While the term “unprecedented” can be over-used, the immediate closure on safeguarding grounds of Harlow Academy (a special school in Mansfield) following an Ofsted inspection in January 2022 certainly wasn’t a routine turn of events.
The risk posed to children due to the woefully inadequate leadership, management and oversight of the failed Evolve Trust meant that parents, many of whom had been raising concerns for months, suddenly had no school at all for their child to attend. The failings of Harlow Academy and those responsible for its decline have been assessed and reported in detail by a review commissioned by the Nottinghamshire Local Safeguarding Children Partnership.
Local government, NHS providers, the Department for Education (DfE), Ofsted and school and trust leaders all contributed to these failings. However, 18 months later, pupils are now thriving and the school is going from strength to strength. We’re proud to say pupils and families celebrated the end of the 2022/23 academic year with excitement and anticipation for what the future holds.
The DfE’s regulatory and commissioning review has addressed some of the systemic problems which inhibited action being taken earlier. Bringing SEND into the portfolio responsibility of the new regional directors is a common-sense move and should enable integration where there has been fragmented oversight before. Changing how the DfE can and will respond to parental complaints and revising the data-sharing agreement between the DfE and Ofsted should also provide additional means of tightening oversight of multi academy trusts (MATs).
However, there are still more questions posed by the new regulatory and commissioning framework than there are answers. If we are to ensure a situation like Harlow Academy never happens again, we need to rapidly implement more substantive measures.
The DfE’s new approach is helpful in providing greater clarity regarding its decision-making process. However, it still lacks structural certainty. For example, once launched in July, senior civil servants adopted phrases such as ‘drawing on local, soft intelligence’ about MATs and the need for ‘strong CEOs’, but the guidance falls short of defining these concepts and determining how these judgments are made.
Based on our experience of leading our own and of supporting the transformation of other trusts, a helpful starting point would be for the DfE to understand what it’s like to operate within the system as a trust leader, as well as their track record of working with other MATs and agencies. How effectively does a CEO build relationships. What are their red lines and why?
There will always be a need for big-bang, short-term interventionist models of management, but MAT CEOs are the architects and caretakers of an ecosystem that extends well beyond this time-span. We need to avoid the trend of valuing those who present themselves as knights on white horses and introduce criteria that puts substance over style.
Additionally, we urgently need greater connectivity, information sharing and accountability that supports multi-agency collaborations. It is well-documented that families and staff at Harlow Academy consistently raised concerns about the provision and care at the school with the local council, Ofsted, the regional schools commissioner and even the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. Yet, the siloed nature of how these organisations operate meant it was three months before meaningful action was taken. That’s three months of neglect and mismanagement that should never have occurred.
We need a more systematic approach that equally supports due process and ensures responsiveness for those who are rightly ringing alarm bells. The DfE needs to be clearer about the positive role local authorities can and should play, particularly regarding checks and balances.
With that, we’d have a defined means of seeing why, when, where and how “local intelligence” is provided. This would allow us to work more collaboratively to support the needs of those we, as a sector, are committed to serving.
In our new and evolving MAT-led system, that would be unprecedented – and very welcome.