"I'm not wildly enthusiastic about academies" John Merry
During two public meetings recently, parents and staff from Dukesgate Primary in Little Hulton, and from Marlborough Road Primary and the Albion High School in East Salford have heard Salford trade unions slating Salford Council over its process of converting the schools to academies run by the Salford Academy Trust, led by Salford City College with the University of Salford and Salford Council as minor partners.
Allegations of secrecy, speed, a lack of proper consultation and the creation of `jobs for the boys' have all been levelled at the Council, as well as a belief that the whole academy package was almost signed, sealed and delivered as a fait accompli before people were properly informed.
See background reports from the Salford Star on the Dukesgate meeting (click here) and Marlborough Road and Albion High (click here).
Yesterday, the Salford Star interviewed John Merry, former Leader of Salford Council and now Assistant Mayor with responsibility for Children and Young People, to get his justification for the privatisation of Salford education. And, while he is adamant that the ConDem Government forced Salford Council to convert Dukesgate and Marborough Road primaries into academies, the conversion of Albion High is merely being based on a "concern"…
"We had a meeting in December with the Department for Education (DfE) when they told us that they were not satisfied in terms of Dukesgate and Marlborough Road, and they were minded to require them to become an academy and to find a sponsor chain to look after them" he says "They were definitely going to do it. And in terms of the Albion there is a real concern that it was going to fall below the floor target and we were told that if it fell below the floor target in terms of GCSE passes that it would be forced to convert to an academy and be sponsored."
Those GCSE exams haven't even finished yet but the Salford Star understands that uniforms for the new `Albion Academy' have already been ordered, while a new `Designate Principal' is in place ready to start at the `Albion Academy' in September this year.
Meanwhile, today is the final day of the consultation for parents, staff and local people to make their views known on the academy conversions (see end of article for online links).
The consultation process itself has, apparently, been well flawed with, we understand, less than a dozen parents attending official meetings at Albion school; while information and consultation forms have been produced in English only, even though many parents at two of the schools don't have English as a first language (see here).
There is a question on the consultation survey form asking `Do you agree that [Marlborough Road Primary School/Dukesgate/Albion High] should become an Academy, sponsored by Salford City College?' But even if people disagree, John Merry says that schools staying under Salford Council control is not an option…
"The fact remains at the end of the day that if there is a clear move from the parents that they don't want to be part of this Trust then we'll have to look for another academy sponsor" he says "That's why it's a false question to say `Can they stay as they are?' They can't stay as they are…"
He argues that the choice is between Salford Academy Trust, which Salford Council can influence, and a sponsor chain, which would leave the Council virtually out of the equation. Merry also reveals that the legal agreement to set up Salford Academy Trust was only signed last Monday as the Council tried to wield more influence amongst its partners, Salford City College and the University of Salford…
"Until Monday I could still have pulled out and said `We're not doing it'" he explains "That was the final stages of negotiation, and what I was concerned about was the issue that we were just a small minority shareholder. So I wanted to make sure that we had sufficient safeguards to ensure that we had real influence over what's happening. I wanted to get in place that the business plan had to be agreed by all three parties and would be stuck to, and that was agreed last Monday."
He says that this will allay fears by parents and staff with regard to the position of vulnerable pupils within the new academies…
"Through the business plan we will safeguard things like admissions and exclusions, those procedures will be laid out very clearly, and particularly around SEN [Special Education Needs]. They will be expected to be part of the overall family of provision we're making in Salford" he says "I believe that the way I can guarantee that more is by having a sponsor that is based in Salford rather than one based in London.
"In terms of special needs, a lot of that provision is going to be devolved down to the school, whether it's an academy or not" he adds "and the expectation is that they will be drawing that from Salford City Council."
`Expectation'? That's not a guarantee?
"No but I've got more of a guarantee this way being one third of what's happening than I have with another academy chain" he responds.
But you'd have a 100% guarantee if it was still under Salford Council…
"But it's not going to be, is it?" he insists "We've got to choose between having a board that is heavily influenced by Salford Council and a board that's based in London."
Salford Council's track record on `heavily influencing boards', like the joint ventures on which Peel Holdings sit, isn't very good but that's another story…
Already, the signs aren't brilliant with the Salford Academy Trust. The Head of Albion High, Steve Aveyard, has been appointed to run the Trust on what is believed to be a huge salary.
So, was the post ever advertised?
Who appointed him?
"As the Trust hasn't been created yet Salford College has appointed him and the fact remains that many of the parents at the Albion will be reassured by that because they think he's done a good job…"
Not according to parents at the previous night's meeting who branded the appointment "an absolute joke", as Aveyard was Head of the school that John Merry himself says was "a real concern that it was going to fall below the floor target" and thus had to become an academy. Does he know Aveyard's salary?
"I couldn't tell you off the top of my head…"
Did Salford Council have any say in the appointment?
"No, but that shows how important it is for us to be members of the Trust…"
It is important for schools to be accountable to the community and the Salford Star doesn't have much faith in the Trust partners, Salford City College and the University of Salford.
Last week we e-mailed the publicly funded Salford College to ask where its accounts were. The College never even gave us the courtesy of a reply. Meanwhile, the Salford Star had to take the University of Salford to the Information Commissioner to wrestle basic information (see here). The University isn't exactly known for its great industrial relations either, with staff planning a strike next week over yet more mass redundancies.
The threesome are hardly shining lights of transparency and good practice. What experience does Salford College have of running primary schools?
"We will recruit people who do have experience of running primary schools" says John Merry "The fact remains that Salford College is widely judged to be a successful college and they are accredited sponsors. I believe that they will show that, with our support, they can run primary schools. It's not about Salford College running it, it is about the Trust, which is the College, the University and ourselves."
John Merry repeats throughout the interview that the move to academies was forced by the ConDem Government, yet the Salford Star has discovered minutes from a Salford City College Finance Committee meeting from as far back as 2009 stating that "The Principal is authorised to continue to participate in discussions and negotiations on the sponsorship of Academies…"
This was from when the Labour Government was still in power…
"That doesn't say it was discussing it with the Council" says the former Leader "All I'm telling you is that I've not been involved in any discussions in 2009… as far as I was concerned this is a means of protecting the position of Salford within the new situation we are finding ourselves."
In that case, why the secrecy? The Salford Star first heard the academy rumours over eight months ago but couldn't prove anything until the actual academy job adverts came out, because there was nothing on any Council, school or College website about it. There is still nothing on Salford Council's website.
So why has there been no discussion about academies at Salford Council's Cabinet, nor its Children and Young People panel, nor the Scrutiny Committee. Not even at the Mayor's briefing.
"The argument is that we had to get everything in place and all the reassurances…"
So it was signed and sealed before anyone knew about it?
"No it wasn't because it wasn't signed or sealed" he says.
So has the move to convert Salford schools to academies been discussed anywhere?
"It's been discussed by the Labour group."
And who are they accountable to? No-one! There's been no discussion papers, no plans, no nothing for the community to see?
"I'm just telling you because your paper printed that Labour councillors are not aware of it" he says "Labour councillors have supported the plan."
Merry also disputes that the trade unions didn't know about the plans, arguing that staff have representation on the Albion's governing body which has discussed the plans at "the last two or three meetings…All the governing bodies have been aware of the situation and all those people on the governing bodies were briefed about it and then it was a case of when it was appropriate to write to the parents and to consult them about it."
But the consultation has happened four weeks before the end of term, offering free uniforms as a kind of bribe, when the academies are supposed to open in September.
"What's the alternative?" he gestures "That I get the Harris Foundation or somebody else to sponsor the schools?"
There is an alternative – to keep it in-house…
"You're arguing to me that the choice lies between being a local authority school and being one sponsored by the Salford Trust - I'm arguing to you that the choice is between Salford Trust and, say, the Harris group…"
How many times has Salford Council said `There is no alternative', and then gone backwards? Day centres?
"We consulted on it and are in the process of consulting…"
But you're not consulting properly because most people don't understand the issues as there's so little information out there. It's not an easy concept and you've given people very little time to get their heads around it...
"My argument is that it's a false dichotomy" he says "I can't sit there and say right we're going to make sure those schools are going to be local authority schools because what will happen is that the DfE will find another sponsor and compel them to become academies."
And that's cast iron is it?
"As cast iron as I can assure you" he responds "You'll have to ask the DfE about that. From my view it is cast iron. I saw that they [anti academies campaign] said this is just a tactic by the Council and they would say that but this is the situation. I don't believe per se that academies are the only way of running schools but why should I want them to become academies if I wasn't in a situation of having to make a very difficult choice?"
Merry denies that Salford Council is encouraging schools to be part of the new Trust but says there are more academy conversions on the way, although he refuses to name the schools.
"There's these three and I'm not saying any others at this stage because I haven't got the evidence to say that's the case" he states "There will be ones that will be in danger, and there are other schools that are deciding off their own bat that they wish to become an a academy, like Swinton High School.
"We're left with a situation that half the schools in the country are now in the process of becoming an academy" he adds "We've got to respond to that in some way otherwise we lose all influence. I could just wave goodbye to them and say `That's it' but I'm desperately trying here to find some way whereby the local authority can still have a key role to play in education."
Bury Council appears to be opposing academies so if they can do it why can't Salford?
"Because we're making a judgement that rather than go down to a glorious defeat we've got a possibility with three schools of keeping them within the Salford family, and I would be failing in my duty if I didn't take advantage of that…. I'm not wildly enthusiastic about academies, thinking they are the only solution, but I've got to adapt to the changed environment"
So you dispute that Salford Council is doing the Tories's dirty work for them?
"I certainly do" he concludes "The fact that I'm not standing there in the middle of the road with a spear saying `Don't run me over' doesn't mean to say I'm doing the Tories's dirty work. I'm trying to find a different way of getting around the situation we find ourselves in and find a way of protecting our schools…"
Salford City UNISON has written to John Merry and the Mayor asking for a public meeting followed by a public vote to decide the future of the three schools. So far, the union hasn't had a response.
Judging by what the Assistant Mayor with responsibility for Children and Young People has said they shouldn't hold their breath…
The consultation for the three schools finishes at midnight tonight.
To fill in the online form for Albion High School – click here
For Marlborough Road – click here
For Dukesgate – click here