By Rob Schofield
JUST DAYS into the new term Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) announced, out of the blue, that it was pulling out of 21 schools, throwing the academic lives of thousands of children across Yorkshire into limbo.
The National Education Union (NEU, formed by the merger of NUT and ATL) has led the community response. At a recent public meeting, the union’s Sally Kincaid focused on the goal of bringing the schools back under the control of their respective local authorities. For the first time teachers and parents were able to share experiences, uncovering the extent of WCAT’s wrongdoing.
One issue raised was financial mismanagement, first publicised last year. Former CEO Mike Ramsay paid £440,000 to IT and clerical work to firms owned by Ramsey and his own daughter. Ramsey stepped down in disgrace earlier this year.
It would also appear that WCAT has pillaged like a bandit, ransacking money from the reserves of its chain schools and getting into millions of pounds of debt. A member of the governing board of the WCAT’s flagship school, Wakefield City Academy, reported that £700,000 had been seized directly from the schools financial reserves as a “forced loan”.
This money, earmarked for helping the school through a potential crisis, now has no prospect of being paid back to the school, as according to WCAT there is no legal basis to enforce an academy trust to pay back loans to its chain schools.
Time and time again WCAT has proven itself to be a reckless enterprise. In 2016, the trust privatised school cleaners at Kinsley Academy, transferring their contracts to Barnsley-based C&D Cleaning. Their wages were cut from £7.85 per hour to the minimum wage of £7.20; their sick pay was stripped completely.
The three women, Lesley Leake, Marice Hall and Karen McGee, took matters into their own hands. After a ballot (3 votes taken, all 3 in favour) they chose to go on strike. The trio became known nationally as The Kinsley Three, mounting a 13-week strike before C&D callously sacked them days before Christmas last year.
Bring all academies in-house
Throughout the meeting calls were made for the failed experiment of academisation to end, and for all schools to be brought back under local authority control. One contributor registered their disappointment that this was not included in Angela Rayner’s 10-point plan for education, presented at Labour Conference in Brighton.
The MP for Hemsworth Jon Trickett, whose constituency covers several of the schools involved, expressed his support and plans to join a lobby of parliament on Tuesday 24 October. However, he stopped short of any explicit call for Wakefield Council to take back the schools that fall within its district, simply stating that there was no legal mechanism to do so.
This is taking Labour’s obsession with constitutional legality way too far. Labour could front a petition, public meetings and a ballot of parents, teachers, students and the local community to demand the schools return to authority control.
Labour councils could even set up their own multi-academy trusts to take over the schools. If religious bigots, profiteering mega-chains and asset-stripping spivs can run schools, why not democratically elected local authorities?
As it stands, there is a great sense of fear for the future of the schools. Wakefield-based Outwood Grange, one of the original multi-academy trusts that was championed as a pioneer for academisation, is rumoured to be in the running to take over some of the schools.
But concerns have been raised over reports of mass expulsions from Outwood Grange Academy and draconian behavioural policies leading to students being excluded for trivial offences, like spending too long in the toilet or being “rowdy” on the bus.
The current situation throws up huge questions around the state of education in this country, with worries that many more trusts could collapse at any moment. WCAT represents more than just a canary in the coalmine for academies; this is a collapsed coalmine with thousands of our children still trapped inside it.