In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

If you treat health and education like profit-making businesses, income and cash flow are what drive you, not social need

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The Independent Online

Forget the furore about school league tables and exam results. One big question really bothers me. It’s at the heart of the debate: does the Government regard education as just another business like making cars, canning fruit or manufacturing luggage?

It certainly seems to want the NHS run like that, dividing the organisation into trusts, run like the health equivalent of the Premier League or blue-chip companies with bosses paid whatever they can get away with. Shockingly, there seems to be no limit on executive salaries. They are said to be led by “market forces”. Another set of rules applies to the poor sods on the front line of providing care, emptying bedpans, clearing up sick and feeding the elderly. They are paid the bare minimum as their skills seem to be categorised as less valuable.

This idea of turning social provision into small businesses operating in competition means that some headteachers, like NHS bosses, are highly rewarded. But once educationists and politicians see a school as a profitable business, that might encourage chief executives to adopt profit-driven strategies that are highly questionable.

Sir Greg Martin is in charge of Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, and this week he’s been explaining his Byzantine financial wheelings and dealings to the House of Commons Accounts Committee. Unusually, the National Audit Office issued an “adverse opinion” relating to the Department for Education’s account of the school’s affairs.

 

In 2013, Martin was knighted for “services to education”. He represents the new breed of hard-headed businessmen the Government is so enamoured with. In one year (2013), Martin trousered a total of £390,000 in salary for businesses run from the school premises, of which £229,000 was his teaching salary and pensions, and £161,000 was a fee from a company he set up to run a “not for profit” housing and leisure centre on the site.

 It also emerged that he is a director of a dating agency, the Coterie, which was operating from the school address at the end of last year and two of whose fellow directors are also registered at that address. The Coterie is now operating from north London, but according to company records he remains a director.

The school’s rating has been downgraded by Ofsted from outstanding to good, and several other state schools in the borough outperform it. A rating of good is still  laudable, but at what price has this rating been achieved? Martin might be a brilliant educationist, but how much time does he have to connect with his pupils if he is running the Durand Educational Trust, Durand Primary School, CompanyFour Ltd and GMG Educational Support, as well as taking a salary from London Horizons, the company that bought some of the school’s assets and turned them into a gym that the public can pay to visit in the evenings?

In 2013, his headteacher’s salary of £229,00 represented a 56 per cent increase on the previous year. Michael Gove once said that “whatever one thinks of politicians, it seems wrong that the head of any academy can expect to earn twice the salary of the shadow secretary of state for schools”.

If you treat health and education like profit-making businesses, income and cash flow are what drive you, not social need. Martin seems to have blurred the lines between following a vocation and operating a business in a seemingly unacceptable way. Paula Sussex, the chief executive of the Charity Commission, says she is thinking of opening an inquiry into the activities of the Durand Academy Trust. What we really need is a long hard look at the political mindset that results in this kind of behaviour.

 

Thoroughly teed off with all those MoD golf courses

Did you know that the Ministry of Defence owns 15 golf courses? This week, Defence Secretary Michael Fallon revealed that the Armed Forces are considering selling some off as part of a radical cost-cutting exercise.

Having walked from Edinburgh to London, I can confirm that the number of golf courses blighting our beautiful countryside is scandalous. Hedges are removed, field patterns eradicated; natural flora is replaced with lurid lawn and blobs of carefully contoured sand, all to benefit the minority of the population who enjoy hitting a tiny ball with an iron stick.

No one ever questions how many golf courses Britain needs, never mind those owned by the MoD. One of its courses is for the use of injured servicemen and women being rehabilitated at Headley Court, but I can see no excuse for owning any more. Seven have been leased out to third parties, so that leaves another seven which should be sold off.

And while it is pruning its property portfolio, can the MoD please vacate its firing ranges in the south of England? How can some sand dunes outside Hythe and Lydd replicate Afghanistan?

As a passionate walker, it breaks my heart to have to detour around barbed wire and the ugly fencing that ruins parts of our beautiful coastline and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. There are plenty of bleak inhospitable parts of the UK more suited to tank training and weapon training than Lulworth Cove, Romney Marsh and Dartmoor. If the Army is being reduced, then the need to occupy all this land has diminished drastically.

 

High drama and low cunning in the West End

Mike Bartlett wrote the play that gave me my best night in a theatre last year – King Charles III – and he’s come up with another thought-provoking drama, Bull, at the Young Vic, south London. Sam Troughton gives a compelling performance as Thomas, the office loser, brutally bullied by two colleagues as they wait to face their boss.

It’s clear from the outset who is going to lose their job, but Bartlett’s drama – set in a boxing ring – makes the audience confront the horrible tactics some of us use to get an advantage over rivals. In just 55 minutes this play addresses some big issues – and delivers a killer blow at the end.

I left feeling as if I’d been put through the long rinse cycle – and you can’t say that about most cosy West End offerings, can you? This unpleasant study of survival is horribly accurate, if my years as an executive at the BBC and Live TV are anything to go by.

 

Small businesses lose out against the big bullies

I met Deborah Meaden this week, an impressive businesswoman who has invested in more new enterprises than any of the other dragons in the den. Meaden recently bought a share in a company making heel protectors for stiletto shoes, and another of her success stories was seeing the potential of iced treats for dogs, sneered at by the other dragons, but now stocked by Ocado.

Politicians are always falling over themselves to stress that small businesses are so important to our economy. So I wonder how the Prime Minister feels about the news that drinks manufacturer Diageo is the latest high-profile company to announce that in future it won’t pay bills submitted from new suppliers and contractors for 90 days.

This tactic protects their own reserves of cash while placing smaller companies at extreme risk, especially when banks are so reluctant to offer loans. Other companies that have adopted these payment terms include Mars, Debenhams and Halfords. Bullying isn’t confined to the workplace.

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