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Friday, 31 July 2020 06:45

The Struggling Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey Appoints its Fourth Leader in Seven Years.

Oasis Academy Trust is trying once again to reverse the inexorable decline in the fortunes of Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey (OAIOS) by bringing in a new Executive Principal over the head of Tina Lee, the current Principal.

Oasis Sheppey

Ian Simpson, currently Principal of Oasis Academy Lister Park in Bradford, makes the eighth leader since the school became an academy in 2009. Most of his predecessors have been moved on after failing to turn the school round. Both of the previous two post holders were appointed from within the school only after the Trust failed to attract anyone from outside, despite extensive advertising. Both have been a disappointment. It is not clear if the role of Executive Head is permanent or just a short term firefighting job.

All this is taking place in the context of a forecast crisis in the provision of non-selective places in Sittingbourne and Sheppey, which will come to a head in 2021, if it has not already arrived. 

Ms Lee has had some successes since she was appointed two years ago, having been previously Vice-Principal at the school for three years. However, the intake continues to fall every year, down over 20% since Oasis took over in 2014 despite extensive new housing development on the island increasing the pool of children available. The number of those actually choosing the school has fallen even faster, with 101 of the 324 children offered places for this year not even having applied for it, up from 79 in 2019. Discipline remains a problem with frequent reports of bullying and the 1025 fixed term exclusions in 2018-19 a ninth of the total for all secondary schools in Kent, hailed by Ofsted as improving.  

Mr Simpson certainly looks more likely to be the first heavyweight to be appointed to OAIOS since Oasis took it over in 2014, having been Principal of Oasis Academy Lister Park in Bradford, a school with a thousand pupils including 250 sixth form students, for four years. That school’s 2019 Good Ofsted Report records that ‘Since his appointment in 2015, the principal has transformed the school. He commands the respect of pupils, parents, carers and staff because of his relentless commitment to raising pupils’ aspirations’ and Mr Lister also had oversight of other Oasis schools in the region.  

A letter to parents, as reported in Kent Online, has Mr Simpson working ‘alongside’ Ms Lee at her request, but the reality is surely that he, with his title and experience, is in charge, Ms Lee effectively stepping back to something like her previous role as Deputy Principal. She has had some successes, with potential off-rolling shrinking, as have the number of children being withdrawn for Home Education, both of which reached scandalous levels under her two predecessors. Neither of these was noticed by Ofsted Inspectors, so no imperative to improve! School performance has risen but is still very low, with a profile of the school here providing further details.  Certainly, it is now easier to run with the fall in numbers enabling the school to consolidate its main pupil body on one of the two sites, over two miles apart. The sixth form, at 100 pupils, now less than half the size when Oasis took over, rattles around in the other premises, built for some 2000 children. 

Some of the problems at the school were described in an interview in The Times in 2014 with its first headteacher under Oasis, after they sacked the best headteacher the school ever had as an academy. He had improved the school and its standards, taking it out of Special Measures, although sadly, under Mr Millar, performance declined again. Whilst The Times headline and much of the article is demonstrably false as for the second time one of Mr Millar's schools was trashed, presumably to show how it would improve under new leadership (it didn't, but The Times also pulled the same trick at Ebbsfleet Academy!) the article does outline some of the challenges facing anyone who would run it. Mr Millar lasted less than three years then moved to run an easier school 'to be nearer his home and family', leaving that headship after another short spell and at very short notice for 'personal reasons'.   

Of particular concern to the leadership of Oasis Sheppey must be the large number of children allocated to the school each year who have not applied for it, detailed in my school profile. Many of these lived on the island itself, and are desperately trying to avoid the school, with over 150 local families belonging to a Home Educating group.  Others have the misfortune to live on the mainland too far from any of the three Sittingbourne schools to a secure a place, and are therefore allocated to Oasis. These are Fulston Manor, 121 first choices oversubscribed this year, Westlands, 96 first choices oversubscribed and The Sittingbourne School, 21. Too many of these live in the villages to the south of Sittingbourne and having been allocated Oasis, will have to travel by bus and train to the north side of the island, for the main school is situated in Sheerness. Sometimes they will travel directly past Fulston Manor or Westlands, 

In 2019 Westlands School offered 51 children places on appeal which would have eaten hard into the Oasis numbers soo these fell from 324 offers to 247 places with 77 not taking up their offers for one reason or another. This won’t have happened with 2020 admissions, for the Westlands Appeal Panel upheld just 5 appeals, so there will be a large number of children forced to take up places at Oasis who didn’t want to be there. It was in such a climate three years ago that the number of families opting for Elective Home Education soared.

Secondary Non-Selective Pupil numbers in Swale
The Kent Schools Commissioning Plan 2020-2024, Kent's strategic plan for the provision of school places, considers secondary school issues in Swale very briefly on page 130. By effectively merging the distribution of pupils across Sittingbourne and Sheppey and avoiding the central problem of the unpopularity of the Oasis Academy, it certainly makes the problem diminish, as has KCC has repeated for years in Tunbridge Wells/Tonbridge. The plan's commentary on Year Seven non-selective places for Sittingbourne 2020 states that
Forecasts indicate that for both Year 7 and Years 7-11 there is an increasing deficit of places over the Plan period. 2020 shows a deficit of 97 (12.7%) places increasing to 192 (25%) in 2023. The increasing pressure showing in Sittingbourne is exacerbated by large numbers of pupils travelling off the Isle of Sheppey for their secondary education. Surplus capacity in Oasis Isle of Sheppey Academy will help to offset some of the deficit in Sittingbourne.

 That is an increase of 95 extra Sittingbourne pupils looking for places. Of course, these numbers add on to the previous shortage each year. As a result, whereas there is a projected shortage of 179 places this year for pupils in Years 7-11, mainly solved by packing children off to the Isle of Sheppey, in three years time there will be 555, which will almost fit into the Sheppey vacancy number of  469. Problem solved!  Sittingbourne parents have been warned! 

In particular, the forecast shows a shortage of 144 places in the three Sittingbourne non-selective schools for September 2020 and a surplus of 70 on the Isle of Sheppey. The solution provided is to provide an additional 90 places in Sittingbourne (and presumably force the rest onto Sheppey), but no clues are provided at present as to where these should be. Fulston Manor School is on a restricted site, so no likelihood of additional places there.  Westlands Academy admitted 69 pupils above its Published Admission Number last year, following an enormous 51 successful appeals a decision that provided intense criticism from KCC who presumably would have preferred them to remain at Oasis. Westlands is already by a long way the second largest secondary school in Kent, so likely to be resistant to further increases.  The Sittingbourne School to the east of the town and away from the pressure points is itself the sixth-largest school in Kent and also heavily oversubscribed. It is reported that Oasis Academy is unilaterally planning to reduce its Published Admission Number from 390 to 300 to remove the high number of children having to be offered places who don’t want to be there. Of course, that will leave them with nowhere to go and doesn't begin to address the real problem.

Finally 
One wonders what those families busy buying into expensive new housing developments on the Isle of Sheppey will make of it all? The new Executive Headteacher certainly has a job on his hands to turn the school round at short notice to head off this further challenge.

On top of this, there is the looming crisis in non-selective secondary places across Sittingbourne and Sheppey. KCC’s solution of using Oasis Academy to mop up families without an alternative school lets down all the children involved and is contradictory to their policy that additional places to meet shortages should only be sought in Ofsted Good or Outstanding schools. Even so, this is unlikely to meet the coming shortage over the next three years which at present has no solution forthcoming.

Kent County Council has no control over events at Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey, which is answerable to central government via the Regional Schools Commissioner. So what should happen at the school? Clearly the Oasis Charitable Trust methods, including fiddling with the leadership and blaming the children, is not working. Something far more radical needs to happen. It won't be like events at the ill-fated Oasis Academy Hextable, the Trust's only other secondary school in Kent which was suddenly closed in 2015, after this was also run down by poor leadership, It has been argued by many for years that the school was too large and should be split into two on the two sites. The Oasis Trust has now partly achieved this by making the school so unpopular that numbers have reduced to fit within one site. The Trust has failed the children of Sheppey and so someone else operating a different model of leadership and management needs to be brought in. Indeed one model for possible success already exists locally, in the Swale Academy Trust. Whilst I dislike some of their methods intensely, because of the casualty rate they inflict on many good teachers who don't fit their model, one cannot argue with outcomes for the main pupil body in each of the Kent schools they have taken over and turned around. You will find a full list here. These results have often been achieved in the face of intense opposition, including from officialdom. A recent good example is at Holmesdale School. Quite simply the Swale Trust is a large and determined organisation that appears to throw whatever resources are necessary to turn schools around, drawing heavily on their bank of quality staff, leaders and expertise drafted in from across the Trust, to take over and run the school for the benefit of its pupils. In the current case, the people and children of Sheppey have surely had enough of second rate management of their school. Something else needs to be tried, far more radical than providing someone to 'work alongside the current Principal'.   

 

Last modified on Saturday, 01 August 2020 06:55

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