Democratic Media Institutions

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May 022018

BBC Media Action is the charitable arm of the BBC that seeks to support communication development in developing nations around the world. James Deane is the Director of Policy and Research, and in his latest blog he asks if we need to rethink how we build media organsations and institutions that support democratic accountability around the world. Deane suggests that:

Access to information that people can trust, find relevant, that underpins informed democratic debate, and can hold power to account, will depend on the existence of media institutions, not just information networks. That remains the major challenge of media support. It is a challenge that we need fresh thinking to achieve.

I agree with Deane that this isn’t just about rolling-out large media corporations, or throwing open the communication floodgates to the market, and that we do need to undertake some careful thinking about what we build and put in place for the future. As Deane argues:

Media freedom and media sustainability indicators focus on whether media is free and sustainable and less on on whether they are valued, trusted or relevant to the populations of their societies, especially those outside an educated middle class. This is especially important at a time of digital and demographic transformation.

The challenge, from my perspective, is how do we harness the independent and distrubuted technologies in which we aggregate news and media content, in which ‘brands’ are no longer as importnat, but the need for trusted informants, guides and advocates is?

What Price Financial Accountability in Education?

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May 212013

£9k Fees and Cuts?

The continuing saga of ‘superhead’ Jo Shuter continues to rumble on, following the news that she had been suspended pending an investigation by the Department for Education into financial irregularities. According to Camden New Journal, “The award-winning head teacher of Quintin Kynaston school has been reinstated after being suspended from the job for eight months.”

The news of Shuter’s reinstatement, along with a final written warning, came after the investigation by the DofE “identified significant weaknesses in the financial oversight and the proper and regular use of public funds” at Quintin Kynaston school. In particular, the report raised questions “with regard to Ms Shuter’s role as the Accounting Officer and her responsibility for the prudent and economical administration of Academy business.”

Academies aren’t the only education establishments that seem to be experiencing a rush of blood to the head where financial accountability is concerned. The Independent reported recently that Durham University has been “criticised for spending £1.4 million on art including works by Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol while it charges students £9,000-a-year and pays hundreds of staff less than the Living Wage.”

This spending is clearly controversial, because, as reported the next day in The Telegraph, “the amount of lecture and tutorial time in universities has barely changed over the last six years despite a nine-fold hike in annual tuition fees.” All of which means, as The Guardian reported in March, that “England’s universities could suffer from the perception that they are “awash with cash”, as the Treasury seeks cuts of £1 billion in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills’ 2015-16 budget.”

In January Kent Online reported that Christ Church University vice-chancellor was “forced to resign from his £200,000 post” after he “blew thousands on business class flights, luxury hotels and even flowers.” According to Kent Online “Prof Robin Baker left his job on October 22 last year, amid talk of relationships with women at the university. The institution has close links with the Church of England and has the Archbishop of Canterbury as its chancellor. But the 59-year-old, who earned £203,000 a year as the university’s principal officer, ran up £15,000 on credit card spending, it’s been revealed. As his students struggled to pay thousands of pounds in tuition fees, Prof Baker paid for business class flights around the world, dinners in some of Canterbury’s finest restaurants, luxury hotels and even flowers. He even whipped out his corporate credit card to pay for shopping from Waitrose, refreshments from sandwich shops, such as Pret a Manger and Upper Crust and hundreds of pounds on opera tickets.”

Professor Baker hit the news in 2011 after Canterbury Christ Church University “admitted it spent more than £200,000 recruiting Robin Baker as its vice-chancellor and [then] creating a “palatial” office for him.” According to Kent Online “It was equipped with an executive washroom and shower, a kitchen, a photocopying room, waiting area and an office for a personal assistant. New furniture for the office cost another £1,300.”

In another development, the Manchester Evening News is reporting that the University of Salford “faces a huge legal bill after performing an embarrassing u-turn over its bid to sue a former lecturer for criticising bosses in a blog.” According to the report, the University of Salford has “slashed more than 400 jobs in four years,” and “refuses to rule out future redundancies”. The legal bill comes after “a probe into an alleged bust-up involving second-in-command Dr Adrian Graves.” University bosses have announced a “climbdown over their costly libel action against former part-time lecturer Dr Gary Duke – two days after the M.E.N. posed a series of questions about the affair.” Vice-chancellor Martin Hall has “sent an email to staff saying he had finally decided to pull the plug on the three-year battle – which had already cost £150,000 at a time when hundreds of people were being made redundant – to save further expensive solicitor bills”.

As universities, colleges and schools are being pushed to act in ever more commercial ways, questions about accountability and good-governance of public funds are increasingly going to  come to the public’s attention. Without rigorous and transparent accountability, are we likely to see more examples of waste and extravagance in our education institutions? As Alasdair Smith of the Anti-Acadamies Alliance says “A big part of [the problem] is the rise of the cult of the personality in school leadership. Our schools are among the best in the world but they have been denigrated and our teaching standards have been besmirched. Jo Shuter was one of a number of school leaders lauded as being the new broom needed to sweep away all of the detritus and make us all shiny and new. Perhaps they felt invincible?”

Academy Heads Lack Accountability

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May 182013

wpid-wpid-62863613_62861831-2013-05-18-19-10-2013-05-18-19-101.jpgAnother Head Teacher at an academy school has been ticked-off for spending school money on themselves rather than the children they should be committed to serving. BBC London has reported how “A Department for Education report criticised Quintin Kynaston Community Academy head teacher Jo Shuter over use of school funds.”

The report into Ms Kynaston “looked at spending between January 2011 and August 2012, detailed numerous concerns, including:

  • Ms Shuter not declaring any business interests despite having close links to a number of suppliers used by the academy.
  • “Widespread” personal use of academy taxi accounts with an estimated £2,663 of personal travel costs identified.
  • At least two cases of expenses being claimed more than once from different organisations, which “could amount to fraud”.
  • A number of issues relating to the employment of family members.”

It looks like Michael Gove’s breakneck push to make all schools academies is hitting bumps on the road. This is what happens when there is a lack of accountability in public services and a culture of arms-length executive management is thrown into the mix.


Academies and Executive Accountabity

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May 172013

Extravagance in Academies?

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.