Education is a big part of my life these days, the Kent Education Network is going from strength to strength and we’ll be announcing a website and membership soon. Closer to home my daughter’s school, Community College Whitstable, is going through troubled times. It achieved poor GCSE results, was given a ‘Requires Improvement’ Ofsted and its head has been sent on ‘gardening leave.’
Our current government believes that schools are better managed by academy trusts rather than by local authorities. I cautiously support this idea, mostly because there seemed little drive for overall improvement with most council run schools.
Obviously there are a mix of good and bad local authority schools, and clearly there are a mix of good and bad academy schools too. Many academy trusts are created by highly experienced education managers and have fine leadership teams; the idea is that these excellent trusts take on more schools and spread their good work. The reality is that there are not enough excellent academy chains, and academy trust’s leadership varies. It is also obvious that changing the managing body controlling a school is not a magic fix for every school problem.
The academy program has grown too fast because our government wants all schools to be run by academies as soon as possible. Academy trusts have been created to meet that need, and most want to expand rapidly. They are supposed to be not-for-profit bodies, charitable trusts with the best interests of schools at their heart. Yet if their motivation was purely to do a good job, wouldn’t you think they’d just run three or four schools expertly and settle for that? Few do this, most are keen to grow and acquire more schools year on year. There are financial incentives for this rapid growth. They are certainly not businesses in the true sense, but I worry that the motivation for most academy leaders is a desire to have a profitable chain of schools, achieve bonuses for their teams, and increase salaries. Is this really in the interests of our school children?
There has been plenty in the news recently about the financial side of the academies movement. UK school academies currently hold £111 million in cash reserves, they spend £8.5 million a year on consultants, and their CEO’s pay is causing a few eyebrows to raise, as you’ll see in this article.
I don’t mind our schools being run by businesses and well paid management if those executives are doing a good job. The worry is that many academies show average leadership not inspirational leadership. The majority of schools that are turned into academies don’t show much change in their results. The system works if academy chains take on new schools and improve them. No one minds if the system adds a new financial layer to schooling if it’s giving us better education. The problem is that an academy chain can take on a new school, take the money and achieve average results. There is no going back if the results are disappointing or the academy’s decisions are unpopular. Parents or governors can not claim a local school back from an academy if it turns out that academy was a poor choice.
Academy bosses get six figure salaries for the work of making good decisions and caring for a school. All while unpaid, volunteer school governors make decisions, do a great job and care more about their schools. I think payment for school governors is long overdue. Our unpaid governors have to make big decisions and hand over schools to highly paid multi-million turnover academy trusts. I do trust school governors to make good decisions, but we must trust them, because the future direction of our community’s schools are entirely in their hands.
The governors of Community College Whitstable sent a letter to parents last week to say that the school will become part of Swale Academies Trust. It has happened whether we like it or not. There is no consultation at all, this is a done deal. The theory behind this approach is that a consultation would unsettle an already troubled school. I am trying to be sympathetic to that view, and it would clearly not work to have a bunch of uninformed parents choosing their preferred academy trust… But still. It hurts that the school I chose for my daughter can be given away to an unknown management team. These new school leaders might veer the school in a different direction, or change it in ways I do not like.
So who are the school’s new management? It seems Swale Academies Trust are a Kent based Academy Trust managing 4 primary and 3 secondary schools, 4 nurseries, 1 sports centre and a skills centre. They are listed on the Kent Independent Education Advice schools website as being, ‘much favoured by Kent County Council.’ This is clear, as they seem to have been asked to step in by KCC when many of their schools received poor Ofsted ratings.
They took over at Chaucer Technology School, then the decision was made to close the school. They took over Pent Valley Technology College at Easter 2015, although this is now also going to close. They also took over the North School, Ashford, after it was placed in Special Measures in March 2014. The school received a ‘Requires Improvement’ rating in June 2015, so that is some improvement. The academy chain is about to formally take on the North School.
Despite their hit and miss record with these troubled schools I have no fears that CCW will close. However their involvement with these schools doesn’t show an inspiring track record of change. I will give them the benefit of the doubt, as the secondary schools that the chain have manged for many years seem to be doing fine. Westlands received an ‘Outstanding’ Ofted rating, while Meopham School and Sittingbourne Community College achieved Ofsted ‘Goods.’
Reading about their schools makes me think they are a fair to middling academy chain, with discipline as a priority, and a principle who is not afraid to rustle a few feathers as he brings about change. I was told there was a teacher’s strike at one of the chain’s schools due to demands put on teachers (I haven’t found evidence of this so it may be only rumour.) I know the North School was in the news because they changed uniform twice in three years and sent 60 children home for being inappropriately dressed. On another occasion 40 pupils were excluded for behaviour issues. It seems like the chain’s ethos is ‘let’s be strict.’ I don’t mind that, but it seems hard to get a handle on any more to their educational vision.
I had a look at the Swale Aademies Trust finances, and the academy boss is paid £185,000 a year, with other trustees on decent salaries. I am sure this is just the going rate, and most top head teachers are well paid. I looked because academy bosses pay is current news, and because I was curious about the cash they received for taking on two KCC schools for six months before they were closed.
Swale Academies Trust are certainly an ambitious academy chain with a varied portfolio of education establishments. They have expenditure of 29 million annually and fixed assets of 50 million. And remember that this is just a small multi-academy trust! Education is certainly big business, even when it is ‘charitable trust’ business.
I guess the proof of whether this is a good decision for CCW will come if Swale Academies Trust do what they are here to do – we need them to manage changes that lead to significant improvements at CCW.
There is nothing we can do about this academy trust taking over our local school, but there is a meeting on March 22nd to meet the directors and ask questions. I’ll be there with my hand raised and a list of tough questions. I won’t ask about the uniform or whether academies are good value for money… I will ask what happened with the other three failing schools they took on, and what they’re going to do to make CCW a school we can be proud of.