Council drops academy trust support despite turnaround - as conversion stalls

An academy trust that provided more than five years of improvement services to a failing maintained school while negotiations dragged on over its conversion has abruptly had its contract scrapped – and must pull out of the school next month.

Swale Academies Trust has been supporting The North School, in Kent, under a school improvement contract since March 2014. It was placed in special measures and handed an academy order in December 2014, but its academy conversion has been in limbo as private finance initiative negotiations between the council and government stall.

Meanwhile, under SAT, the school improved to be rated ‘good’ in September last year.

We had thought that we could trust the word of KCC; however, it seems that in this instance their assurances are unreliable

As first reported by the Independent Kent Advice website, Kent county council (pictured) has now told SAT its services are no longer required, despite reassuring the trust in February 2018 that it “continues to fully support the academisation” and will “continue to provide a suitable contract… until the point of conversion”.

Schools Week understands the trust only received formal notice that the contract would end last night, after the possibility was first raised by KCC in June. The school’s last day of term is tomorrow, and the contract will end on August 31.

The move leaves question marks over staffing for the new academic year, for instance the school’s current headteacher is employed by SAT.

The trust was named as the school’s chosen sponsor on its academy order five years ago, but SAT’s chief executive Jon Whitcombe warned staff the possibility of the school joining SAT is “now in doubt”. KCC insists the school will still join SAT when it converts, but has given no suggestion when this may be.

In a briefing given to staff by Whitcombe earlier today, he said the council “appears to have concluded that The North School does not need the partnership with SAT any further. This has come as a shock to us.

“We had thought that we could trust the word of KCC; however, it seems that in this instance KCC’s assurances are unreliable.”

Whitcombe said the trust offered to provide services for “minimal cost” until the point of conversion, and take on school’s debt of £768,000 when it joined.

He warned that scrapping the contract may mean the school has to make cuts, and could “have a major impact upon the school, for example by compromising current staffing levels and standards”.

The trust is still providing improvement services to another Kent-maintained school, The Holmesdale School, which was placed in special measures last year.

The North School was rated ‘good’ by Ofsted after an inspection in September 2017. Inspectors said the support of SAT had been “a significant factor in the school’s improvement”.

In February 2018, a letter sent to Whitcombe from Keith Abbott, director of education at KCC, said a “significant complication” regarding the PFI contract was delaying conversion but the council “continues to fully support the academisation of The North School and its move into SAT.

“We will continue to provide a suitable contract to facilitate SAT continuing to strengthen the ties between the school and SAT up until the point of conversion”.

In a statement, Abbott reiterated the school will join SAT, but said the council “prioritises its resources where they are needed most” and it would “not be reasonable to expect the LA to direct what are very limited resources away from those schools which have the greatest need”.

“It is regrettable that the school and its community have been drawn into publicity of this kind.”

KCC was unable to answer when it expects the school to convert.

Last September, Whitcombe told Schools Week the conversion has been a “hugely frustrating process”.

Because of the school’s improvements, SAT will not receive the £80,000 sponsored academy grant given to trusts that take over failing schools when the school finally converts.

A spokesperson for the DfE said it was “working closely” with SAT and KCC “on the school’s conversion to academy status”.

The Department for Education has limited power to interfere in a maintained school that is no longer in special measures.