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Monday, 15 February 2021 13:37

Fairview Primary Parents Exceptionally Win Battle Against Academisation

Update: See fresh article 'Governors at Fairview Primary at Odds with the School Community'

The governors of Fairview Community Primary School in Gillingham, Medway, have scored a massive own goal by ignoring the wishes of parents, in their drive to academise the school within the Westbrook Trust. It is an unfortunate coincidence that the previous Chair of Governors, Kate Allen, is married to the CEO of the Westbrook Trust. After an earlier crisis at Fairview which saw the headteacher leave mid- term in 2018, and covered previously here, Medway Council brought in the Compass Partnership of Schools to provide leadership to the school, from January 2019. This proved an excellent and popular decision so, when Fairview governors decided to convert the school to become an academy, parents expected them to choose Compass, with its five primary schools, a strong record, and an Executive Headteacher who had restored confidence and stability to the school. Instead, they chose the Westbrook Trust.

 

Fairview Community

In a highly unusual move, the Regional Schools Commissioner’s Headteacher Board has now turned down the governors’ application to convert the school, citing concerns that they were at odds with the school community and that Medway Council had formally raised concerns surrounding the governing body’s decision making, specifically around transparency and community engagement. Up until now, the pattern across the country has been for the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) to override such concerns in a drive to increase the number of academies, often very publicly and controversially, so this decision is very significant. It is quite clear that if governors had chosen the Compass Partnership which had restored the school’s morale and reputation, most parents would have been more than happy.

I first became aware of this issue last September, when parents contacted me for the second time, to ask my advice about the matter. The previous occasion had been two years previously when Medway Council had imposed a London headteacher on the school as part of a policy to improve standards in its primary schools which had been quickly dropped.  Fairview, a higher-performing Medway primary, was one of the few cases where this was implemented, and it proved a disaster, with senior staff being forced out, the school culture changed completely,  and a complete lack of confidence created amongst a parent body who were previously very supportive of the school.

After this, Medway Council got it right by asking Compass to take on the management of the school, along with Executive Headteacher, Sophie Powell. A new headteacher was appointed and the school settled down again, quickly. Covid saw the Compass contract extend past the end of July 2020 when it was scheduled to end, but this was welcomed by the school community.

Governors launched a consultation about their proposal to convert to an academy under Westbrook, having been asked to by the RSC’s Board, details here. To be fair to governors there was extensive documentation set to parents, but which led inexorably to the conclusion that the Westbrook option was the only reasonable one. Reports on the school’s Consultation Zoom Meeting of 16th September, along with the accompanying documents, show that governors were well aware of support for Compass from parents, although governors who spoke out were unanimous in their support for Westbrook, apart from the vice-chair.  There was a parental fear that having established a good leadership team, this would now be dismantled at short notice and, having had great difficulty in recruiting in the past it would again become a problem. The new Chairman of governors, Chris Gilbert, a retired army colonel and a Deputy Lieutenant for Kent, is a recent governor appointment since the earlier troubles, and appears to have replaced Mrs Allen shortly before the consultation, presumably to avoid a conflict of interest, although she remains on the Board. 

Medway Council
The intervention by Medway Council is most unusual, as they have a policy to encourage primary schools to seek academy status, and it remains unclear as to why they went down the route of formally ‘raising concerns surrounding the governing body’s decision making, specifically around transparency and community engagement’, although see below. There is no doubt that the Westbrook Trust works well, has a strong reputation and has four Medway primary schools, including the strongly performing Oaklands, which joined in September, whereas the Compass Partnership comprises six primary and one Special School in Greenwich, so less obvious. However, plenty of other local primary schools are run by Trusts based outside Medway, including Maritime Academy Trust, and the Inspire Partnership, both based in Greenwich, amongst too many that have picked up local failed schools and turned them around.
 
Questions
So why has Medway formally gone out on a limb to oppose this one? The Council has never before appeared to bother about local opinion in such matters. Why has the RSC overruled governors to support parents when many more high profile parental campaigns failed to convince? Just put ‘primary school fights academy status’ to find large numbers. A letter from governors to parents at the beginning of November suggests they were not confident of success at this point, and indeed they do not appear to have yet told parents of the outcome. That failure is a big indictment. The update in the next paragraph may suggest an answer but otherwise, I am afraid I don't and would be more than happy to hear suggestions, which may also help others. 
The plot thickens
A reliable source informs me that the Medway Council Officer who was School Improvement Lead for Fairview and is now in the School Effectiveness Team. He introduced Luton Junior and Infants Schools to Compass and they are now Associate Members of the Trust. Both are Community schools within Medway Council, so this could be the first step towards academisation, following Medway Council policy. The source reports that whilst involved with Fairview, the officer pushed Compass as the choice of destination for the past few years. He may of course have been the originator of the Medway Council objection to Westbrook, making the whole thing, as so often with Medway Council, extremely murky!
 
 
Finally
'The RSC was minded to ask the LA to work with the school to address the concerns'.  One solution appears straightforward. Governors could bite the bullet and recommend to parents that the school becomes an academy in the Compass Partnership of Schools, having prospered under its guidance for the past two years.  
Last modified on Monday, 08 March 2021 19:05

3 comments

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 17 February 2021 23:36 posted by Richard W

    You have to feel sorry for current Fairview parents and children. First Medway Council gives us a duff headteacher who sends the school into a tailspin. They persuaded her to go, with your help Peter, the school settled down under stable leadership, our child left the school last summer, then governors decide to screw it up. After that, as you say, it gets very murky, but you are once again to be thanked for bringing this into the open, whilst governors fail again by trying to keep it all secret.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 17 February 2021 08:44 posted by Gemma

    Its odd to my mind that the council brought in compass in the first place and are pushing them so hard? Who’s fingers are in a compass pie? I think Luton didn’t want compass and got rid...why?
    Also disgusting that compass have canvassed parents to basically win a contract! They are the only people who stand to gain financially... so of course they are trying to sell themselves to everyone. Beware the smiling crocodile! It seem that actually it is a minority of parents objecting to Westbrook very fervently and violently so other parents have felt unable to speak, in fact been shouted down by the objectors in governor meetings, as were the governors!
    I’m Just glad my son will only have one more year there as I worry for the very grey walled future! I’ve not been very vocal in the subject so far as I didn’t want to alienate or upset anyone with my opinions but I do have the kids totally in mind hence why I’ve spent years volunteering so they can have the best of everything and so far I see two lovely ladies in the current heads but they are just icing on a very corporate machine that intends to make money for their business with our children as the commodity please don’t believe they are anything other than that! Leadership cannot be guaranteed either so they may only be there 6months then there could be another head cutting their teeth and then another, it certainly won’t mean stability. We must also remember that once an academy has a school there is no going back! PETER: Are the Council actually pushing for Compass as hard as you allege - but see update? If its only just a minority of parents in favour of parents, clearly they failed to persuade governors. What I can't see is how and why the RSC caved in to this minority of parents in Medway, when they have ignored large numbers elsewhere in high profile confontations? That is the largest puzzle. Remember that the reason the majority of Medway schools have chosen to become academies is to escape from a poorly performing Council, which took Fairview into calamity just three years ago. The large majority should be happier now with the much improved outcomes.

  • Comment Link Monday, 15 February 2021 19:18 posted by Jason Bourne

    My worries about compass is that the schools they operate do not sit 11+ so are they well placed when it comes to the needs of the pupils at Fairview and ensuring they have the best chance to succeed, Compass are an academy and Medway Council have already stated that they do not want an academy outside the LA to run Medway schools so I fear this process will happen again. PETER: You will see in my December article on the Medway Test that Fairview had the fifth highest pass rate in the Medway Test in October under the current leadership. Hardly a worry. Under Medway Council, schools had one of the worst records for performance in the country, year after year, which is why so many became academies, often run by Trusts based elsewhere, bringing in expertise so obviously lacking locally. I haven't carried out a full analyis, but many, including the ones I have quoted, have improved the schools markedly as academies. In this case Medway clearly supported the out of county Trust, hopefully on the basis that it is already doing a good job. As a matter of itnerest, where do they say they don't wat a Trust form outside Medway running local schools. Heaven preserve you from experiences like Delce and Elaine!

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