The news that a primary school governing body in Kent recently spent £6,000 from the school budget on a leaving party for the headteacher has not been greeted with the outrage it deserves, possibly because it’s no longer news that schools can do things like this. Governors are free to vote money from school budgets to back any project and can award progression and retention payments to staff, too. These decisions can easily be made behind closed doors without any written record of the discussion. This lack of transparency, or stringency, can leave governing bodies open to charges of waste and thoughtlessness at best, and corruption at worst. At least the governors at Sherwood Primary seem to have realized that they were robbing the poor to give to the rich and have done the decent thing and resigned.
Schools’ financial autonomy is part of the education landscape. It has been since 1988 when Local Management of Schools was introduced in Kenneth Baker’s Education Reform Act. The dead hand of local authorities, which allocated teachers to schools and handed over a budget just for capitation, was removed. The intention was that thrusting, entrepreneurial heads, together with a team of skilled governors, donating their time and expertise freely, would take control of the funding and run their own schools. Local authorities were spared the hassle and school leaders made every penny count by eliminating waste, inefficiency and town hall red tape.
But it’s not just about funding unwise ventures. Since every school has held its own separate budget and chequebook there has been an impact upon salaries. Headteachers’ pay has risen to reflect the extra responsibility they take on for managing the budget, and classroom teachers’ pay has, in some schools, felt the pressure of balancing the books. The introduction of performance related pay left decisions about pay progression with school leaders whose job it is to make ends meet. New freedoms to create a responsibility structure that the school could comfortably afford have, in some schools, left teachers on the main scale taking on responsibility for subjects for ‘career development’.
In my part of the world staffing structures, very similar until 2008, now vary tremendously from school to school. There are small schools with vast senior leadership teams, out-of-class. There are schools where pay progression never happens. There are schools where nobody has a Teaching and Learning Responsibility (TLR) payment. And there are an awful lot of schools where nobody knows what the headteacher’s pay range is.
It is almost impossible to get information about heads’ pay. The local authority doesn’t hold it unless they do the payroll for the school, and many schools do their own payroll or use a private provider. In this case, the only way that the local authority, as the employer, can find out what the individual school range, or ISR, is for the headteacher, their own employee, is to ask. And, even assuming the chair of governors understands the question, the answer is not always forthcoming.
The way it should work is straightforward. The law says the governors set a seven point range suitable for the size of the school, and to some extent any special circumstances. They then advertise the post, appoint to no higher than the third point on the range, and the head progresses after performance management. When they reach the top, they stay there, like classroom teachers do, or else find a bigger school, no? Well, no, actually. In my authority, recent excavations have uncovered a lot of heads who are paid at the absolute legal maximum for the size of their school. This can mean, easily, £20,000 a year in a primary school, the equivalent of seven or eight TLRs for ordinary classroom teachers. One London borough, Islington, tackled this issue in 2008, publishing ISRs for schools and giving governors clear advice on how to set pay, but voluntary aided schools and academies are the direct employers of all staff and don’t have to take any notice.
In at least two secondary schools the governors have opted to pay higher than the very top of the range to retain a head and in some cases they threw in golden handshakes and hellos on appointment too. One head was paid £40,000 to take the job in spite of advice from the director that it was neither a proper use of public funds nor in accordance with governors’ responsibilities to the school.
There are some new legal restrictions but they make no real difference. It is still possible to inflate pay by 25% if the governors can be talked, or talk themselves, into it. Academy status makes all this easier as there is no restriction at all unless the governors choose to keep national terms and conditions. Academy heads are paid on average 15-30% more than they were prior to academy status, for all the additional responsibility, you understand. It’s tough at the top, but not lonely. Not if you’re buying the next round.
The records of the General Teaching Council, abolished by Michael Gove hours into the job, may be encased in lead somewhere under Sanctuary Buildings. They’ve closed the website which used to publicise the outcomes of conduct hearings and these days the ‘Teaching Agency’, its replacement, deals with fewer cases, usually in which teachers are prohibited from teaching altogether.
As a member of the GTC myself I spoke to colleagues who were profoundly disturbed by case after case of misuse of school budgets; superhead after superhead whose power went to their superheads; who thought they could do what they liked, buy what they liked, hire who they liked and behave as they liked. I was involved myself in the case of a Headteacher who took home school equipment and allowed her nephew to use the school for his furniture restoration business which involved sets of chisels in school and an acid bath for removing paint and varnish.
Despina Pavlou used school funds to fly to Australia and fill her fridge with champagne. Richard Gilliland resigned from his £200,000 a year post after being accused of financial irregularities, (I should point out here that the highest point of the leadership spine pays £105,000 in Lincolnshire.) Mark Shere was sentenced to 240 hours community service after submitting forged invoices for his accommodation. Google ‘headteacher sacked’ to see the scale of it.
I was accused, when I last wrote about pay and teachers, of treating all heads as if they were 18th century mill owners, and I’d like to make it clear that I believe almost all heads are fair and decent. There are thousands of heads doing a great job for the right pay, or in many cases not enough pay but that’s because they are honest and understand their role as public servants.
However, total lack of systematic scrutiny and freedom from challenge means that if school leadership, and this includes governors, have malevolent designs on the budget, or if they don’t understand the concept of public money, they can get away with making stupid and venal decisions. There are no controls in place. Governors can say, ‘We voted to do it. It’s none of your business.’
In the name of freedom, autonomy, self-determination, call it what you will, we have established a celebrity culture for heads which rewards and encourages maverick behaviour over public service. It also allows profligate spending of taxpayers’ money. A sense of public service is for little people. Heads are the main drivers of the government’s reforms and those who please their masters are rewarded with gongs and garlands as well as executive salaries.
Labour must develop clear policy on transparency, value for money, accountability and honesty in school funding. Whistleblowing should be easier and should be viewed as a duty on staff, governors, parents and others who discover and raise irregularity. (My NUT colleague, Hank Roberts, was hounded by other Brent secondary headteachers when he exposed bonuses paid to school leaders at Copland High School.)
There’s no point trying to make a partisan argument about academies, here, either. Community schools are not immune from splashing the cash, though they can make less of a case for pay inflation being driven by additional responsibility. In fact, the expansion of the academies programme seems to me to be itself a product of lax accountability. An annual budget of someone else’s money, always easy to spend, has become blood on the waters for the sharks.
Light touch accountability has led to public money, intended for children’s education, being hoarded, wasted, and yes, pilfered, in the name of autonomy. Academy chains saw this and zoned in on it. They are already spending public funds on private healthcare and private contracts for services, like staff training and goods like computers and uniforms. Schools have been free to do this for a long time and it should always have been scrutinized closely. It’s money given to the school to educate children, not to spend on parties and trips and not to pay the head twice what they should be getting. Any future Labour government must have transparency, public service and value for money, for children, at the heart of educational policy.