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Thursday, 31 March 2016 18:55

Inspire Special Free School, Chatham - Medway's only Free School, in Special Measures

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Updated with Government Press Statement

Inspire Special Free School, the only Free School in Medway, based in Chatham, has been placed in Special Measures by OFSTED following an Inspection in January, less than two years after opening. You will find the full headlines of the Report later on in this article. Inspire Free

 The then struggling Silverbanks Centre, a Pupil Referral Unit, was broken up into two parts in September 2014, following an OFSTED Inspection that failed the Unit, judging it to have Serious Weaknesses. Inspire, which was set up as a Free School strongly supported by Medway Council, and currently catering for 37 children with social, emotional or mental health needs has failed spectacularly, with leadership and management at all levels judged inadequate and a highly qualified governing body not fully understanding the issues faced by these same leaders, nor recognising that the quality of teaching and learning has declined.

Meanwhile, the other half of the erstwhile Centre, The Rowans, which caters for students who have been permanently excluded from school or who are at risk of permanent exclusion, has made a powerful recovery and was judged to be Outstanding by OFSTED last month, in one of the most astounding turn-arounds I can recall. The Rowans remains a Pupil Referral Unit under the control of Medway Council, one of their few institutional successes.

The Inspire Special Free School was set up with every promise of success by: the CEO of the Williamson Trust, a Multi-academy Trust of six schools headed up by Sir Joseph Williamson’s Mathematical School; the CEO of Greenacre Academy Trust, a three school Trust; the Principal of Bradfields School, a local 4-19 Special School; and by Medway Council. The first three of these are appointed governors although their schools do not appear to be formally involved, along with the Secretary of the Council of the University of Kent, and a Parent Governor; a very small governing body of people all with other major responsibilities for a school which promised to be problematic from the start.

At the time, Mike O’Brien, Cabinet Member for Education on Medway Council said: “We submitted an innovative and strong bid – thanks to the work of the three headteachers involved, who all have significant authority in Medway, many years experience in education, and are committed to improving learning for our children. This school will provide a high quality provision for statemented children with emotional and behavioural concerns. A innovation feature (sic) of this proposal is that the Inspire school will work closely in partnership with Medway Council when generally free schools work independently of the local authority. The free school will give some of our most vulnerable children the best start in life.”

Sadly, but not for the first time, he was wrong in nearly every respect, the Report revealing some puzzling anomalies about the running of the school: “Since the school’s formation as a free school, there has been no access for leaders to any external support, other than the visits from the Education Funding Agency adviser. This lack has proved a key element in the school’s declining effectiveness, following an initial period of improvement”.  In other words, the commitment to work closely in partnership with Medway Council, did not happen at all, and leaders had no access to Council support, or indeed to anyone else with expertise in SEN, surely almost criminal neglect, or was it a deliberate policy?

This is a clear warning about the lack of accountability of Free Schools, as has been seen in other parts of the country. Whilst Kent has so far been fortunate in the leadership of its four first Free Schools which have now been inspected and confirmed as Good schools, the only route to resolving problems appears to be direct government intervention - if problems are drawn to their attention. Academisation, otherwise nationalisation of all other state funded schools will bring similar problems in abundance, with as yet no structure to manage what will inevitably be a considerable headache for a new bureaucracy and damage to more children's life chances. 

You will find the school website here, full of platitudes about the high standards you will find in the school, but missing various legal requirements, and very out of date. Sadly the “Principals Welcome” to introduce the school is even grammatically incorrect, and no-one has pointed it out! Not surprisingly, the OFSTED Report has not yet been published on this site. 

Press Statement by the school in its entirety

A spokesperson for Inspire School said: “We are clearly disappointed with the findings of the Ofsted inspection which took place as the school was preparing to move to a new sponsor as we, and our governing body, had already identified that we needed extra support.  We must point out that the school had a very successful year after opening in 2014. We are very proud of the work we do with some of Medway’s most vulnerable children and, as Ofsted notes, staff care about the students and our arrangements for safeguarding are effective. The school is already acting to address Ofsted’s finding and even though the school does not transfer to its new sponsor until April, we have been working with them since the inspection. “The school and its governors have a shared confidence that we will soon be in a very different place now we have support and as our children get access to the specialist services they need from our new sponsor.”

 It is difficult to know what to say about this release except it is good to know that the staff care about the children! The school has now passed into the sponsorship of the Parallel Learning Trust, which has renamed it Inspire Academy. The Trust is a new small untested academy Trust currently comprising two London Units for excluded children and is also about to acquire a small Residential Special School in Essex as an academy. A rather bland and uninspiring letter from the new sponsors is included here, introducing a new logo and promising a new uniform, the usual makeover in such cases.  

Meanwhile, the Department for Education is amazingly using this disaster for the children as an opportunity to promote the Free School model

Press Statement by the Department for Education

“We have been monitoring progress at Inspire Special Free School carefully since before the no notice inspection by Ofsted, and the Regional Schools Commissioner had already taken steps to bring in a strong new sponsor, Parallel Learning Trust, before the inspection took place. Ofsted’s judgement shows that we were right to take this action and we are working with the new trust to bring about the rapid improvements necessary.

“This demonstrates one of the strengths of the free school programme - we can identify and deal with failure quickly, in a way that is not possible in council-run schools. Every pupil deserves an excellent education and no parent should have to be content with their child spending a single day in a failing school.”

This Press Statement merely confuses the issue, pointing out that the Inspection was a no-notice one, which is usually triggered by a reported emergency Safeguarding issue, rather than initially intended to be a full inspection which is dealt with under the normal Type 5 Inspection process. It is therefore NOT the Department of Education identifying and dealing with failure quickly. Indeed there are far too many other examples already of government failing to identify or to deal with failure in Free Schools and academies until far too late, so to claim the moral high ground in this case is absolutely breathtaking. As a matter of fact, Local Councils DO have the power to identify and deal with failure quickly in Council-run schools; the fact that don't always do so is no different from government inaction. The school statement claims that governors took the initiative to find sponsors, government that it was they! I am delighted to learn that government regards Parallel Learning Trust as a strong new sponsor on the strength of its running two small academy units for less than two years, neither of which has been inspected yet. Faith is touching, but these vulnerable children need more than this.

I completely agree with the government view that  "no parent should have to be content with their child spending a single day in a failing school". So why does government allow so many children to spend too many days in failing academies, many in Kent and Medway, and failing Free Schools? Indeed if the government knew that Inspire was failing why did it leave it until a no-notice inspection reported, having been called for a different reason? No one emerges from this debacle with credit, including government. 

Headline Issues of the Report

Leadership at all levels is inadequate. The Principal and other leaders have not secured effective provision in key areas, such as the quality of teaching and pupils’ personal development and welfare. * Leaders’ evaluations of the school’s effectiveness are much too generous because leaders’ checks on provision have not been maintained. Their management of staff performance is ineffective. * Senior leaders’ effectiveness has diminished because of the absence of staff in key positions. This means that the headteacher has no support to stop or tackle the recent decline in standards. * Governors have been too slow to secure adequate support for the school. This means that leaders have not been able to make the significant changes needed. The leadership of teaching and learning is, therefore, ineffective. * In too many lessons, pupils are insufficiently engaged because work is not challenging or interesting enough. Pupils have poor attitudes to their learning. * The curriculum is not developed well enough to cater for the different needs of pupils. * Rates of attendance are too low and show little sign of improvement. Exclusions are much higher than is typical and are increasing. * The quality of teaching is inadequate. Teachers’ expectations of pupils are too low. Teachers do not ensure that pupils receive the level of challenge they need to make suitable progress in their learning, particularly in English. * Pupils’ reading and writing skills are poorly developed and, in many cases, pupils do not see the value of reading. Pupils’ outcomes are too low. The legacy of underachievement and low expectations has not been sufficiently addressed. * Key groups of pupils, including the most-able and disadvantaged pupils, underachieve. * Provision in the sixth form is inadequate because the curriculum does not meet learners’ needs”. 

OFSTED has the good teaching policy of highlighting the good points about any school inspected. In the case of Inspire, the only virtue it is able to commend is: "The use of additional adults is a relative strength and helps to improve pupils’ attitudes to learning". Congratulations to the volunteers. 


Read 5598 times Last modified on Monday, 04 April 2016 18:25

1 comment

  • Comment Link Saturday, 02 April 2016 13:04 posted by Jeremy Fox

    As a parent with a daughter who has SEN suffering from school phobia and social anxiety I am not at all surprised by this failure presided over by Medway Council.The provision of mental health needs in Medway exists in name only. CHILD AND ADOLESCENT MENTAL HEALTH SERVICE (CAMHS) is not fit for purpose and their main sponsor, Sussex Partnership in Brighton, have had the franchise removed. So this all means that children with any kind of emotional or mental health needs are let down in every way. I am sure that the Council doesn't know that this has happened, certainly our GP surgery, who are sponsoring agents, didn't know until I told them. Quite shocking but I'm not surprised. PETER: More bad news for Medway's vulnerable young people. Jeremy asks if the Council know of this withdrawal of a critical support service. Does anyone know?

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