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Friday, 28 December 2018 19:06

Holmesdale School: Pupils Failed Yet Again

Updated  8th January 2019

Holmesdale school families have been failed by Kent County Council and the school’s governors and leaders ever since the Ofsted Report of March 2014 found the school to be Good. Since then the school went into a spiral of decline up to and after it was placed in Special Measures by Ofsted in February 2018, which I explored in detail in a previous article here.  My analysis included critical areas of decline over the interim that should have alerted KCC to the problem, but they failed to act and pupils' futures were sacrificed. Following the Ofsted Inspection the Regional School Commissioner (RSC) placed an Academy Order on the school naming Swale Academies Trust (SAT) as the preferred sponsor.

Holmesdale

Subsequently, the school had an Ofsted Monitoring Inspection in July which found that ‘leaders and managers are not taking effective action towards the removal of special measures’. Unsurprisingly, the Provisional 2018 GCSE results showed that Progress 8, the key government measure of performance, was -0.86, officially ‘well below average’  and the second worst in the county. Amongst then many issues identified, The Ofsted Report refers to major concerns with persistent absence, hardly surprising perhaps with the poor quality of education being offered. These are amongst the factors I identified leading up to the Special Measures finding.  Most shockingly, Holmesdale had lost 34% of its Year 7 roll by the time they reached Year 11, by some way the highest figure in the county. The headteacher has chosen to leave at short notice, for Christmas, and there are reports of severe staff shortages for January.

Also, since February 2018 there has been unacceptable wrangling between KCC and various other bodies over who should supply school improvement support, which was only resolved at the end of November, so that the school was left rudderless in between and went downhill further. There is considerable risk to the school with still falling numbers and Swale Academies Trust will have to work hard to make the school once again financially viable by attracting pupils. . 

Brook Learning Trust (BLT)
BLT was engaged by KCC to offer support for the school even before the February Ofsted Inspection  which acknowledges that BLT, itself underperforming according to a variety of measures, had accurately identified inadequacies in leadership, teaching and pupils’ outcomes, but appeared unable to report on any outcomes. The July Monitoring Visit reported they had departed and noted that ‘The impact of external support has been variable’, hardly a ringing endorsement of the work of BLT, which members of staff considered had made little if any difference to activity in the school. 
 
Inspection and Monitoring Reports
The two Ofsted Reports are scathing about the leadership and governance of the school in various places. In February: ‘Leaders have not acted effectively to secure an acceptable quality of education for pupils. Pupils do not achieve the standards they are capable of.  Leaders at all levels are not held to account for the impact of their work. They do not check to see what difference their actions make’. Yet KCC chose to take no action in the interests of the pupils to address this crisis directly. On lack of progress in July: ‘The primary reason for this is weak capacity in the leadership of the school at middle and senior leadership levels’.  

The Monitoring Inspection reported the school’s own perception of how GCSE performance was going: ‘According to the school’s own information, since the previous inspection, there have been improvements in the progress pupils are making. However, the school has not yet done enough to shore up assessment processes, so they are reliable. The school’s own information indicates that results for the current Year 11 will be better than last year’s GCSE results’. This was written shortly after those same GCSEs were taken. How wrong can you be! Both Progress 8 and Attainment 8 GCSE outcomes fell further on 2017 performance, Progress 8 to become second worst in the county (fourth worst in 2017). Yet still KCC took no effective action in the interests of pupils, to tackle this crisis.

Data
In my previous article, I looked at the data that should have alerted KCC to the breakdown in the school, beginning with: ‘34%, or over one third of the current Year Eleven cohort left or were taken away from the school since joining it in Year 7. This is by some way the highest figure in Kent, second being Ebbsfleet Academy with 24%, after which percentages fall away fast’. Coincidentally Ebbsfleet is run by Brook Learning Trust. The Monitoring Report records that: Figures provided by the school show that over this academic year attendance has not improved and persistent absence has increased. The headteacher has not had the capacity to identify and analyse some patterns in pupils’ absences suggested by recent attendance figures’. Take up of Year 7 places in September 2017 at 45%, was the second lowest in Kent which had fallen further four months later, and first preferences for admission in September 2019 have fallen yet again to just 62 for the 180 places.  

Three Deputy Headteachers are also reported to have left the school since February.

And then there is the GCSE performance! You will find historic data here 

School Improvement
When the school was placed in Special Measures, the school was served with an Academy Order, Swale Academies Trust (SAT) being identified as the preferred Multi-Academy Trust (MAT) to take it on as an academy. By then KCC had already identified and  installed BLTto provide school Improvement, setting up a potential conflict between the two organisations. When they were removed in June, KCC could presumably and in my view should have gone back to SAT, but instead decided to look more widely to commission new support for September (ref Monitoring Report). Several Trusts including SAT were reported to be under consideration. However, no one was found suitable for this school in crisis although SAT was an obvious choice. According to the Monitoring Report:‘In the interim period, assistance has been provided by the local authority adviser. His regular and frequent visits have helped associate leaders in preparing new approaches to teaching which will be ready to launch at the start of the next academic year’.  It is not clear what effect this actually had, and the school appears to have been going backward in September, from comments received. Certainly, after that little appeared to happen to support a school in desperate need of help, and staff continued to leave. I have been sent a cache of emails between SAT and KCC, following an FOI request which I was encouraged to seek. I plan use this to form the substance of a future article as together they paint a dreadful picture of the reasons why the school and its pupils were hung out to dry for a further six months. 

Having apparently opposed the appointment of SAT for the whole of this period, eventually KCC appears to have given in eventually and invited Swale Academies Trust to take over provision of school Improvement work, which began as late as 26th November, less than a month before the end of term. By now, teacher departures which have not been replaced amount to nine vacancies for January, yet another crisis for the school and its children, although SAT is large enough to redeploy staff from other schools in the short term to fill these temporarily, but was prevented from doing so by KCC. .

This situation has all the hallmarks of another school in a downward spiral, similar to those of Chaucer Technology College and Pent Valley Secondary. Both were also the responsibility of KCC who failed to spot their decline, and both now closed and are being replaced by new schools. Coincidentally, SAT was brought in to try and save both, but in effect delivered the last rites on the two schools. However, this is unlikely to happen for Holmesdale, as it is part of the Private Finance Initiative, and so would incur massive costs amidst legal issues, see below.

Three years ago, when Swadelands School, now renamed the Lenham School, also crashed from Good to Special Measures, I wrote about a report in which 'Senior leaders, governors and the local authority have all held an unrealistic view of the effectiveness of the school'  that this 'also underlined the weakness at KCC's Secondary Advisory Service'. Clearly nothing has changed.

Private Finance Initiative
Under PFI, the premises of Holmesdale are owned by Kent Education Partnership, a fine sounding name for a Private Company, 50% owned by Bbgi Investments S.c.a. whose Registered Address is in Luxembourg (Offshore tax haven). The other 50% is owned by Infrared Capital Partners (Management) LLP, whose name and address appear in the Panama Papers (Shepway Vox).

Back in 2013, I published an article explaining the problems of PFI schools becoming academies, in that they left KCC holding the enormous long term debt incurred by their creation without any oversight of the institution. The figures quoted by Shepway Vox are eye-watering, with £200 million paid to the contractors for Kent’s 11 PFI school between 2010 and 2018 (more previously), and at least £400 million still owing. There will also be considerable issues with premises ownership, which lie with the PFI contractor, who will have no educational interest in resolving difficulties, instead being driven by profit and security of their investment. My original article was precipitated by KCC allowing what is now Ebbsfleet Academy to academise without a fuss. I had been lobbying extensively for some time time, seemingly alone, with KCC finally accepting my view and refusing to allow any of the others to become academies in a stand-off that still exists.

So, when Swale Academies Trust, upon taking control of The North School, Ashford stated in 2016 that it would become an academy it is not a surprise that no progress appears to have been made. Now, it has lost a government grant for £80,000 for converting a failing school to an academy, as The North has a Good Ofsted Report. The same article in Schoolsweek, in September this year, quotes KCC as saying:’ Kent council said the PFI contracts at both schools predated academy legislation and “do not lend themselves to the conversion process”, adding the issues potentially left the council facing an “unacceptable and significant risk”’. Similarly, when Holmesdale submitted an application in 2011 at a time when it was a highly successful school, this made no progress.

The new twist now is that Holmesdale is under an Academy Order, so government requires it to academise (as presumably The North did in its turn), but without legal and financial assurances to KCC and presumably the offshore finance company that owns the premises, it is difficult to visualise the next step. 

What next?
Swale Academies Trust and its CEO, Jon Whitcombe – a National Leader of Education, do have a ruthless approach to sorting out issues with schools in difficulty, which can be very painful (and indeed I have been highly critical of its methods myself). However, the Trust’s record at turning schools round is undeniably strong as evidenced by recent Ofsted Reports on:  Beaver Green Primary, South Borough Primary, Meopham School, The North School, Regis Manor School, The Whitstable School, Westlands Primary School and Sittingbourne Community College.  

 It will certainly bring in new staff to strengthen current provision, but faces a difficult time with low and falling school numbers leading to a weak financial situation. The PFI status  may keep the school open (as distinct from Chaucer and Pent Valley) but there are worrying counter examples such as those quoted in an article in Private Eye on PFI Ghost schools, which show how difficult the whole situation can become.  

Swale Academies Trust has appointed an Executive Headteacher and a school Headteacher, both with the support of the Interim Executive Body and both against KCC attempts to thwart them. The Executive Head is Seamus Murphy, currently Executive Head across several SAT secondary schools,  and the Interim Headteacher is Nicki Hodges, who has recently carried out a similar role at The North School, Ashford for SAT. A letter from the Chairman of Governors announcing the departure of the headteacher, Mrs Tina Bissett  and the appointment of Ms Hodges, was sent home to parents on 12th December, otherwise parents have been give no information on the events of the past year in letters home. 

At the very least, the last eleven months of indecision and failure to protect the education of the pupils currently at the school, should now come to an end. 

In any case, Kent County Council needs to analyse why its School Improvement Service and decision making process have failed so badly in this case. 

 

 

Last modified on Saturday, 12 January 2019 07:40

3 comments

  • Comment Link Saturday, 12 January 2019 19:51 posted by Julia James

    Incredible. Surely KCC should be making every effort to make up for its failures at Holmesdale. However, it clearly does not have staff with the ability to cope with a crisis. The lead officer's biography reads '... joined Kent County Council in 1982 after a variety of jobs whilst at university. He has worked in a number of roles within Corporate Finance, Social Services and Education Finance. He is CIPFA (Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy) qualified'.

    In other words, another accountant with no relevant experience making poor education decisions.

  • Comment Link Monday, 31 December 2018 10:44 posted by Sheila White

    What a disgrace. Where do concerned parents turn to. No accountability for Local Authority schools in spite of claims by Anti-Academy groups to the converse, and no accountability for Academies if schools convert.

  • Comment Link Monday, 31 December 2018 08:41 posted by Janet Downs

    The poor support provided by Kent should surely have triggered an Ofsted inspection of the LA's school improvement service.
    But that hasn't happened. And it appears Ofsted inspections of local authority school improvement services has ceased. The last ones were done in 2016.
    In October 2018, the DfE withdrew its guidance for inspecting LA arrangements for school support as 'it no longer reflects current policy'. This is not acceptable.
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/framework-for-the-inspection-of-local-authority-arrangements-for-supporting-school-improvement--2. PETER: Thanks as always Janet for your incisive comment and information, which surprised me. The link provides no clue as to why government no longer considers this important. Holmesdale suggests it is necessary for, as with so much of academy policy, it removes another level of accountability.

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