When I was Chair of Governors at a Leicestershire primary school, the ongoing challenge was to keep the school running effectively on a very tight budget. Given the circumstances of the school, there was continuing pressure to improve the performance of the school while working with a budget that would often make the pips squeak. One of the reasons that I stepped down from being a governor, however, followed the election of the Tory-Libdem coalition and their wholesale drive to turn schools in Leicestershire into academies. It was clear at the time that the push to make as many school as possible academies, regardless of the suitability of this system for the wide range of schools in the authority, would lead to a paucity of governance and management accountability.
It’s regretful, then, to read that the Daily Telegraph is reporting that “‘Extravagant’ academy school bosses blow thousands on luxury hotels and first-class travel”. According to the Telegraph: “Auditors warned of a culture of “extravagance” at the heart of the E-ACT group – the second-largest provider of academies in England – that led to hundreds of thousands of pounds being wasted. In a damning report, a Government quango found widespread examples of “lax” controls from senior managers and the use public of funds that “stretched the concept of propriety and value for money”.
According to the TES “The damaging findings for E-Act have been revealed in a report by the UK government’s Education Funding Agency”, and that: “Expenses claims and use of corporate credit cards indicate a culture involving prestige venues, large drinks bills, business lunches and first- class travel all funded by public money,” the agency’s report said. It added that expense and card payments by senior managers had “occasionally stretched the concept of propriety and value for money. Controls have been lax and some payments have tended to extravagance. However, we found no evidence of fraud.”
While actions of this kind might not be strictly illegal, I have a growing sense of unease that public money and the public service of education is being bastardised by an short-term and crude management culture. A culture that sees executive action as impervious to criticism and justifiable on the basis that education is now a business activity that needs to be managed in the same way that other consumer brands are managed.
The obvious risk in running our schools as quasi-commercial operations means that the virtues and values of education in the UK can get tossed aside. Social impartiality, accountability, freedom of expression, financial transparency and willingness to serve for the public good are increasingly at risk as our education system is pushed into these lamentable reforms.