How do you turn around a school on four sites separated by water, where all special educational needs must be supported in-house and where everyday costs are 20 per cent higher than anywhere else in the country?
The leadership team at Five Islands Academy, the only school on the Isles of Scilly, appear to have found the answer after a gruelling seven-year improvement journey. Freddie Whittaker reports
Five Islands was rated ‘inadequate’ in 2016, prompting an academy order and a tricky search for a sponsor.
Ministers’ preference is for schools in trusts to be an hour’s drive from each other. So who would take on a school that is a 2hr 45min ferry trip from the mainland? (In this case, Penzance in Cornwall.)
But in 2019, following what the chair describes as the “most complex academy conversion the DfE had ever done”, the school joined with Mounts Bay Academy in Penzance to form the Leading Edge Academies Partnership.
Huge senior staff turnover followed, as did wide-ranging professional development for middle leaders who stepped up to senior roles. Staff were also seconded from its new sister school.
Inspectors returned in October, rating it ‘good’ with ‘outstanding’ pupil development.
Ofsted praised the “remarkable range of cultural experiences for pupils”, who “develop a powerful sense of community”. The school’s curriculum now “helps pupils to gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful”.
Getting Isles of Scilly residents on board
Jackie Eason, a governance consultant drafted in as chair of an interim executive board to oversee the academisation, remains Leading Edge’s chair.
She says they had to deal with a “lot of mistrust, a lot of wariness from the island community…they didn’t want to lose their individuality”.
For example, parents feared they would lose provision on St Agnes, one of four island bases, where the school’s roll was due to fall to a single pupil.
“They needed to know that the trust they were joining understood why you have to keep the school open, even with just one child. Is it a sound economic decision? Absolutely not. But you can’t transfer primary school children from that island daily.”
Islanders also worried that the school’s boarding provision, rated ‘inadequate’ in 2013 for pupil safety, and leadership and management, would be closed. Instead, it was taken on and improved, rated ‘good’ in 2019 and again this year.
‘Ethos and culture change’
Eason says the “whole culture and ethos” at the school had to change. Middle leaders had to step up and receive intensive CPD, because a lack of housing on the islands would have made recruiting a whole new team impossible.
“Can you imagine working as a teacher in that school when you’ve been judged inadequate, but you’ve still got to see all the parents every day down the Co-op, in the pub. You can’t escape.”
Secondary pupils board at the school’s site on St Mary’s, while primary children are taught in mixed-age classes at three other island bases. Key stage 2 children travel to the main site on a Friday, but “sometimes that is disrupted due to weather and tides”.
A weather warning on a Thursday or Friday can mean boarding secondary pupils have to go home early to other islands. They sometimes have to learn from home, but every one has an iPad.
£60,000 Isles of Scilly boating bill for one year
Its location also means the school has an “eye-watering” boating budget, with transport an “expensive aspect of our life here”.
Although the local authority foots the bill for home-to-school transport, all other travel is funded by the school.
Rachel Gibb, the school’s head, spent £60,000 on boating last year “and I can’t afford to do that again”.
As a remote school, it does receive enhanced funding, but still faces huge pressures. The need to ship everything over adds 20 per cent to costs.
But the “beauty” of the islands has its benefits. Post-Covid, the school has had “much more interest” in jobs from people “looking for a complete change”.
“The biggest issue that I have is accommodation,” says Gibb. The housing crisis caused by holiday rentals in Cornwall is “compounded even further” on the Isles of Scilly.
“When I recruit, at the back of my mind is always ‘where are they going to live’.”
So the trust keeps “a number of rolling tenancies” which it sub-lets to staff. The school could not do that without the trust’s support, she says.
Varying class sizes and multi-skilled teachers
With just 248 children on roll, “it looks on paper like it should run like clockwork. And to be fair, most of the time, it really does. But then there’s all of the peripheral stuff.”
The school has huge variations in class sizes. Its current year 2 has 14 children. Year 4 has 38.
Teachers have to be multi-skilled. The geography teacher also teaches PSHE. Its French teacher teaches food technology.
Staff participate in “research circles” with others from the trust, and lead practitioners from Five Islands support the other schools in the trust, and vice-versa. Its RE lead recently contributed to a new curriculum for the whole of Cornwall.
The school also has to be fully-inclusive. There is no alternative or specialist provision on the Isles of Scilly “so we have to do everything, and that obviously can be really demanding of our budgets”, Eason says.
“There has never been a permanent exclusion. We just don’t, because we need to cater to the needs of all the children in that community.”
Isles of Scilly staff stayed through horrible times
Gibb, who joined the school in 2020, says one of the factors in its improvement has been the “significant number of staff that stayed… through that really horrible, tricky, turbulent time”.
Since her arrival the school has reviewed its behaviour policy with a “commitment to a restorative approach”. It has strengthened the “bridge” between years 6 and 7. Capacity in middle leadership has increased and she has learnt the name of “every child and adult in the school, on each island”.
School ‘wouldn’t function’ without trust
Although the trust was heavily involved in the “very robust” school improvement process, it also trusted the school’s leadership to run things “in the way that we think is appropriate”.
The remote location meant that Gibb was not there for the latest Ofsted inspection – the call came while she was leading a trip to London.
“I was getting on a boat in Greenwich. And I got the phone call from my colleagues to say Ofsted called. I thought they were joking.”
At that point the trust’s central team “leapt into action”. Its chief operating officer flew to the Isles of Scilly to take Gibb’s place. Theodore wasn’t enough time for her to get back so she moved into an AirBnb in the capital to participate in the inspection remotely.
“I cannot see how a school like this would function without the support of something like a trust.”
Eason’s involvement was supposed to be brief. But she is still there, six years later. Her next priority is boosting SEND provision.
“I was hoping to go in, help them solve the problems and then leave. But you can’t leave because it’s just such an inspiring, challenging, fabulous role.”
The school improvement journey is also not over. Ofsted said teaching was “not adapted consistently in the light of potential barriers to pupils’ learning”.
Pupils with insecure basic skills, such as those who lack fluency in reading and maths, “struggle to keep up with their peers when learning new content”.
“The trust should ensure that the school helps teachers to identify pupils who are likely to require new content further broken down.”
In a letter to parents, Gibb said the areas of improvement were “no surprise and already included in our academy improvement plan”.
“You’ve been alongside us all the way, and we’re grateful for your ongoing support and challenge which has helped to shape our school to be an organisation that we’re proud and privileged to be part of.”