Prof Pat Thomson, known for her award-winning work on creativity, the arts and education, has quietly been on a darker mission: for the past six years behind the scenes she has been collecting reports of what she calls corruption in the school system.
Academy sponsors siphoning off money from school budgets, teachers fiddling test results and heads claiming unlawful bonuses are not just a case of a few bad apples, she claims. Instead, says the professor of education at the University of Nottingham, such dishonesty and greed are evidence of the unethical system in which schools work.
Her 3,800 examples of bad practice, mainly from England but also from other countries where market forces have been injected into public services, tell a story of nepotism, fraud and cheating. In England, they also highlight structural “reform”, with its waste of money on free schools that never open, the horrendous ongoing costs of successive private finance initiatives (PFIs), and the way schools are pitched against each other for survival.
But the source lies at the heart of governments that have allowed spin and perception to replace decisions for the public good, she says.
She has written a book on her findings, explaining how what she regards as corrupt practices are built into the system through competition, market forces and wasteful procurement. Although most people work ethically within this corrupted system, the book provides ample opportunities of the less honest furthering their own or their school’s interests if they think they can get away with it. She gives the example of the boss of an academy telling teachers to cheat in tests, and the widespread off-rolling of students to improve schools’ results.
What the country needs is an independent public commission to start the conversation about what we think a school system should be doing and how best to educate young people for the future, instead of focusing on fiddling with school types and the curriculum, she argues.
“Money urgently needed in schools has been spent on tinkering with the system, structural change that doesn’t alter what happens in the classroom between students and their teachers,” she says.
A prolific researcher, journal author and enthusiastic blogger, Thomson usually visited schools with successful teaching and learning but felt unable to ignore the disastrous events she saw across the wider system, such as the bullying of staff by heads buckling under pressure to improve results at any cost.
Included in her hit list of bad practices are failed government initiatives that deprive schools of badly needed cash. Malmesbury school in Wiltshire, for example, has to pay £40 a month for “managing” a canteen bench bought by PFI, on top of installation costs. With 13 years of the contract still to run, it works out at £6,240 just for its “management”.
Thomson lays the blame at the top of government. “We have been living with this culture of spin and deceit for a long time,” she says. “I’ve continued to collect examples and now have many more than 3,800 – one of my three clips last week was a decision by the Office for Statistics Regulation to uphold a complaint that Boris Johnson was misusing statistics on child poverty.” Johnson said there were 400,000 fewer families living in poverty now than in 2010, a claim found to have no factual basis.
“If the prime minister manipulates statistics and the Department for Education is being told off several times for not using statistics appropriately, then you can see right at the top is a culture that says it is acceptable to massage the figures and do what you can get away with,” she says.
Unless policy agendas are framed by a commitment to the public good and structured and regulated accordingly, there will be corrupt behaviour and practices, she warns.
So does that excuse the head who gave a contract to his mother’s firm or the academy trust that claimed hundreds of thousands of pounds for school repairs it didn’t carry out? No, but it’s important to look at the root causes, she says. Raising money for buildings and repair through PFI, with its expensive ongoing costs borne by schools, and bringing market forces into education through contracting out resources and services once provided by democratically elected bodies, have created opportunities for fraud, she says.
She is most worried about England but she sees the same disreputable practices eating into education systems in countries such as the US and Australia, where she was born and worked as a teacher and head before moving into academia at the University of South Australia.
The pressure on schools in England surprised her when she moved to the University of Nottingham in 2003. “I was shocked when I arrived by the punitive regime of inspection,” she says. “In my very first class, which was a master’s class of mostly headteachers, one introduced herself saying ‘Hello, I’m a failed headteacher’. It upset me that someone should take on that as their identity.
“Then I started to see waste of money, not at school level, but higher up with people spending a lot on schools that never opened, while those that were open were having to cope with the most appalling buildings,” she says.
Critical though she is of the Conservative government, she acknowledges waste was rife under Labour too. For example, the Blair government’s early academies cost on average £3m over budget, with the shortfall covered by the government, not sponsors, according to the National Audit Office.
She regards the scandalous costs of PFI as corruption, citing the new school in Liverpool built with private finance that failed to attract enough pupils and closed, but continued to cost £12,000 a day, with Liverpool council facing a £25m bill to buy itself out of the PFI contract. A teacher tells her how “management” of a new sink has cost the school £88 a year for the past 14 years. With nine years left on the PFI contact, that one sink will have cost £2,024.
Despite Thomson’s concern, she is not calling for academy status to be abolished or Ofsted scrapped. What the country needs is government to be “re-moralised” and the civil service reorganised so that public resources are used in the interest of all.
“The call is now even more urgent to a world living with the aftermath of Covid-19,” she says. “The private has been elevated over the public good. We need to think now about how we might do things differently, how government might forge a new contract with the public to organise the nation in the best interests of all of us. A commission could bring together everyone in education to foster a renewed sense of solidarity and trust.”
But can 3,800 examples and one book turn the tide? “I don’t imagine this book is going to do a lot by itself but it could get people talking. I hope it will inform debates about what might be done now to help save teachers and students from a school system bruised from decades of political pet policies and projects,” she says.
School Scandals: Blowing the whistle on the corruption of our education system is published by Policy Press. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com.