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Thursday, 18 July 2019 23:31

KCC cancels School Support contract with Swale Academies Trust for The North School at short Notice

Update: The Schools Week website has followed up on this story. Also contains further updates

Kent County Council is pulling out of its management agreement with Swale Academy Trust for The North School, Ashford, at very short notice, formally serving that notice on 22nd July that the contract would end 31st August. Until that point it had  providing no formal reason for its action, leaving considerable uncertainty about arrangements for September. This follows a similar decision by KCC last year at the Holmesdale School in Cuxton, which proved highly controversial, created chaos and which I covered extensively here and here.

Swale Academies Trust has managed The North since early 2014, after the school was placed in Special Measures by Ofsted in December 2013, although there is a considerable background  to this as described here. Swale took the school back up to Good less than four years later, although managing to overspend some £200,000  pounds per year to achieve this, reducing a financial surplus of £244,000 to a large deficit of  £768,357 at the end of this financial year, which now needs to be paid back. The Trust took robust actions to achieve the strong performance, its usual style and although the school  suffered a slump in popularity, with for example the large staff turnover, it has now recovered this following the successful Ofsted Inspection.

The North 2

There is no doubt that the school and the Swale Trust are now integrated to a considerable extent through: staffing - some teachers being Swale employees; school support; and the Swale culture, through combined training events for staff, etc It could be that this is just a money saving decision, saving £150,000 per annum management fee, although there has been no such suggestion put forward, but there is surely a contract between the two parties in place. To tear this apart at such short notice will be immensely damaging to the school. Whatever, there will be no £200,000 extra to spend next year which is going to lead to considerable economies.  According to Schools Week, SAT’s chief executive Jon Whitcombe has warned staff that the possibility of the school joining SAT is “now in doubt”. 

It is reported that shockingly no information has been sent to parents about this damaging situation. 

 You will find further background here. 

Two major issues which dominate any decision making by school governors, who will once again be in control subject to KCC rules are, firstly, the expensive PFI scheme that currently blocks The North from converting to become an academy, the agreed aim between KCC and Swale as explained below. Secondly, when Swale Academy Trust took over the school in 2014, it was carrying a financial surplus of £121,277 at year end in March. Since then the school has overspent heavily, to produce a deficit forecast to be £768,357 at the end of this financial year, which will now have to be eliminated which will require considerable cost cutting.  

I assume that the decision by KCC has been made because Swale Academies Trust has successfully brought the school up to a Good Ofsted standard but may also take into account the annual overspend, but I had understood that the County was committed to the arrangement until the PFI issues which were preventing academisation were sorted out (see below). The article here is an indication of expectations three years ago. However, there is a parallel with events at Holmesdale School where KCC made clear it explicitly did not want Swale managing the school and unsuccessfully tried to find alternatives.

There was a meeting of the Governing Body of the school last evening, which presumably had to try and resolve the issues this last-minute decision has raised. The information I received from the school preceded this and, in any case, it is right for Governors to inform the school and parents first about the consequence of KCC’s action.

One of the key issues to settle will be the position of headteacher for, although Anna Lawrence has been at the school for five years, the last two as head, she is currently employed by Swale Academies Trust. Something will have to give if KCC has no contract with Swale to deliver services. There may well be other staff in the same situation.  Swale Academy Trust has a very strong culture and support mechanism shared with all its schools and  The North School will currently be integrated into this, but this could come precipitately to an end.

There is no doubt that KCC support for its few remaining secondary schools has withered away in recent years and is now of dubious quality, as discussed here. As such, it is a poor exchange from what is undoubtedly a high quality service from Swale Academy Trust, which has now brought the school up to the strong standard it now enjoys and which is very attractive to families, but which was funded extravagantly. The North went into Special Measures just a year after Meopham School, which was also taken over by Swale around the same time, but which celebrated its Outstanding Ofsted earlier this year (a rare award for a non-selective school without advantages from its circumstances). 

Private Finance Initiative 
The North occupies modern premises funded by a PFI scheme, opened around ten years ago. Because of this the school cannot be converted into an academy unless and until KCC can agree financial terms with government, a dispute that has been in place since 2013, although academisation was Swale Academies plan from the outset as agreed with KCC. 
 
You will find a good summary of the PFI bind in an earlier article, which explains why PFI schools cannot academise because of a long running dispute between a number of Local Authorities including Kent with government over who picks up the cost of the contract in the event of such academisation. Altogether there are 11 Kent PFI schools including Ebbsfleet Academy which academised before I raised the issue with KCC in the first place, back in 2012.
 
Financial Pressures
The North has been bedevilled by financial pressures, accumulated since Swale Academies Trust took over but is  protected by its PFI status during the agreed plan with KCC to become an Academy. At that time in March 2014, The North had a revenue surplus of £244,000 and it is now on track for a deficit of £768,357 at the end of this financial year. When the contract with Swale is terminated, the school, on its own,  will be expected to recoup these losses over a short period of years! KCC is already planning to close the school farm which has been in existence since 1939, and is surely an important enrichment to the school and an integral part of its character (I remember it from my own school days!). It is clearly going to be a tough time financially!   
 
One major source of additional finance will come from the schools growing popularity. After Special Measures, the school's popularity slumped sharply reducing its intake and therefore funding, as can be seen here and which will have made a major contribution to the deficit. From a low of 122 first choices in 2015, the school has built this up to 207 first choices for 2019 entrance and had no spaces after allocations in March (although it will lose some to grammar school appeals). 

 

 

Last modified on Tuesday, 30 July 2019 11:40

1 comment

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 06 August 2019 00:14 posted by Appalled Kent Resident

    From Kent Online, 2nd August:
    Jamessteed wrote:
    "The Geelong Advertiser in Australia gives an insight into KCC's education leader Matt Dunkley when he worked in Australia. The following is from March 2016 and is freely available online.

    Suggestions Geelongs embattled education director Matthew Dunkley had been sacked have been dismissed, as anti-corruption investigations into the Victorian government department continue.
    Mr Dunkley, the Department of Education and Trainings regional director for the south west, was suspended from his role on Tuesday after an independent inquiry heard that he knew former education department executive John Allman had destroyed evidence.
    Mr Allman confirmed he dumped financial documents in a bin at a Bunnings Warehouse after IBAC investigators had been to his home, in phone-tapped conversations between Mr Dunkley and Mr Allman dated October 2014.
    'Well, thing is, you told me you f---ng destroyed all the evidence as soon as you knew as soon as you knew the f---ng ah, the empire was gone, mate', Mr Dunkley says to Mr Allman in the recording.
    'You told me that you just f---ng deleted that s--t, got rid of it all, kept yourself squeaky clean once you knew this was going on'.

    Makes me wonder just how poor the rest of the field must have been for this appointment to have been made by KCC". End of quote. *****The rot starts at the top

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