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Thursday, 01 November 2018 23:48

Proposed Community Multi-Academy Trust in Deal comes Under Fire

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Update: This went ahead as reported here, with the six of the seven Deal schools academising simultaneously in March 2019Kingsdown and Ringwould CofE Primary has either pulled out, or is delaying conversion. 

I was invited to comment on Meridian news yesterday (Wednesday)  about the most sensible proposal for a Multi Academy Trust I have come across for a long time. Unfortunately, it may fail through being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Seven primary schools all local to Deal, who form part of the Deal Learning Alliance, a community of local schools already working together, are proposing to come together to form Deal Education Alliance for Learning Trust ( DEALT). Most of the schools provide a large amount of information on their websites, for example here, which leaves one in little doubt about the reasons for the proposals. The schools have also held a number of meetings for parents, all focused on the proposed Trust being there to support the local community.

There is one strong negative influence which should not play a part in the debate but inevitably is doing so and will continue. This is the debacle of the Goodwin Academy, the secondary school in Deal which was brought to its knees whilst still a KCC school, aided by advisers from SchoolsCompany. This organisation, run by an entrepreneur, then took over the school as an academy and helped it even further down leaving it with massive debts. Much of these were incurred by large fees paid out to the Company, others by gross financial mismanagement, The current proposal has no similarity with this scandal, although campaigners against the proposal try and make a link. 

Please do not take anything I have written in this article as an endorsement of the academy model. I still believe its greatest weakness is the lack of accountability for those academies that abuse the freedoms they are given. 

Sadly, a major reason the academy programme came into existence, supported by both Conservative and Labour parties was a concern about low standards in Local Authority schools. The competition between the two sectors has certainly improved standards across the board, although the major weakness of the academy sector remains that lack of accountability which affects a minority of schools. In Kent there are still examples of both academies and Local Authority schools that suffer from this, where there is poor leadership.

The seven schools are: Deal Parochial CEP, The Downs CEP, Hornbeam Primary, Sandown School, Kingsdown and Ringwould CEP, Northbourne  CEP, and Sholden CEP. They cannot incorporate the other two local primary schools as these are already academies, committed elsewhere: St Mary’s Catholic Primary (part of the Kent Catholic Schools partnership) and Warden Bay School, lead school of the Veritas Academy Trust.

All these schools currently have a Good Ofsted Report. Five of them are CofE primaries and so will be familiar with the work of the Aquila Academy Trust, run by the Canterbury Anglican Diocese and one of the most successful in the county, with 18 schools to its name. Aquila has recently taken three of its Kent primaries, all failed under KCC, to two Outstanding and one Good Ofsted outcomes.  The five proposed Members of the Trust, who would appoint the Trustees hardly look as if they are out for themselves, headed by the Director of Education for the Diocese of Canterbury who is a a previous primary headteacher, and each bringing valuable skills to the operation.

The failure of Goodwin Academy has been covered extensively in these pages, beginning here under its previous name Castle Community School. The linked article contains two sections on the school, but finished ominously with the sentence: ‘SchoolsCompany already has a strong presence in the county, working with Kent County Council on its Schools Challenge strategy for supporting underperforming schools’.  In a combined operation, the two organisations brought the school down, my final article being here, although subsequently the school has been taken over by the Thinking Schools Academy Trust based in Medway.

Too many local people, including some who are now highly critical of this proposal, bear responsibility for uncritically championing Schools Company and the Goodwin Academy.

Those who follow this website regularly, know that I can be a fierce critic of unaccountable academies. As with media coverage, I do tend to focus on the minority of academies where there are major issues. For a full list of Kent and Medway Multi-Academy Trusts, go to here. This lists 73 Trusts, of which I have criticised 14 in articles. None of these are local community primary school Trusts, of which there are 17.

I can only see good coming from the seven headteachers committed to doing their best for their schools, firmly rooted in the local community, together with the fine team of Members brought together to oversee the work of the proposed Trust.

I am saddened by some of the unjustified rumours circulating about ‘academies’ deployed in an attempt to shoot down this proposal, but whilst certainly true of some do not apply to most academies. The proposed structure of the DEALT is such that these attacks are not realistic or in some case simply untrue. The two other thriving local primary academies are a powerful demonstration of this! Indeed, the freedoms these schools have may well be an additional factor in the decision to emulate them.

Labour Party policy, which up to now has been fully supportive of the expansion of the academy model, saw a slight change of direction at its recent Conference. Quite rightly it wants to rein in the excesses of some academy chains (such as the unlamented SchoolsCompany) which like the Conservative Party  has ,previously ignored for the greater good of the academy image. However, there is no sign of wanting to stop the expansion of the sector, except that Labour has proposed no school should be forced to become an academy (although what should happen to a failing school under Local Authority control?).

Already some 40% of Kent primary schools are academies or are in the process of changing status, with more coming through every month. As this continues, the funding that KCC has available to support its remaining schools decreases, with several schools described here running into difficulties because of inadequate monitoring or action. KCC has introduced a new model of providing services at a cost to meet this challenge, which are also open to academies, so any advantage that Local Authority schools may have in this area is vanishing fast, hastening the drive to change, as academies also have a choice of where to turn to.

The Petition
A petition has been set up opposing the proposal with the pejorative title ‘Save Deal Schools’ with tag line ‘Say no to the academisation of Deal schools - our kids deserve better’. Surely, the schools do not need saving; they are currently run by professionals who act in the best interests of their pupils, run good schools and are proposing to do even better.  It contains the arguments:

We do not want our community schools to become part of a Multi-Academy Trust because:

1) The move could jeopardise educational standards 
Apparently, this is because academies have the freedom to appoint unqualified teachers. News: too many local authority maintained schools strapped for cash uses teaching assistants to fill gaps. No academy with the interests of its pupils first would go down this route, although some with other motives will.

Average salaries for teachers in academies are lower – there is no evidence at all for this assertion. Many pay their staff higher salaries to recruit and retain them.

  2) Multi-Academy Trusts draw money away from frontline teaching
Whilst some without the best interests of children at the fore will do this, it would be foolish to do so. The economies of scale across a MAT of seven local schools with similar structures would have the reverse effect. There are rightly concerns about the high salaries of some academy chiefs, and I have written about this before. However, the evidence is that most behave responsibly, especially in those with a local focus, accountable to their community. There are also Local Authority headteachers with large salaries, but these are not publicly available, and so not subject to scrutiny.
3) Multi-Academy Trusts are less accountable to parents
       This is often true for Trusts that do not have a local focus.
However, the key accountability should be to the professionals who are in a position to properly assess the performance of a school, and sadly this is often too little in both academies and Local Authority schools.  ‘Kent County Councillors can also be lobbied and are held accountable through the ballot box when there are concerns about a school’. Unfortunately,  the evidence that this is a protection for LA schools does not add up. It was of course KCC that oversaw the failure of Castle Community College and did nothing, except employ SchoolsCompany to sort it, as the Council did not have the expertise to do so.
4) There is no going back from academisation
True.  However, this section of the petition is also muddied by reference to re-brokering. This only happens when an academy is failing and not at the whim of the Regional Schools Commissioner who has the responsibility. There is no consideration of what happens to a Local Authority school that is failing, of which there have been plenty of examples in this website.
Read 1470 times Last modified on Wednesday, 15 January 2020 12:17

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