See new article here, dated 29 May
|The story below is growing and growing. You may wish to consult the Facebook Forum to see developing views, or an article in Kent on Sunday which attempts an analyis of the key issues, although these are now so tangled, it is difficult to keep up. |There is growing controversy over what appears to be a rushed decision by Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School in Canterbury to apply for academy status. The school Governing Body Minutes of November 2015 state that the reason for proceeding with haste was because of the connection, described in the most recent OFSTED Report as an “informal relationship”, with Spires Academy where the headteacher of SLGGS is also Executive Headteacher, and there are close personal links between the two institutions.
The fear driving the application was that: “if the decision be held over for a few more months the option of Spires would no longer be available to the school and the decision had to be made by the end of the year as other schools were interested in taking on Spires as part of a MAT (Multi-Academy Trust); and that this could result in being allocated another school (not necessarily a local school)”, which was being discussed by the Academy (see below). Of course, nowhere does this imply that another school taking over Spires is a bad thing for the students of the school, and data presented below suggests it may be even be beneficial for the academy, especially as the Academy was served with a Pre-Warning Notice by the Department for Education because of its low standards. It may well be that the proposed academisation of SLGGS could be seen as a preemptive action to stave off such a take-over. I cannot believe there is another case where the main reason put forward for academisation of a school is to block the future prospects of another school with whom it has no formal relationship. It was reported that a further obstacle to academisation has now been removed in that partially thanks to the good offices of KCC, SLGGS had secured funds to provide new buildings. The headteacher agreed with governors at the November meeting that she would inform staff, parents and students next day of the Governors decision to apply to become a Multi Academy Trust.
It was only when I alerted parents on this website in January that the school had applied for academy status that many people learned what was going on and I was contacted by concerned staff to ask if it were true......
Opposition to the proposal is now growing rapidly and has clearly been fuelled by the failures of the school to keep parents and staff informed of the decision and its progress, of their handling of the situation, and also of multiple failures to follow procedures. A parental petition against the proposal has attracted over 1000 signatures.
I have now been sent a comprehensive and convincing document that exposes what appears to be a cover up by the Governing Body to avoid public debate on the issue and numerous examples of malpractice and serious conflict of interest. The sad thing is that reading the Context section of Spires Academy's Response to the Pre-Warning Notice, one can see why Simon Langton has set out to support Spires Academy for wholly laudable reasons as part of its Community mission, but has gone about it in entirely the wrong way, perhaps driven by government pressure which is ever-present in such situations.
Clearly, the mishandling of the process and failure to consult properly is at the heart of the controversy. An email was sent out to some parents about the proposal on 5th December, but clearly not received by all, stating: “Part of the process of applying to become an academy now involves becoming a sponsor academy, supporting another school and, if our application is successful we will name the Spires Academy as the academy which we would want to sponsor”. Actually, there is no such requirement, as can be seen by two Kent primary schools that converted in October with a Good OFSTED in all categories. The email also contains the surprising statement: “As you are probably aware, the majority of good and outstanding schools have converted to academy status, particularly secondary schools, and they do not notice any difference between being an academy and being a LA maintained school” which should surely amaze all on both sides of the academy argument. The email also promised: “there will follow a full consultation with all stakeholders, including yourselves as parents and guardians and so we will be back in contact in the New Year with further news about this”, although nothing further was said until the middle of March.
There has been just one consultation event, on 14th April, at which the school claimed that that Parents had been informed of the decision in a Newsletter of November 2015, and the information had been on the website. In response to concerns raised at that meeting: “The governors believe that the consultation was well publicised as the newsletters are on the website, as are the letters to parents. An Academy Status section was added to the website for further information at the end of term 4 as well”. As it happens, there is no newsletter for November 2015 published, nor was the email received by some parents, and there was no other mention at all of any discussion about academies in Newsletters or elsewhere when I published my article in January, until it was reported in a consultation document sent out on 15th March. It was subsequently referred to in the end of term newsletter at Easter, which also referred to the new academies section published on the website at the end of that term. To be fair, there is a full Report of what is clearly a contentious Consultation Meeting now published on the website, including a note that there were only three governors attending (apart from the Head and Chair who presented the case), although this is itself a worrying statement of governor priorities. The Principal of Spires Academy was present as a guest speaker to promote the proposal, although I fail to see the relevance of her attendance or contribution as the two schools are not formally connected.
Since then there have been three further letters from the headteacher to parents, perhaps attempting to conciliate, but I suspect likely to inflame the protagonists further. The consultation period has now been extended to the 16th May, and the latest news is that governors have themselves requested a review of procedures by KCC, suggesting they are losing their nerve.
Another problem is the number of factual errors in the academy case. For example: Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School is not an OFSTED Outstanding as claimed, having lost this classification in 2014, but is now Good; and it is not true that 90% of Kent grammar schools are academies, as also claimed. The correct figure is just 69%, the nine maintained grammars being listed here. The Consultation document makes yet another astonishing and completely false claim about "Spires Academy which is quickly becoming the non-selective school of choice in the area", see below.
Spires Academy replaced the persistently failing Frank Montgomery School, in Sturry, a village just to the east of Canterbury in 2007. You will find some background information here. In the four years under the informal leadership of SLGGS, GCSE performance at the school has plummeted from a respectable 49% for 5 A*-Cs in 2012, to 17%, the second lowest outcome in the county in 2015, excluding the two closed or closing schools. Of the four non-selective schools in Canterbury, it is the only one not to be oversubscribed with first choices for 2016 entry. It is the only one to have spaces before KCC filled it with 21 children who did not apply for the school. It attracted just 97 first choices, 65% of the total, lower than any of the other three schools. As a result, the academy was served with a government Pre-Warning Notice about standards in September 2015, one of just 43 in the country out of a total of 5272, a very serious situation, about which I have written elsewhere. These facts are completely at variance with the positive image of Spires painted to SLGGS governors and parents, and beg the question as to why Spires Trustees and Leadership still wish to tie up with the school, or is simply to save themselves being taken over by a third party.
The Trustees formal Response to the Warning, dated 15th October included the following excerpt on actions by the Board of Trustees:
"It has met to discuss the implications of Spires Academy becoming part of a Multi Academy Trust. It will:
a) Consider the advantages of further formalising the arrangement with Simon Langton Girls’ Grammar School as they consider their future options and apply to become an Academy.
b) Consider options for possible Multi Academy Trust arrangements with other successful Trusts.
c) Continue to work closely with the DFE link to ensure all decisions are made with full consideration of all available and relevant information.
3) It has considered the collaborative partnership established with SLGGS and has recognised it provided the necessary capacity in leadership at a time of considerable change. To hasten progress, it is recognised this now needs to be formalised and extended".
From this it would appear that the Trustees knew a month before the SLGGS Governing Body Meeting, that the outcome would be the school applying to become an academy. Unfortunately, there is no mention of the proposal on the Spires Academy website, or any indication of the views of trustees or sponsors, and no Minutes of meetings, an example of the secrecy that many Academies adopt about their actions and strategies.
In conclusion, what is clear is that the main incentive for conversion, the plan to keep Spires Academy from falling into other hands, remains a central driver of the application as can be seen in the Consultation document of 15th March. However, public statements appear to play down the strategy and focus on the perceived benefits of academisation. The attempt by governors to attempt to keep the plan as secret as possible has proved a disastrous strategy and has resulted in a heavy loss of confidence in the competence and integrity of school leaders. Perhaps like the recent government decision, they will be forced into a U-Turn over academisation, although there is no reason to stop Simon Langton Girls' Grammar School from pressing ahead now to become a single academy. However, government policy remains clear that underperforming schools and academies will still be forced into joining Multi-Academy Trusts, even though there is no evidence these improve standards, so Spires Academy could be forced to go somewhere. Watch this space.