Controversies at flagship chains prompt questions about academisation

A fortnightly blog by the education journalist Warwick Mansell exploring current education news and policy. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the NEU (NUT Section)

28 July 2017

School cuts campaign cuts through

Some of England’s most high-profile, well-connected academy trusts have been facing serious controversies as term ends, this blog has learned. It is important to document this, as academisation continues relentlessly on the ground.

In Westminster, central London, the NUT’s regional officer, Henry Fowler, reports that more than half of primary teachers at King Solomon Academy – including 11 of the union’s 15 members there - are leaving.

The Union, which has been in dispute with management over cover supervision, report-writing and members being asked to take on management responsibility, recently staged four days of strike action at the school, which is run by the Ark chain.

A meeting between parents and teachers in a local park seems to have been well-attended, with staff giving details of the background to the strike and parents seemingly supportive. One parent told the local paper: “We’ve got really amazing teachers and the children are so close to them.

“They are very loving and caring. Them leaving is a real heartbreak.”

The dispute appears significant, given that in 2015 Ark proclaimed the school’s secondary phase as “the best school in the country” among comprehensives, based on the proportion of pupils gaining five GCSE A*-Cs. An Ark Schools trustee, Sir Paul Marshall, is a former Department for Education director and another, Lord Fink, is a former Conservative Party treasurer.

Indeed, it is surprising that national media have not picked up on the story.

The pressures on teachers at Ark are extra-surprising given that the chain is one of the few in England where its schools receive significant extra funds through sponsor donations: its schools received £8.3m from its parent charity in the period 2013-15, for example.

So why has this situation arisen? Ark admitted in a statement that it had had had an "issue" with teacher turnover at the school, but that this was being addressed with more teachers and more school leaders from September. However, this remains a situation to watch.

Meanwhile, at the Hewett school, Norwich, the Inspiration Trust, which took it over in the teeth of a large community campaign in 2015, has announced that it is closing much of its sixth form provision for new students from September.

The school will not be running A-level courses for year 12 students, with the year 13s completing their studies and only a BTEC Sport and Exercise Science course running for year 12s.

Although the trust says that student sixth form numbers have been falling since well before 2015, what shocked me most was the timing, with students who opted long ago to continue their studies at the Hewett now having to be found alternatives.

I understand that almost 70 pupils had opted for the sixth form, and that they were now being told they’d been offered places at two other Inspiration Trust (IT) schools in Norwich – both free schools which have opened since 2013 – at another “local provider” or at another IT school in Thetford, 28 miles away.

A source told me that year 11 pupils at the school were told in mid-June, with some facing GCSEs the next day. The source said: “The ones I saw were not happy. In fact, with GCSEs still ongoing, they were really upset. Some have only accepted a place at Hewett and don’t want to apply anywhere else.

“This all goes against everything that was said by [the trust’s CEO] Rachel de Souza when she took over the Hewett. Indeed, at our first day of ‘training’, the day after we came into the trust, she said ‘Hewett is the jewel in our crown.’”

I wondered how all of this could have happened, and specifically why pupils were allowed to opt for the Hewett sixth form by the turn of the year, only to lose their places now. Perhaps the numbers opting were not high enough, but surely this would have been known earlier in the year and it’s possible to wonder, too, about courses being shared across the IT’s institutions.

The Inspiration Trust said: “In the last two years at least three sixth forms in Norfolk have closed completely; we are not doing that. As students increasingly opt for larger centres, it has been difficult for us to match that experience. The announcement was made after all the major [GCSE] subjects had completed, to minimise disruption to students.”

I’m also hearing of very high teacher turnover at a school in south London, run by another multi-academy trust and built at high cost recently.

Last week, a new report - from the Education Policy Institute think tank which ironically has very close links with the Ark chain: Marshall chairs its trustees and its “executive chairman”, David Laws, has acted for Ark as an adviser – offered yet more confirmation that academy status offers no guarantee of success.

Indeed, when even chains which are regarded by ministers as flagships for the policy are facing difficult situations on the ground, it is clear that academisation, with its many structural problems, is proving far from the resounding success that the government would like us all to believe it is.

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