Council demands £1m from MAT that abandoned a failing school

A local authority is demanding the £1 million the government gave a MAT to take over failing schools in the north-east after it abandoned one and left it in a similar amount of debt.

Bright Tribe had been lined up to take over Haydon Bridge High School since it was put in special measures in 2015, but withdrew last month citing a “significant and increasing financial deficit” and falling pupil numbers, though not before accepting a grant from Westminster.

An irate Northumberland council has criticised the Department for Education’s “inability” to find another sponsor for the troubled school, and is even considering creating its own trust to handle the situation.

A spokesperson for Bright Tribe said that its due diligence had concluded that the school’s existing deficit budget, incurred before the trust was proposed as a sponsor, presented “too much of a risk” to the trust’s other schools.

We feel this is the right time to identify an education solution for the west of Northumberland that is fit for the future

She claimed the MAT “invested heavily” in many schools in the region, including making improvements to school buildings, and had used the grant to appoint a regional team and other staff.

Sixty per cent of the places at Haydon Bridge, which is rated ‘inadequate’, are currently empty, making it difficult to afford enough teachers, according to the agenda for a council meeting next week to discuss the school’s future.

The regional schools commissioner, Janet Renou, has warned it may need to close, leaving its 300 pupils without a school.

The DfE said the education of pupils at Haydon Bridge was a “priority”. It will work with the council and the RSC to “find a suitable alternative for pupils and staff”. Northumberland schools are also set to receive more cash next year under the new funding formula.

Janet Renou

Other schools in west Northumberland are also struggling. Of the 27 maintained schools near Haydon Bridge and Hexham, 22 are predicting a financial deficit by 2020/21, and there is an average school place surplus of 30 per cent. The council said many rural schools are small, attracting limited funding, and use older buildings that require ongoing investment.

The council is considering a “spin-off” trust to establish a MAT. This would begin with a pilot involving a “small group of ‘good’ and ‘outstanding’ schools” before other schools that are “struggling to remain viable” are invited.

Northumberland is not the only council to consider such a move. In March last year, Camden council in London took the first steps towards becoming an academy sponsor, although it did not follow through. This September, meanwhile, Essex county council confirmed it had applied to set up its own MAT; if approved, this would be the first spin-off academy trust.

A spokesperson for Northumberland council said the MAT could “enable small rural schools to build sufficient capacity to remain both financially and educationally viable”.

“The recent withdrawal of Bright Tribe Trust as sponsor of Haydon Bridge has the potential to have a significant impact on the area. This has prompted us to look at a long term sustainable education provision for the west of the county,” she said.

“We feel this is the right time to identify an education solution for the west of Northumberland that is fit for the future.”

The council is also investigating other options, including providing capital investment and an annual subsidy to the school, and at next week’s meeting will decide whether to launch a consultation in January.