£850k on academy trusts with no schools? It’s a problem. But let’s not start a mass hysteria

On Wednesday, more than 40 pupils were treated for sickness and feeling faint at a school in Ripon, North Yorkshire.

Around 11.30am a call went in to the ambulance service to despatch to the school. In the following hours, increasing numbers of pupils were treated.

In the office we watched anxiously. Searches were immediately done to see if the school was undergoing any building works. Could it be a gas leak? What about the hygiene rating of the school? If the canteen had a known problem, perhaps it was food poisoning.

By the time a statement was released sometime after 2pm it seemed all students had been sent back to lessons. The most plausible suggestion was that one student had fainted, and then others – either bothered by what they had seen, or due to the power of suggestion – had also felt the same.

Similar fainting spells have happened across the world, and across history.

The website oddlyhistorical.com describes how girls at Blackburn Secondary School, in the autumn of 1965, also dropped like flies – with 85 eventually taken to hospital. Unfortunately, sending everyone home didn’t help. When the school re-opened the following week, it started again. And then the following again. After that? Nothing. It stopped as quickly as it started.

A problem of running a school newspaper is that it can sometimes seem like we are constantly involved in fainting episodes. This week, for instance, our cover story discusses academy trusts given cash to start-up only to find themselves with no schools. If a reader wants to use the story for mass hysteria – it would be easy to do so. “Look at these greedy chains who have taken public money and done nothing,” they could yell, and soon find themselves an angry mob to follow them.

But looking again at the story what you actually see are organisations who spent a lot of time and effort trying to build companies that could support struggling schools, only to fall at tough hurdles. NYA, for example, bid for schools in three cities, but didn’t get any. Durrington High School, who wanted to take on extra schools, couldn’t agree on budgets.

As schools move over to becoming academies the big issues are these hurdles. But why aren’t companies able to do what they’re being paid to do? Why is the process so patchy? Those are questions we are going to keep revisiting.

It’s possible that if the fainting children had been made aware of the reasons for their nausea; if they had been told of the Blackburn story; then they would realise how silly their behaviour was. Likewise, if we know why new academy sponsors are not thriving, then perhaps we can avoid frustrations (and wasted cash) in the future.

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  1. Or maybe instead of wasting money building the infrastructure of lots of small companies to little educational benefit the money could be spent within schools – or given to high performing local authorities to enable them to support schools which need to improve. It’s madness to have hundreds of small MATs replicating legal, IT, payroll, school improvement and other functions when those functions already exist within much more efficient and arguably more effective (when you look at the data on performance of maintained schools versus academies) local authorities. Nick Gibb in his recent speech to FASNA argued that the strength of MATs was that they could centralise functions for efficiency. Well I have news for Nick. That’s what local authorities have always done. The policy is a nonsense with no credible evidence of effectiveness.

    • Julian Critchley

      I disagree that any outrage would be misplaced. My departmental budget next year is £2000. We can’t afford the new textbooks which are required to teach our students the new and unwanted A-Level and GCSE courses imposed on us by this Government. So the fact that the same government has happily blown millions of pounds on private companies who haven’t taught a single student, seems to me to justify a little shouty outrage.

      I suppose the question should be asked : How much evidence do we need that the Government’s real agenda is to funnel the public education budget into private hands at all costs, before those who keep urging us to moderation start to use their platform to expose that agenda, rather than assist in their laughable campaign of pretending any of this daylight robbery is motivated by an interest in “standards”.

  2. Janet Downs

    Giving money to organisations to become MATs or expand existing ones might make sense if academy conversion worked in the majority of cases. But it doesn’t. Academy sponsorship could actually be an impediment as Henry Stewart discovered for the Local Schools Network. http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/11/the-minister-misleading-claims-and-the-unfortunate-truth-non-academies-improve-faster-than-similar-academies/
    When sponsored academies improve, it’s often the case that the green shoots of recovery were discovered in Ofsted monitoring when they were still LA maintained. This made them ripe for academy conversion. The sponsor and politicians could then claim any subsequent improvement was down to sponsor involvement (eg Downhills and others http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2014/04/dfe-praises-primary-academies-which-built-on-work-done-in-predecessor-schools/)