducing further powers to regulate settings which teach children intensively and to intervene and impose sanctions where there are safety or welfare concerns.”

In June 2016, a group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish pupils nearly drowned after being taken on a hiking expedition by unqualified teachers working in their illegal school.   They were draped in their traditional, Orthodox clothes instead of proper hiking gear, and did not know how to read coastal warning signs because they were unable to speak English.  The children were rescued by the emergency services after the tide nearly swept them out to sea.

In November 2016, the BBC reported that Ofsted had uncovered an illegal, unregistered alternative provision centre, which was being paid £25,000 of public money for every young person it admitted.  Sir Michael Wilshaw, the last Ofsted chief, feared people were “lining their pockets” looking for vulnerable and excluded children.   It was bizarre that, while local authorities have a statutory duty to ensure all children get a suitable education, with children educated outside of school, their powers are limited.  Officials may enter premises only if they have specific concerns over a child’s safety.

Meanwhile, the government has appointed Alan Wood, the President of the Association of Directors of Children’s Services and former Chief Executive of the Hackney Education Trust, to carry out a review into the future of local government in education.

In an interview with Richard Vaughan of the TES, he said that radical changes were required to safeguard pupils outside mainstream schools, pupils who could be learning in unsafe and unhygienic environments.  He warned that councils should be allowed to find out what was happening to children being taught outside of school.  “If someone can say, ‘I am home-educating this child’ they (sic) are under no obligation to tell you any more than that or to comply with any of the questions of work or where the education takes place,” he said. Councils needed more clarity about their powers.

Richard Watts, chair of the Local Government Association’s (LGA’s) Children and Young People Board, agreed stating that children who were home-schooled were at risk.  But do LAs have the capacity to inspect, given the diminution of resources and diminishing role with the expansion of academies?

With safety of paramount importance and Ofsted’s continuing focus, there will be an expectation that Alan Wood produces his findings fast and an onus of Justine Greening, the Secretary of State, to act expeditiously on it.

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