By Graham Street
In her excellent article on the Ark takeover of William Parker and its proposed amalgamation with Helenswood School, Maria Cooke asked where the £6 million that they would spend on the merged schools was coming from. The answer is that, in reality, Ark is only investing half the money, with the remaining £2.9 million being provided by the state through the Schools Conditions Allocation (SCA). In fact, since ARK has taken over William Parker and Helenswood they have already been given £4.9 million by the state to invest in their buildings alone. This illustrates a key principle of the academisation of education: that although the control of schools is handed to non-democratically-accountable organisations, the vast majority of the funding still comes from tax payers. In practice, additional charitable funds are usually used for better learning materials and enrichment opportunities while the core expenditure, such as paying wages, is provided through state funding. 

Ark’s funders are listed on their website and include government agencies, publically funded charities and charitable foundations set up by wealthy business people, legal and financial consultants and hedge funds. The majority of Ark’s founding partners and trustees are hedge fund and asset managers. Ark trustee Lord Stanley Fink, who is an asset manager for the CEO of the Man Group hedge fund, has donated £2.62 million to the Conservative party and has been their treasurer on two separate occasions. Three of Ark’s trustees, Anthony William, Jennifer Moses and her partner Ron Beller, formerly held executive positions at Goldman Sachs, the financial firm involved in sub-prime mortgages that led to the global financial crisis of 2008. As in Britain, many of the financial institutions involved in the financial crisis were rescued with huge amounts of tax payers’ money. Goldman Sachs received a $10 billion bail-out from the US government. The financial crisis of 2008 was one of the contributory factors that led to the austerity measures adopted by the Conservative government, which in turn has resulted in the ESCC struggling to balance its budget despite cutting its activities to the minimum required to cover its legal requirements.

When asked whether they planned to sell off the prime Helenswood Upper site that will be vacated by the proposed merger, ESCC maintained their focus was on ensuring the best educational provision for children and it was important that the disposal of assets does not become a factor in any decision making. ESCC also claimed the future of the site had not been discussed and was a matter for Ark and would only be considered following the outcome of the consultation stage.

A Freedom of Information Request (FoI) to Ark about the future of the site received this response

“The deeds and the freehold to the Ark Helenswood Academy remain with East Sussex County Council and that if Ark Helenswood vacated the upper school site the land would revert back to East Sussex County Council and any disposal of the site would have to support investment in education. The Department for Education (through the funding agreement) has the final say in terms of how the land is used.”

A subsequent FoI request to the Department for Education (DfE) asked:

‘What is planned for the Helenswood Upper school site when it is vacated by Ark Academies? If the land is sold would the stipulation that “any disposal of the site would have to support investment in education” be met by transferring some or all of the money raised to Ark Academies?”

The reply was that it did not hold the information requested and directed any further requests for information to be made to Ark Academies. This response may have been given in the light of the links between Ark Academies and the DfE. Paul Marshall the chairman of Ark was Lead Non-Executive Director at the DfE in 2013-16.

Extra resources are welcome, especially when budget squeezes have led to extensive educational cuts, although with academies come other problems. There were accusations of asset stripping when Wakefield City Academies Trust transferred millions of school savings to its own accounts before collapsing. The loss of democratic control that comes with academisation has led to changes in the curriculum which restrict the academic and career opportunities of students and has resulted in some schools being commandeered by individuals with extreme religious beliefs in order to propagate their views. In the U.S., the introduction of Charter schools, their equivalent to Academies, has seen the introduction of teaching practices and policies that would have been unacceptable while under state control. These schools often adopt blended learning techniques that involve a significant amount of online tuition, increased class sizes supervised by unqualified staff, with a reduction in experienced teachers in order to lower costs. Charter schools have also taken an anti-union stance and eroded teachers’ terms and conditions. Another problem with charitable funding through academisation is that it can lead to an uneven educational playing field. Whether or not a child receives a good education may depend on whether they have a powerful or influential academy chain operating in their area. Similarly, with charitable funding, parents in affluent areas are more likely to be in a position to provide better facilities. For example, the schools attended by David Cameron’s and former education secretary Michael Goves’ children received ‘private fund donations and legacies’ of £104,000 last year and £249,000 in 2014. The advantage of an adequately funded national state education system is that it can be coordinated to ensure equality in educational provision and have transparent democratic governance.

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