England’s system for deciding struggling schools’ futures, now effectively run in-house and in private by the Department for Education, has serious questions to answer.
Anyone in doubt should consider the case of the Barclay School, in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, which was transferred to an academy trust chaired by the Conservative peer, donor and former minister, Lord Nash, on February 1st.
The comprehensive, run for the past 70 years, but no longer, under the auspices of Hertfordshire county council, is one of many recent cases where a Whitehall decision has been taken about which organisation gets to take control of a school in the face of strongly-expressed community opposition.
There is no requirement on decision-makers even to explain themselves publicly to the parents, pupils and staff affected. And this case shows how the system is lacking not only in transparency, but also in much of a rules framework.
The Barclay failed an Ofsted inspection in October 2016. Under legislation, the Department for Education was then required to convert it into an academy, meaning it would be “sponsored” by a trust with regulation and funding via the DfE, rather than under local authority oversight.
Decisions on which sponsor will run each school are taken by government officials called Regional Schools Commissioners (RSCs), following private meetings with “Headteacher Boards”, semi-elected groups of academy leaders and advisers.
In February 2017, this process identified an academy trust, Herts for Learning, to take over the Barclay. All seemed to be proceeding smoothly.
By September 2017, however, Herts for Learning had not arrived as planned. There was no explanation from either the government or that trust, although the latter now say its pulling out was the RSC’s decision.
By February 2018, minutes of a Headteacher Board/RSC meeting state that Future, based in central London, had been chosen to take over. There was no detailed explanation as to why, and no explanation at all why the previous plan having been abandoned.
Future’s not bright
Meanwhile, in April 2018, the Barclay, under a new leadership team, was inspected again and adjudged no longer failing. At a two-hour public meeting last month (January 2019), speaker after speaker condemned the move to go with Future and backed the existing management set-up.
Minutes of a meeting last September with governors and staff, disclosed under freedom of information, show how this decision-making structure seems to lack a rules base.
Martin Post, the RSC, was asked if there was “any formal process” around how the department identified the sponsor.
An official in his office is minuted as replying: “Not really, there would have been calls [to other potential sponsors] that died.”
Post added: “The workload involved with lots of due diligence would put a lot of schools off and they don’t want to do this. There is no list [of other organisations approached]. There is no documented evidence.”
Post then set out some reasons why he thought Future would be a good match for the school.
When governors disagreed, he responded that, while there was a “risk” with appointing Future, they were “less risky” than other sponsors, and that he had taken his decision and it would not be changing.
This has proved true, with the school now a Future academy.
Parents argue, correctly, that the detail of what Future has planned for the school, which they think could be radically different from the current provision which they like, has never been set out for them. Alternative options were not explored in public. They are effectively told to accept the decision made privately by a civil servant.
Having once, as a local reporter, viewed how school re-organisation plans can work in local authorities – public discussion papers, decision-makers held to account in open meetings – I wonder how this structure can possibly be sustainable in the long term.
Warwick Mansell is a freelance education journalist who runs the Education Uncovered website.