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Tuesday, 30 November 2021 04:33

Hayesbrook School: The demolition of Brook Learning Trust Continues

Update with the View of Leigh Academies Trust, below.

Leigh Academies Trust, which took over the failed Brook Learning Trust, is consulting on plans to change the nature of Hayesbrook School, once the flagship of the Trust but now struggling badly.

Hayesbrook is one of just two single sex boys’ schools in the county, and the proposal is for it to also admit girls. A press release issued on Monday gives the main reason as being its unpopularity with families, quoting the data in my article ‘Oversubscription & Vacancies: Kent Non-Selective Schools 2021’, which shows it having  the third lowest number of admission first choices in the county. The press release goes on to claim that the unpopularity is because it is a boys' school, although my analysis below suggests this is only part of the picture.

Hayesbrook 1

The reality is that Hayesbrook School has been badly managed for several years, as I identified in an article earlier this year, when looking at the appalling Brook Learning Trust which has now handed its three schools over to Leigh. It has already decided to close one of them, High Weald Academy, whilst Ebbsfleet Academy, after a disastrous period under a 'no excuses' headteacher, appears to be slowly settling down and then there is Hayesbrook! What a turnaround from 2015, when it achieved the highest GCSE performance in the county for non-selective schools (excluding three highly selective church schools). In January this year it had 368 pupils in Years 7-11, less than half the capacity 755, and so had to subsist on a handout from KCC of £297,000.

Back in 2017 the Trust's auditors expressed significant doubts about whether it could continue to operate unless finances improved, as confirmed by the Trustees. The warning was repeated the next year, but then Brook Learning Trust's response was to deny everything, change auditors so that there were no further doubts expressed, and sit tight until the money ran out, which appears to be the case at both Hayesbrook and High Weald.  

The Proposal
You will find further details of the proposal in a Consultation Pack, issued along with the proposal. This places the blame for the low enrolment squarely on 'a preference amongst parents to have their sons educated in co-educational settings', which has created the financial crisis for the school. Understandably there is no mention that there are similar problems of very low enrolment at the two other co-educational settings of the Brook Learning Trust, pointing the way to where the real issue is. The admission that 'Consequently, Hayesbrook’s current financial position is not sustainable. Furthermore, the exceptionally tight budget management required has made it more difficult to offer the same educational experiences to pupils compared to what is possible in a more average sized setting' (certainly no responsibility for this lies with Leigh Academy Trust) means that without drastic action Hayesbrook is facing the fate of the now closing High Weald Academy. 
There is a long section on non-selective provision across Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells, the county's place planning area justifying the logic of becoming co-educational for the school, which is of limited relevance. This is because the central problem in the area is that there is only one non-secular N/S school in the town of Tunbridge Wells, Skinners Kent Academy, which cannot cope with demand and so large numbers of TW children are shipped out to the Tonbridge schools. Currently Hillview School for Girls and Hugh Christie can cater for all girls in the system, including the overspill from TW, as Hugh Christie does not quite currently fill without Local Authority Allocations, (children placed at the school who did not apply for it).  
Single Sex Schools
The Individual Schools Sections for Hayesbrook and the other Kent N/S school for boys, Northfleet Technology College (NTC), show that both have seen a decline in popularity, but also performance, in recent years. NTC, under its long-serving headteacher, has seen a fall in the number of first choices, every single year since 2014, although by contrast, the equivalent Northfleet Girls, had a high point in popularity in 2020. The Dartford West Boys School closed in 2000, but had been badly managed for years. The girls equivalent school, Dartford Science and Technology College (DSTC), which failed its Ofsted in 2011, showed a rapid turnaround under Seamus Murphy as headteacher, with Ofsted 'Good' in 2012, just a year on, surely somewhat of a record. He went on to become an HMI, and is now of course CEO of the controversial Turner Schools. Meanwhile the girls only DSTC goes from strength to strength and has been oversubscribed for the past four years. The only other single sex N/S school in the county is Hillview School for Girls also in Tonbridge, the girls equivalent to Hayesbrook, and one of the highest performing N/S schools in the county in 2019, the last year GCSE results were published. Hayesbrook in the same table is one of the lowest, along with High Weald Academy. 

Two previously single sex private schools have become state maintained and co-educational: Duke of York’s Royal Military School (boys, Dover) and Ursuline College (girls, Thanet). Twenty-eight of Kent’s 32 selective schools are single sex and, whilst boys and girls grammars tend to show different characteristics, few are struggling. 

So, is the problem with boys’ schools, single sex schools, or simply poor leadership of schools? I incline to the last. 

Tonbridge Schools
There are four Tonbridge N/S schools, including the oversubscribed specialised Hadlow Rural Community School a few miles out of town. Because of the pressure on Tunbridge Wells N/S schools, many TW children are allocated to schools in Tonbridge, most to Hayesbrook, and some to the co-educational Hugh Christie. In all, Hayesbrook had 51 Local Authority Allocations including 35  Tunbridge Wells boys,  and Hugh Christie 12 for entry this September, so that both were filled, although Hugh Christie then took on a further 15 above its Planned Admission Number who had no places to help resolve the problem.  Mascalls Academy in Paddock Wood, Tunbridge Wells District, also had 49 LAAs.

The statement in the press release that: ‘Problems with attracting sufficient numbers of pupils have occurred despite Tonbridge providing enough pupils to ensure that all of its schools are largely full’ may or may not be correct, although the picture is far more complex than this because of the Tunbridge Wells issue, as explained above.  But the fact still remains that too many of the boys do not wish to take up places at Hayesbrook.

Meanwhile Hillview School for Girls, one of the most academically successful N/S schools in Kent,  fills comfortably each year presumably mainly with local girls and usually manages to fit in all first choices. It also runs a very popular Sixth Form attracting students from a variety of backgrounds including private and grammar schools. There are also potential vacancies for more girls at Hugh Christie if some boys could be lured from there to Hayesbrook, so there is no need for extra girls’ places at the school. 

Brook Learning Trust
I have spent some time analysing the failures of the now defunct Brook Learning Trust, most recently here, which also explores the Leigh takeover. It may be that some extra pupils will arrive at Hayesbrook following the closure of the Trust’s High Weald Academy in Cranbrook because of the lack of alternative local places, but this does not address the fundamental problem that local families do not like the school in sufficient numbers. Last year Hayesbrook even lost 46% of the pupils offered places in Year Seven at the school in March by the start of term in September, the second highest proportion of losses in Kent. High Weald (35%) and Ebbsfleet (31%) were also in the top six Kent schools for losing potential pupils. Not surprisingly the other three were Holmesdale, Archbishops and New Line Learning. 

With regard to the funding problem this cannot have come as a surprise for I was warning of this back in 2018 after the auditor reported in the 2016-17 Trust Accounts that there was a ‘material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the Academy’s ability to continue as a going concern’. As a result, I was pilloried by some parents in local and social media.  The Trust denied there was a problem and its solution was to change Auditors to MHA Macintyre Hudson of Canterbury after a repeat of the warning for the 2017-18 accounts. They found no problems for the next three years, including in the 2020 Accounts. This all underlines that the failure of Hayesbrook School is the responsibility of the Brook Trustees, who at the very least have been negligent by hushing up the financial troubles, together with the school leadership. . 

Having said all this Leigh has to do something drastic with Hayesbrook to make it more attractive to families and to recover its financial fortunes.

Good leadership is the first essential, which may mean the proposal in this Consultation may not be necessary if numbers were to rise. However, a change of reputation can take years and the image of the school clearly has to change, so  it may be that co-education which changes the whole character of the school is the quickest solution. 

There is of course no accountability for the Trustees who are able to walk away without penalty. Never mind the damaged education of those children who have stuck with Hayesbrook, or been unable to find an alternative school. 

I would assume that the majority of responses to the Consultation will come from current parents at Hayesbrook. Having felt the lash of some of these for suggesting that not all was well with the school, they may well wish it to stay in its current form. However, they are of course only a minority of the potential recruits to the school who may not be aware of recent events. Others with no children likely to attend the school may well see co-education as an end in itself.

In a recent interview on Radio Kent I was asked how boys and girls perform in the different school settings. I referred to BBC research in 2016 which found that girls in girls' schools performed best and that with some caveats, both boys and girls perform best in single sex schools.

Finally, I am fairly sure that whatever the  results of the consultation, the outcome will be a change for Hayesbrook to become co-educational, although I doubt that Hillview ill have much to fear!

View of Leigh Academies Trust, from Kent Live
Richard Taylor from Leigh Academies Trust said: "The Trust has read Mr Read's article and would concur with the general view that changing admissions is only part of the overall solution. This is why the Trust has also taken steps to strengthen curriculum areas with the appointment of lead practitioners as well as considering additional senior leadership roles. The Trust believes the best way to improve the reputation of the school is to support it to improve its educational outcomes as well as to expand the breadth of the curriculum and to increase extracurricular activities. To summarise, whilst the change to the admissions criteria is an important change to help the school survive in the long term, it is only one of a number of measures the Trust is taking to transform the fortunes of the school for the future. Our aspiration is that Leigh Academy Tonbridge will be the non-selective school of choice for the local community."

Last modified on Tuesday, 28 December 2021 20:57

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