On 23 June, Wakefield will go to the polls to elect a new Member of Parliament. The previous incumbent has recently resigned following his conviction for sexually assaulting a boy who was under 18. The current Conservative government has a very poor record on promoting or even protecting the interests of children, and Wakefield in particular has an ongoing problem with its schooling provision.
This is an issue that must be urgently raised with those competing for the parliamentary seat. Our children are our most important asset. Our future depends upon them; and I will freely admit to having a personal interest in this, given that two of the children currently in Wakefield primary schools are my grandchildren.
Being a child in England in 2022
As food and energy prices spiral out of control, due to a combined result of Brexit, the Russian invasion of the Ukraine and general post-covid issues, school caterers have announced that they may be forced to cut food quantity and quality in school meals. This will come down particularly hard on children who receive free school meals, a group that will increase in number as more families fall into poverty due to the impact of rising inflation.
However, the government seems reluctant to do anything to support family budgets, placing Britain’s children in the eye of a gathering storm.
Child poverty is on the increase
Research has long indicated that children who start their lives in poverty experience multiple disadvantage, due to enduring psychological effects caused by excessive stress within the family environment. The current situation is on course to greatly increase the numbers falling into this crevasse.
And as more disadvantaged families are referred to social services, they will discover ongoing crisis there, due to the government turning the management of children’s social care over to private provision, creating a situation in which private business managers have made considerable profits, whilst quality and quantity of care provision has rapidly degraded.
Sadly, the current government has consistently proved itself to be clueless across the full range of children’s services. Not only has it failed to adequately address child poverty over a period of 12 years, it recently failed to take appropriate action to protect them from continual infection by subsequent variants of Covid-19 and has consistently appointed unlikely children’s policy ‘Tsars’ whose track records indicate they are more interested in protecting the interests of the powerful than those of vulnerable children.
Children’s commissioners: in whose interests?
Thus far, the Conservative government have given England’s children:
- A Children’s Commissioner who, as an Academy executive, reportedly oversaw ‘strategic exclusions’ of vulnerable children
- A national open learning service for schools that allegedly has ties to Vote Leave and prominent Conservative supporters
- A ‘behaviour Tsar’ who was described by Canadian Academics as “justifying … policies by reconceptualizing ‘equal opportunity’ under the discourse of the new right”, and
- a ‘social mobility Tsar’ who has recently proposed that “girls dislike hard maths”.
Multi Academy Trusts
On 28 March 2022, the government published a white paper outlining their intention for all schools to be a part of a Multi Academy Trust (MAT). However, the track record of this brand of school management has been highly controversial.
Panorama exposed some of the main issues arising from England’s MATs, principally murky financial dealings relating to chief executives and senior staff on very high salaries keeping opaque financial records. And one of the most infamous examples of this practice played out in the heart of Wakefield.
The Wakefield City Academies Trust experience
In 2010, the newly formed Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) took over 14 primary schools and seven secondary schools across Yorkshire.
In 2017, two weeks into the 2017/18 school year, the trust pulled out of the management of all these schools, throwing their operations into chaos.
Full information about what happened is unavailable, but stories of the chief executive spending lavishly on equipment for his own office and giving contracts to his own company for school supplies began to trickle into the mass media.
By 2019, it became clear that any money the trust had taken for running the schools could not be recovered, due to its entry into liquidation proceedings, which ended up costing the public purse £200,000. WCAT was found to have paid at least £440,000 to other companies owned by the chief executive.
PTA money that had been raised by parent-led initiatives totalling around £220,000 had been placed in the trust’s accounts and was therefore irrecoverable. Attempts by families and the local authority to get further information on this met with silence, and the cash was never recovered.
The Outwood Grange and Delta experience
In 2018, Outwood Grange MAT stepped up to take over the ex-WCAT schools; but their tenure, too, has been dogged by controversy.
In early 2019, the secondary schools overseen by Outwood Grange were accused of using a behaviour management technique known as ‘flattening the grass’. The procedure involved making examples of individual children in public assemblies. Schools Week published anonymous accounts from teachers who reported the process as “vicious”. Others reported they had been told to be tougher with pupils, for example by “getting in pupils’ faces” and shouting more loudly.
Outwood Grange denied these claims. But a few months later Schools Week claimed that they had leaked emails proving that that Delta MAT, another Yorkshire company headed by Outwood Grange’s former deputy chief executive and boasting a large portfolio of schools, did undertake ‘Flattening the grass.’ Delta initially denied this, then commented that that ‘flattening the grass’ didn’t mean what Schools Week proposed that it meant.
Exclusion and isolation
In early 2019, a former pupil took action against Outwood Grange claiming he had spent 35 days in isolation as a punishment for unspecified behaviour violations.
The Guardian reported on the MAT’s behaviour policy, finding that children could be sent to isolation booths for up to six hours a day where they were provided with no teaching, and were allowed a maximum of three toilet breaks a day for no more than five minutes per visit.
Outwood Grange countered that its behaviour policy was currently ‘under review.’ However over two years later The Wakefield Express reported that a quarter of the pupils at Hemsworth Outwood Grange Academy had been temporarily excluded between September 2020 and July 2021, with 24 pupils permanently expelled. The school commented that they were “working hard to improve things”.
Additionally in January 2022, Outwood Academy Portland in Worksop was found to have accounted for over a quarter of exclusions in Nottinghamshire during the previous year, despite having only 1,512 pupils. The school’s response was to point out that this was in fact a reduction on the number of fixed term exclusions that had been issued in 2020 (during which schools had spent long periods in lockdown).
Questions for Wakefield parliamentary candidates
It should be noted that the majority of children who receive serious disciplinary sanctions at school live in disadvantaged circumstances. Their behaviour frequently reflects a boiling over of the frustrations they experience in coping with very difficult circumstances at home. Schools who ‘flatten the grass’ and turn quickly to exclusion and isolation add to, rather than ameliorate these problems.
In conclusion, it is clear that the current government’s track record in caring for and educating children is highly problematic in general, and that children in Yorkshire and Wakefield in particular have been negatively impacted in this respect. Parliamentary candidates wishing to represent families in Wakefield should therefore be closely questioned about how they intend to acknowledge and work to reverse this situation.