Friday 17 August 2012

Michael Gove's school privatisation bonanza

Despite opposition from school staff, students, parents and the wider community,
Michael Gove forced through the privatisation of Downhills Primary School
In August 2012 it was revealed that the Coalition government had been lying about the amount of school playing fields they have sold off. In answer to a Freedom of Information request the education minister Michael Gove claimed that his department had sold off 20 playing fields since 2010.

That Gove was prepared to admit that every single application to sell off playing fields had been approved was bad enough, but just a couple of weeks later the Daily Telegraph revealed that the figures were false and that Gove had actually approved thirty playing field sell-offs. In five of these cases the playing fields were sold off against the advice of the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel. It was also revealed that many of these decisions were taken on behalf of Michael Gove by someone called Lord Hill, who upon closer inspection turns out to be a Conservative party member called Jonathan Hill that has never been publicly elected in his life and has absolutely no experience in the education sector. Hill, who used to work for Bell Pottinger (a large Tory donor) was turned into a Lord by David Cameron shortly after he became Prime Minister. Presumably in order to give Hill a veneer of legitimacy as he set about selling off public property against the expert advice.

The fact that Tories (elected and unelected alike) have been busy selling off school playing fields severely undermines all the guff David Cameron has been spouting about "Olympic legacies". It seems the real sporting legacy this government seem determined to leave is a legacy of thousands of children denied access to sports facilities, often against the wishes of the experts.

Other important considerations when considering the Tory "sporting legacies" are the fact that David Cameron intervened directly to abolish the statutory requirement that schools provide at least two hours a week of physical education and that just days before the Olympics, Michael Gove scrapped minimum requirements stipulating the amount of outside playing space schools must provide per pupil, meaning in essence that the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel will have virtually no grounds to oppose future sell-offs, since there will no longer be any requirements for schools to provide outdoor playing areas or even to provide physical education at all (thanks to Cameron's intervention).

"Nasty Tories selling off playing fields against the expert advice and then lying about it" is pretty much how the story was spun by the mainstream press. Although accurate as it stands, there is another layer that deserves wider examination, which is the Tory policy of turning schools into "Academies". The official Tory justification for this policy is that it takes schools out of "bureaucratic local government control". However it is always wise to look a little further than the official government explanations of their own actions. It turns out that as part of the academy process, the school deeds are transferred from public ownership into the ownership of the privately operated "chains" such as the Harris Federation, which happens to be run by the Tory peer Phil Harris (the owner of Carpetright).

This means that thousands of school buildings and playing fields that were paid for by the taxpayer have been given away by Michael Gove and Jonathan Hill, with the promise of vast government subsidies in support of these "private enterprises". The scandal isn't that Gove and Hill have overseen the sale of 30 playing fields, it is that they have transferred nearly 2,000 secondary schools (and playing fields) into private ownership. In many cases schools have been forcibly converted to private ownership despite opposition from parents and staff. In the case of Downhills Primary school in North London, ownership of the school was transferred to the Harris Federation despite opposition from staff, parents and 94% of the local community.

Upon closer examination, it turns out that the Harris Federation is one of these sham charities, which is a ruthless private business in all but name. The "charitable status" is clearly just a front, meaning that the directors of this business can dodge tax on their profits and that they don't have to share these profits with shareholders, just keeping them it all for themselves in the form of executive pay, bonuses and pension contributions. The director of the Harris Federation bagged £243,027 in 2011, with a further four individuals at the "charity" earning in excess of £130,000. An interesting comparison can be made with the maximum local authority salary for secondary school head-teachers in 2011, which was between £79,835 and £112,181 (with only the head of a large inner London secondary school eligible for the highest salary). The people actually doing the work of teaching the children will get low salaries whilst the executives at these "chains" fill their pockets at the taxpayers' expense, an all too familiar Tory party business model.

The business model for "charities" like the Harris Federation is simple, snap up the schools that Gove is handing out for free, soak up the taxpayer subsidies and take a large cut out for the directors. If topslicing the cash that is meant to pay for children's education is not enough, get Gove or Hill to rubber stamp the sale of a couple of playing fields. If the whole thing fails, the schools can be shut down and the property assets sold off, since Gove and Hill handed them legal ownership of the school properties as part of the conversion process.

Once again the mainstream media is reporting a scandal without proper consideration of the background information. Yes, Gove and Hill rubber stamped the sale of thirty school playing fields and then lied about it. Yes Gove and Cameron seem to be colluding to in order to eradicate sports education and playing fields in state funded schools. But the much more important issues are the facts that the Tories have already privatised thousands of schools, without even charging a penny for these £billions in taxpayer funded assets (which will remain subsidised with public cash) and that the Tories are planning to force local authorities to privatise the ownership of hundreds more school properties over the coming months and years.

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