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Sunday, 07 February 2021 05:13

The Conversion of the PFI Holmesdale and The North Schools to Academy Status for September 2021 (?)

Updated below, 8th Feb, drawing on a KCC Education Committee Report

I have covered disputes over the proposed conversion of Kent schools built under the Private Finance Initiative (PFI) to become academies for many years. These first surfaced around 2011, my initial article being here, with the schools involved including Holmesdale Technology College and The North School.  

Ten years later, these two schools are still at the heart of the issue and I have chronicled their misfortunes under Kent County Council (KCC) control over the years, although up to another eight PFI schools may well be looking on with their own plans to convert. Both of the two schools are now managed for Kent County Council by Swale Academy Trust, whose plan, alongside improving them, has always been to secure academy status for both. I have received correspondence from FOI requests over the past two years which confirms the difficulties encountered in attempting to achieve this, but now shows that all obstacles appear to have been removed. A letter from KCC to Swale, of 11th September 2020, concludes I see no reason why these conversions should not proceed with little contention between ourselves‘. This is quite explicit although, despite the view that ‘We are both working to the same objective, the swift, smooth transition of the schools into the Trust’, it appears that KCC has been stalling on implementing the conversions for a further five months, having possibly only taken the single step of appointing solicitors to oversee the conversions. As a result, the agreed conversion date of 1st September 2021 appears very much at risk, in which case Swale Academies Trust could decide to pull out completely and hand the schools back to KCC, whose record is one of having led them both into Special Measures.   

This article explores the issues, including KCC's role, more closely and widens them out to consider the situation relating to the other PFI schools still under KCC control, notably Royal Harbour Academy. 

Note: I attach here a numbered selection of what I regard as the most relevant items in the large correspondence between Swale Academies Trust and KCC on the subject. This was obtained via two Freedom of Information requests.

My concerns are multiple. First and foremost, it appears that because of KCC’s dragging their feet for whatever reason, the academisation of Holmesdale and The North is now unlikely for September 2021, the latest in a number of target dates agreed. Swale Academies Trust, which to me appears to have been incredibly patient, has been clear throughout that it took on the management of these schools with the aim of academisation.  If it cannot achieve this, they may pass back the schools to the control of KCC, which has failed miserably with both of them in the past. There are another eight Kent PFI schools no doubt watching this saga with interest, who may be inhibited from following the same route because of the current shambles.  Is there no one at KCC accountable for this long-running mess? You will find a view from the Corporate Director of Education in the attached correspondence.

I have some personal responsibility for the issue, which I highlighted after what is now called Ebbsfleet Academy, a PFI school, became an academy in 2013 under dubious circumstances. KCC was left to pay some £15 million for the remainder of the PFI contract over the following 15 years, although having no responsibility for the school. As a result, Paul Carter, then Leader of KCC, rightly put a block on any further conversions, as explained here.

A major issue with both of the two conversions of this article was the potential cost, identified by KCC in April 2019 (correspondence Item 5), of up to £250 million payable to PFI contractors over the next 15 years if the two schools were to convert to academies with the PFI issues unresolved. This would be added to a £200 million calculation by ShepwayVox in 2018 already paid to contractors for the 11 outstanding PFI schools, and is close to around another £200  million still owing estimated by them, together with legal responsibilities the county would retain even though the schools would be run directly by the government. Some of these figures are reduced by  Revenue Support Grants from the government. A 2009 Report accepted by the KCC Education Committee entitled 'The risks to KCC resulting from the Private Finance Initiative' considers the total cost for six new schools including Holmesdale and The North, all built under a single 'Building Schools for the Future' scheme between 2006-8, with a contract period of 28 years, to be £373.9 million. The Revenue Support Grant was just over £177 million, leaving what is called an Affordability Gap of some £197 million to be made up by KCC, drawing on the Dedicated Schools Grant, providing a main stream of funding for all schools. . There are further costs arising from the PFI schemes of the other five schools,  as explained in the documents and KCC Report. The eleven schools are identified below, in three separate groups. 

Winding forward to September 2020 (Item 7), this letter, quoted in the introduction, describes an extremely convoluted situation, but appears to announce a resolution of the issues. My own summary is as follows:

  • The Academies Act 2010 forbids LEAs to make payments towards the cost of maintaining academies. However, KCC will still be responsible for some costs after academisation. If these payments are declared ultra vires, or without legal authority, then KCC could become responsible for damages, which could amount to the total value of the PFI contract.
  • The Government will not indemnify Local Authorities against such damages.
  • However, Ministers have provided assurance to the Council that in their view the risks have been covered off by legislation (but not legal indemnity)
  • Given the assurances given by Ministers and the legal advice available to it, the Leader of KCC has agreed with his officers that they can proceed with the conversions of these two schools without delay.
  • There is no mention of the cost of the outstanding PFI capital and interest payments over the next 15 years, applicable even if any of the schools become academies and hence independent of KCC. It appears that KCC may have conceded the cost of these, even though they were the basis of the initial impasse with the government.

So why has there been no progress since September? I don’t know, and it is clear that Swale Academies Trust (SAT) doesn’t know either. They are rightly unwilling to make the major investments in the two schools they believe are necessary, whilst they remain Local Authority schools so the pupils are further disadvantaged. The Trust has the capacity to transform schools, as shown by its most recent Kent secondary academy conversion at Meopham School, which it has taken from Ofsted Special Measures under KCC  through to Outstanding in Six Years as reported here, which also provides a link through to the Holmesdale calamity under KCC control. The September letter (7) also makes clear that SAT is willing to absorb some £700,000 of outstanding debt at The North (although the Trust ran it up in the first place!), as identified here, an article which leads back to the recent history of the school.

The current situation
Nearly five months after the September letter, almost nothing further appears to have been achieved, other than KCC probably appointing solicitors. As of today, 7th February, the latest position is outlined in the exchange of letters (13) and (14). Given previous Swale concerns about the time remaining if academisation were to take place for September 2021, this now appears most unlikely giving Swale Academies Trust a massive decision to make.

The Trust has made clear that it has no wish to continue its Management role if the two schools do not become academies, and so would need to divest itself of the two schools, with all the negative implications, including staffing, that would follow. Of course, KCC themselves have tried and failed to manage both schools before. With regard to Holmesdale, it was an unmitigated disaster, as explained here. For the North School, the failed attempt to strip SAT of their management role at very short notice echoed the same small-minded and vindictive attitude. SAT have of course improved The North from Special Measures to Good over a period of four years.  

I have often been critical of the robust approach of Swale Academies Trust’s CEO Jon Whitcombe, but the full correspondence supplied to me over the past two years includes 41 emails he has sent to various KCC representatives. Without exception, these have proved courteous and, apart from showing his evident frustration, are consistently positive attempting to move matters forward in spite of continually being knocked back. I exclude from this the redacted formal complaint he laid against a senior officer, now no longer with KCC, which alleged shockingly unprofessional conduct with regard to the allocation of the School Improvement Contract at Holmesdale. I have seen no rebuttal of this complaint.

Other PFI Schools
I am open to correction on the following, as some of the dates and schemes become highly convoluted. One of the earliest articles published in this version of the website can be found here, from 2010. It was reproduced from the now sadly defunct Kent on Sunday with its genuine interest in education matters, and comprises a survey of secondary school building programmes in a wave of renovation as the government sought to modernise and replace highly dated and run down premises across the country.     

Six schools had been completely re-built under the Building Schools for the Future programme by this time:  Aylesford School; Ellington  School, Ramsgate; Holmesdale Technology College, Snodland; Hugh Christie Technology College, Tonbridge; The Malling School and The North School, Ashford. Others mentioned in the article were partially or wholly rebuilt under different versions of the scheme and so most were not subject to the same constraints. However, four more schools, completely rebuilt under PFI in Wave Three of Building Schools for the Future also remain Local Authority schools: St George's CE Foundation School, Broadstairs; and three schools from Gravesham, Northfleet Technology College, St John's Catholic Comprehensive School, and Thamesview School, with an Affordability Gap reduced to £901,000 (Para 20, here). Swanscombe School was rebuilt under a different PFI scheme, along with Craylands Primary Schooland became an academy in 2013, triggering the whole controversy, although Craylands remained with KCC . 

Royal Harbour Academy (not an academy)
This was formed from the amalgamation of three schools in the Ramsgate area, Ellington, Hereson and The Ramsgate School. Ellington and Hereson Schools were merged in 2009 because of falling rolls, Ellington having benefitted from a complete rebuild under PFI. The Ramsgate School became Kent’s first purpose-built old-style academy, opened in 2005, and renamed The Marlowe Academy, but swiftly built a reputation as ‘Kent’s wors school’, and was merged (technically closed) with Ellington and Herson in 2015. The whole, renamed Royal Harbour Academy, in expectation of becoming one (!), was taken over by Coastal Academies Trust, which formally applied for it to be an academy in 2018. It is still waiting, caught up in the PFI issues around the component Ellington School’s rebuild ten years ago and is mentioned in the correspondence (Item 5, 2019) Lord Agnew has been very clear that once the PFI issues are resolved he requires KCC to prioritise the conversion of schools with DAOs (Direct Academy Orders issued to struggling or failing schools) over others therefore, whatever the timescales we end up with, The North will not convert before Royal Harbour or Holmesdale’. The government's Open Academies website still gives the proposed opening date for Holmesdale to become an academy as 1st September 2021, with Royal Harbour as 1st December 2021.  

 And so it goes on, with as usual the children being the last people to be considered in this political ‘game’.  

Last modified on Wednesday, 23 June 2021 20:01

1 comment

  • Comment Link Thursday, 22 April 2021 23:15 posted by Eric cranston

    This has been ongoing for years, and I think you've got more chance of the European super League starting in September than the North finally being converted. KCC are dragging their heels again and again. PETER: I think its more than dragging their heels; someone wants revenge for Keith Abbott's abrupt 'redundancy'. Never mind the children as Swale Academies Trust is clearly having difficulties with Holmesdale having to toe the county line. The school must soon be in severe financial difficulty as numbers dwindle year on year.

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