Hanson Academy: Turning around the school no-one wanted

Delta is overhauling a Bradford academy, but questions remain over the former 'orphan' school's 11-year wait for a sponsor

Delta is overhauling a Bradford academy, but questions remain over the former 'orphan' school's 11-year wait for a sponsor

21 Jan 2023, 7:00

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Hanson Academy towers over neighbouring houses in north Bradford, its imposing white-and-orange building dominating the skyline.

The troubled secondary school also looms large in recent educational history – an “orphan” school left waiting longer than any other for a turnaround academy sponsor.

But last year – 11 years after first being rated ‘inadequate’ and getting an academy order – it finally converted.

The school is now part of Delta Academies Trust, whose name is proudly printed on the big sign at the school gate where new leaders welcome pupils in new blazers.

Trust chiefs say they are now rapidly transforming its teaching, finances and culture.

Yet for many pupils it is too late – and questions persist over why it took so long to find a sponsor.

The school whose long wait shamed ministers

Hanson Academy principal Dave Hewitt

Former education secretary Nicky Morgan once said of the government’s flagship academy policy that “a day spent in a failing school is a day too long when their education is at stake”.

Since its 2011 ‘inadequate’ Ofsted, seven cohorts of 11-year-olds had started and finished at Hanson Grammar by the time its academy conversion was completed last July. A rough estimate is that equates to 1,500 pupils.

Three trusts provided temporary support, but then backed out. Delta’s predecessor, Schools Partnership Trust Academies (SPTA), left in 2015, Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) in 2017 and the GORSE Academies Trust (TGAT) in 2019.

Staff were left “weary and wary,” according to one ex-teacher, with “wonderful ideas that never seemed to come to fruition”.

By the time of its third ‘inadequate’ in 2020, the then-Hanson School had been in special measures for six of the previous ten years and was on its fifth headteacher.

Revelations about its spiralling, multi-million pound deficit became a predictable annual local news story.

It symbolised academisation’s failures. But the attention had one silver lining.

“I was watching (schools minister) Nick Gibb getting grilled by a select committee, saying ‘what are you doing about this Hanson School’?” said Paul Tarn, Delta’s chief executive. “I said – we’ll sort it out.”

Delta takes over after sports site breakthrough

Delta CEO Paul Tarn

But his proposal, in 2020, took “a while to get off the ground” and the trust took over last July after Bradford council achieved a key breakthrough.

“They did a great thing – they bought out the attached sports centre,” Tarn said.

Bradford spent a reported £1.3 million to end a decade-old contract that  “significantly” hampered Hanson’s finances through “costly” annual charges, according to the council.

“Until that was sorted, no chain would touch Hanson with a bargepole,” said Mike Pollard, a councillor and finance spokesperson for the opposition Conservative party.

He understood why the Labour council did not “bite the bullet” earlier, saying the “horrible” costs involved made the purchase a brave decision.

But he said Hanson “got into problems originally by signing contracts without the expertise to handle it to their advantage”.

Vicky Beer, the Department for Education’s regional director and responsible for finding Hanson a sponsor from 2015, has also blamed the “private gym contract”.

But Imran Khan, Bradford’s cabinet member for education, said in a statement that the “key stumbling block” was the DfE’s “inability … to reach agreement on liabilities the school entered into”.

The council and DfE declined interview requests.

PFI woes or trust ‘cherry-picking’

Hanson Academy

Hanson is also a private finance initiative (PFI) school, which Beer described as “really challenging”. 

Private companies build and maintain sites in exchange for mortgage-style payments under such deals.

They are “notoriously complex and expensive”, according to Ian Denison, director of PFI consultancy Inscyte.

Constrictions on site use and high costs limit leaders’ capacity to transform struggling schools – even if pupil numbers fall, Denison noted. Some trusts shun PFI schools altogether.

Chris Young, a journalist at Bradford’s Telegraph & Argus who has covered the story, said local people were “told that being an academy was a silver bullet, whereas it was almost a perfect example of how it doesn’t always work”.

Howard Stephenson, a professor of education at the University of Nottingham, has said unwanted schools are in fact a “predictable” result of a competitive trust system, as “markets encourage cherry-picking”.

Tarn said he could not speak for SPTA before he joined, while WCAT has since collapsed and a TGAT spokesperson said it only ever planned to stabilise rather than convert Hanson.

Staff cuts ‘save £1.4 million

Tarn said the sports centre and PFI mattered – but the former was an “easy” thing to blame and the latter “manageable”.

Hesaid the school’s deficit was crucial – and mainly reflected another issue. “It’s over-staffed, and staff aren’t in the right places.”

His first priority was slashing its deficit by restructuring and not backfilling staff – predicting it would otherwise have reached £2.9 million by 2026, despite Bradford council already covering the historic £6.3 million deficit.

He said 18 teachers left last year, with no compulsory redundancies. Teams were now “fit for purpose”, saving about £1.4 million.

Trust-wide curriculum resources and innovative marking policies “really free up teachers”, limiting workload, he added.

Even Tom Bright, district secretary of the local National Education Union, said while some staff “weren’t happy” with restructuring, “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs”. 

Tarn highlighted spending too, calling Hanson “not a cheap project” – including £100,000 on books, £130,000 on uniforms and £1 million on IT, from digital whiteboards to replacing decade-old laptops.

Paul Tarn with reporter Tom Belger

‘You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs’

Hanson’s unappealing finances were exacerbated by unfilled places. “It became an under-subscribed ‘sink school”, said Bright.

An ex-teacher claimed 35 colleagues left in one year. Ofsted highlighted poor attendance and behaviour in its 2020 report, much as it had in 2010.

“When we came in, no one could teach – pupils were running around,” said principal Dave Hewitt. “We counted 140 kids in the corridors.”

Andy Barnett, Delta’s executive principal, said improving learning rested on first setting new “standards and routines” – from clampdowns on uniforms and littering to continually praising positive behaviour and sending pupils to trust-wide poetry and science events.

Tarn called it “carrot and stick”, adding that every pupil’s progress was now tracked and reviewed to target support. 

Home visits over absence have been ramped up, with 1,500 reported since September.

‘Some parents will take time to adjust’

Corridors were quiet and largely empty during lessons when Schools Week visited. Hewitt said mock results and attendance had improved.

Delta executive principal Andy Barnett

Barnett added: “The caretakers can’t believe how little litter there is. Dinner ladies can’t believe how respectful kids are. Staff appreciate our CPD, and they’re buying into what we’re doing.”

Four parents interviewed outside also applauded “stricter” rules, the praise notes sent home and improving grades. 

Of the few who used social media to criticise the changes, Hewitt said: “Inevitably some parents take time to adjust.”

The caretakers can’t believe how little litter there is.

And change takes time, too. A fifth of current year 11s are still absent.

Tarn said many “ghost children” had been kept on roll despite never attending, adding: “It’s unreasonable to have staff chasing children no longer in the city.”

Providing for 80 pupils admitted in-year since September is also a challenge, with Tarn accusing other schools of “pretending” they are are full. 

Fixing SNOWs across the country

New books in Hanson Academys library

Ministers have highlighted progress finding sponsors for other unwanted schools, with two “turnaround” trusts set up. But some still face long waits. 

The conversion of London’s JFS school was shelved this week, with PFI blamed once again.

Tarn said expanding trusts should be given schools in more attractive “packages”, but also be forced to sponsor more challenging schools.

He added: “The government needs to challenge trusts, rather than letting them go after plump middle-class schools.”

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  1. Arthur F. Brown

    I was a pupil at Hanson Boys’ Grammar School in the 1940s. Great school and resulted in my going to Leeds University, becoming a teacher myself and latterly a Headmaster. I look back to my time at Hanson with great affection. I am still in touch with at least one friend evan though we are not in our 90s!