Everton running their own school? I'm thinking of something like 'Field of Dreams', the legends appearing out of the mist, kids playing with the stars, chasing that rainbow, sun-kissed fields, no stuffy classrooms or teachers that resemble Miss Trunchbull. A chance for the club to search for the next Wayne Rooney, an academy like Barcelona's.
Here comes the reality check. Free Schools are a Conservative initiative that will destroy state education. Free Schools don't have to pay national rates of pay, they don't even have to employ any qualified teachers, they undermine local democracy because they aren't accountable to locally elected councils but to Michael Gove the Conservative Education Minister, Free Schools can choose their own admissions policy. So there it is, Liverpool that hasn't returned a Conservative MP or city councillor since time immemorial has this policy foisted upon it.
Will the Everton Free School be some kind of sports college? Think again. Special schools and Pupil Referral Units (PRUs) are for the most damaged, excluded and marginalised children, those who get expelled from mainstream schools or children who need to be protected in a secure environment. Some of them have suffered horrific abuse or violence, they can be extremely difficult to teach. Sadly the public sector has witnessed the following - failure to invest; inspection; declare the service as failing and then privatise it. So step forward one of Dave Cameron's chums, Old Etonian Charles Taylor – special schools and Pupil Referral Units are failing, let's bring in 'Alternative Provission', or, to give it its correct name, 'privatisation'.
Sadly that's where the initiative by Everton in the Community to establish a 'Free School' fits in. You might have expected some kind of media scrutiny of the bid. To date the only article carried by the Liverpool Echo was by their sports correspondent, Greg O'Keefe, entitled - 'Why protests seem too cruel for school'. If ever this was a case study of lazy journalism this was it, every word was inaccurate, that's including 'and' and 'the'. The article claimed that there was an 'extra pot of money' available, that 'local jobs would be created' and that the opponents of the Everton Free School were guilty of 'cynicism'. In fact Free Schools take pupils and money away from state schools and will in most cases lead to job losses and school closures.
The claim is that Free Schools are 'community driven'. As for the Everton Free School they were reliant not on the local community but the Manchester-based Place Group. This free-market organisation makes its money by advising scores of organisations how to undermine state education by establishing academies and Free Schools. The Project Director of the Everton Free School was the Place Group's Dominic Battiston, I did ask him who was on the board of the Place Group, only to be told that, 'This wasn't relevant...', next question, 'Which team do you support?', that wasn't relevant either. I was going to ask what he'd had for breakfast but quickly realised that the Humour By-Pass Operation had been successfully completed.
Everton Free School did organise two 'consultations' in June, you didn't attend? Well hardly anyone else did. I went to both events and held lengthy conversations with the organisers, strange to say on neither occasion did they make any notes, despite the fact they had to report back any concerns to the Department for Education. Once again I did encounter the wall of silence, the Principal of the Everton Free School, Adrian Packer, was only appointed on a full time basis in June, the school is due to open in September. 'What is Adrian's salary?' Couldn't tell me, 'It's personal'. This. Is. Taxpayers'. Money. Interestingly enough this has been a feature of academies and Free Schools massive salary hikes for Headteachers and Principals.
However, when it comes to the rest of the staff it appears that this generosity has ended. Everton Free School advertised, on the club's web site, for Learning Mentors 'from ₤12,000', Unison informed me that in Liverpool Community College, Learning Mentor salaries started at around ₤22,000. The jobs advertised opened for applicants on June 28th and closed on July 13th, most teachers have to give a term's notice, so that would rule out experienced teachers. The jobs didn't mention extra payments, which are common in special schools or PRUs. So will the Everton Free School attract the best staff? Not on the wages they are offering.
As for being a 'landmark' school, let's consider the proposed venue for the first year, on the top floor of the Roscoe Street Learning Exchange, part of Liverpool Community College. Unison and the lecturers' union UCU were not consulted. As for any green fields, you would need a pair of binoculars. Remember these are vulnerable children, the excluded, the hard to educate. Roscoe Street is an adult learning venue.
There is another Free School opening at the same time the Anfield-based 'Harmonize Academy', this is linked to the Pentecostalist 'Temple of Praise'. I went down to talk to them and met Pastor Michael Wilhelm, first question, 'Do you believe in creation?' 'God created man, we do not believe in Darwin's theory of evolution'. Well, that cleared that one up! The church is also affiliated to the Evangelical Alliance, in 2006 this organisation was asked for its views on gay-marriage, their theological spokesman replied that, 'This would be like a man marrying a horse'. The 'Liverpool Lighthouse' is run by the same people involved in the 'Temple of Praise', 'Harmonize Academy' and 'Love Joy Ministries', as a result of the death of a volunteer in 2010, they are currently facing charges of corporate manslaughter.
As for 'democracy' the Liverpool Echo has refused to print two letters I've written in reply to Greg O'Keefe, (they've also bounced me off the 'Everton Jury'), I did contact the Everton Fans' Forum, only to be told that they couldn't discuss it, I wrote to the Phil Neville who is the Professional Footballers' Association rep at the club and on their National Council – no reply. David Moyes? Again, no reply. The MPs and councillors? 'It's a Free School, there's nothing we can do'. I did get a letter from Robert Elstone, he had to reply under the terms of the Customer's Charter, he might have saved the ink and used two words, the second being 'off'. 'Confidential information that I do not believe you seriously expect me to divulge... the Club views our correspondence with you as closed.'
So there it is, Everton that has outsourced kit sales, hospitality, catering and ticketing seriously believes that they can run a school for vulnerable children. That's not to mention past history like Kirkby, the Park End Development or Finch Farm. Everton in the Community has done some fantastic work but with their involvement in the Everton Free School they will in marketing speak 'contaminate the brand'. And what happened to 'straining every nerve and muscle' to get more investment in the club, or new owners?
Privatisation isn't only affecting education, the NHS is being sold off to Virgin and Serco, or to the American companies that have wrecked health care over there, 40 million low paid workers with no health insurance. There was a report by the Children's Commissioner into abuse in children's homes, the problems highlighted included, poorly paid untrained staff without qualifications, profit placed before care. The owners? Three quarters of them are run by private equity companies.
Michael Gove's next project is schools run for profit. The Conservatives? Place Group? Everton are swimming with sharks. Rubbish wages and a building not fit for purpose? The club should hang its head in shame. The 'Everton' Free School? Not in our name.