Six Kent and Medway schools have now been issued with Notices about standards in the year to 25th March 2016, a disturbing proportion of the 48 Notices issued nationally in that year – hardly an indication of rising standards in Academies. The total number of academies currently stands at 5272. Since my last article in July, which looked at a similarly alarming number of Notices for Kent and Medway schools, four new Notices have been issued. The Gravesend Grammar Schools Academy Trust was issued with a pre-termination notice in November by the Regional Schools Commissioner, in relation to Whitehill Primary School in Gravesham, the second school in the Trust. If it fails to improve or respond appropriately to some tough demands, as set out below, the school will be issued with a Termination Notice, which could lead to the closure of the school. Astor College, Dover, was issued with a Full Warning in December 2015, following its failure to respond properly to a pre-warning the previous year and again has had to answer some tough questioning. Spires Academy in Canterbury was issued with a Pre-Warning Notice in September, especially significant in connection with its relationship with Simon Langton Grammar School. The Future Schools Trust was issued with a pre-warning Notice relating to Cornwallis Academy and New Line Learning Academy, in Maidstone, in November....
The recent history of Whitehill Primary School has been one of the most appalling in the county for a number of years, and the Regional Commissioner does not mince his words in demanding answers as to what has gone wrong. “The purpose of this Pre-Termination Warning Notice letter is to inform you, as Directors of the Company, that the Secretary of State considers that the standards of performance at the Academy are unacceptably low. Unless the matters on which our conclusions are based are remedied to the Secretary of State’s satisfaction we will issue a Termination Warning Notice”
Whilst he is in no doubt that academic outcomes are very poor, exacerbated by having Key Stage 2 results annulled for 2014 because of cheating, a pattern that may date back for years, and KS1 results under similar scrutiny, it is evident that he is well aware of the other scandals that have dragged the school down. “The matters on which our conclusions are based are that: 1. The Academy’s provisional results in 2015 show that attainment for pupils is well below expected standards, with just 46% of pupils achieving level 4 or above in reading, writing and maths combined; 2. The Academy’s provisional results in 2015 show that not enough pupils make enough progress in reading with 78% making expected progress; 3. The Academy’s provisional results in 2015 show that not enough pupils make enough progress in writing with just 71% making expected progress; 4. The Academy’s provisional results in 2015 show that not enough pupils make enough progress in maths with just 71% making expected progress. The Secretary of State and I are therefore satisfied that the standards of performance at Whitehill Primary School are unacceptably low. Please respond to me within fifteen working days from the date of this letter, outlining the actions that you will be taking to remedy the matters identified above”.
However, the crunch comes in the final two sentences: “I would also like to receive a report from the Company which outlines your analysis of how standards at the Academy were allowed to fall to an unacceptably low standard and a prevention plan to ensure that the standards of performance will never fall to this level in the future.”
Up until that point, the Trust was apparently supportive of the Executive Headteacher, in spite of overwhelming evidence of the problems, but shortly before receipt of this letter she took leave of absence and has since left the school. No doubt the Trust is truly sorry about all the children, families and teachers that have suffered at the school in recent years.
Astor College, Dover
I referred in my July article to the somewhat brief pre-warning letter issued to The Dover Federation of the Arts in relation to Astor College in December 2014, expressing concerns about low standards. However, as is well known, problems at the school are somewhat more deep-seated, and the school has failed to respond to the extent that the Regional Commissioner sent out a full Warning Notice in October. Again this pulls no punches: “Having considered this matter carefully, the Secretary of State and I are satisfied that the unacceptably low standards of performance have not been remedied following my previous letter to you dated 3 December 2014. We are also satisfied that the standards of performance of pupils at the Academy are likely to remain unacceptably low unless the Secretary of State exercises her powers to intervene under the Articles”. In other words, the Commissioner has no faith that the school is willing to reform under its own steam. Whist the first of the three issues is fairly standard: “The Academy’s provisional results in 2015 show that attainment for pupils is well below expected standards, with just 27% of pupils achieving 5 A* - C in English and Maths”, the second and third items are redacted, presumably as they apply to individuals. The required actions are quite clear, not only referring to improving standards directly, but point to criticism of leadership in the redacted items, requiring: “To demonstrate that school leaders, including governors, are promoting further improvements in the quality of teaching through the rigorous and consistent application and monitoring of target setting and marking procedures; • To improve the quality of teaching, so that at least 80% of teaching is rated to be “good” or better, and no teaching is rated inadequate, including within the subject areas of English and maths, through robust, externally moderated assessment by the senior leadership team; • To ensure that the process to recruit a substantive new Principal is underway; and • To conduct an external review of governance, and put in place an action plan to ensure that robust challenge is provided by the Directors and local governing body” . The Headmaster left in the summer of 2015. A subsequent OFSTED Monitoring Inspection in January was more positive.
The Regional Commissioner issued a Pre-Warning Notice to Spires Academy at the end of September, more comprehensive than many, the Commissioner considering that: The standards of performance of pupils at Spires Academy are unacceptably low: 1. Attainment in 2013 and 2014 was 31% and 35% respectively for pupils achieving 5 GCSEs (or equivalent) at A*-C including English and maths; below the minimum floor standard of 40%. 2. Attainment for pupils in 2015 (based on self-reported results) has fallen to 17% and so is now even further below the minimum floor standard. Results are also much lower than the academy’s own prediction of 34%. 3. Not enough pupils make or exceed expected levels of progress, with only 45% making expected levels of progress in English and 30% making expected levels of progress in maths in 2015 (based on self-reported results). 4. Attendance is significantly below average and persistent absenteeism is high.
You will find a copy of the full Academy response to the Notice here, but an appendix containing context is revealing and should be read by everyone in government and elsewhere who insist on treating all schools as equal when setting school targets. It is certainly a salutary reminder of the battles some schools take on to serve their communities. The Academy is currently caught up in a major controversy over the academization of Simon Langton Grammar School for Girls, with whom it has an informal arrangement.
Future Schools Trust: Cornwallis and New Line Learning Academies
The Pre-Warning Notice expresses concern in the case of both schools that standards in both Academies are unacceptably low, with two additional items in both Notices being redacted, again suggesting issues with Leadership. The two schools have very different histories, with Cornwallis some years ago being the most popular school in Maidstone, but appears to have been on a steady decline ever since, although it is now in new purpose built premises, as is New Line Learning.
New Line Learning Academy opened in 2007, replacing two persistently failing schools, and moved into new premises in 2010, has never taken off and has intermittently been the least popular and lowest performing Maidstone secondary school through its whole existence, being once again nearly half empty on secondary school allocation in March 2015, and likely to lose still more students after grammar school appeals take place.