Inspiration Trust forced to defend its suitability for school takeover after consultation finds majority of parents opposed

An academy chain has reiterated its intent to take over a school despite an independent consultation finding the “great majority” of parents are opposed.

The Hewett School, in Norwich, has been at the centre of parent protests after education secretary Nicky Morgan signed an academy order in March.

The school has financial difficulties and is in special measures.

The Inspiration Trust – headed by Dame Rachel de Souza – has been lined up to take over. But it has faced vocal protests, including hundreds of parents marching through Norwich city centre.

Now it has been forced to defend its suitability again after a statutory consultation, arranged by the school’s interim executive board (IEB), found most of the respondents are hostile towards the takeover.

However only 105 current parents, of an estimated 1,200, responded to the consultation questionnaire, which the IEB said was “disappointing”.

A trust spokesperson said: “Deciding on the proposed changes to the Hewett School is not about a popularity contest or about making symbolic gestures – it is making sure the children of Norwich get the best possible start in life. 

Extracts from the consultation's key findings
Extracts from the consultation’s key findings

“It is disappointing that many of the consultation responses have repeated inaccurate claims about the Inspiration Trust.

“We clearly need to do more to put across the great potential the charity has to get the Hewett School back on its feet, a turnaround of the sort already underway at our other schools in Great Yarmouth, Norwich, Thetford and Lowestoft.

“We hope the Secretary of State will reflect on our record in those schools and weigh that against the passionately made but often inaccurate statements of a small number of parents.”

The findings are now being considered by the government before it decides who takes over. An announcement is expected within the next few weeks.

A number of people spoke very passionately about the school and their opposition. At times the atmosphere became very heated.

The school’s IEB commissioned HaslamDodd Communications to carry out the consultation as part of the academy conversion process.

It found: “In some cases [respondents to the questionnaire] accepted the conversion to an academy but questioned the process, the lack of choice of sponsor, and a failure to communicate effectively why such decisions had been made.

“They also said IT was the wrong sponsor. At the meeting for the local community a number of people spoke very passionately about the school and the site and their opposition. At times the atmosphere became very heated.”

The report also said there was a well-organised group of parents, with support from some councillors and an MP, that made their opposition clear.

Concerns included the political links of IT’s trustees and experiences of other IT schools – particularly in staff retention and school uniform.

But the trust said: “Changes are needed to restore the Hewett to the full, bustling, and great place it once was, and we believe the Inspiration Trust has an important part to play in that transformation.”

Paul Mitchell, chair of the IEB, wrote to Nicky Morgan last week to call for a quick decision so “the uncertainty which has led to staff losses and reduced pupil intake comes to an end”.

The IEB also asked the secretary of state to ensure “current and potential future users of the land are protected by any agreements which are made and land remains a resource for the purposes of education in its widest sense”.

Parents are concerned IT will sell off land at the school site should it take over, claims which trust boss Dame Rachel de Souza has previously brushed off as “baseless allegations”.

A Department for Education spokesman said: “We are considering the findings of the consultation and will respond in due course.

“Our sole priority is making sure every local child has the chance to get an excellent education and the best start in life.

“Ofsted’s recent report on the Hewett School could not be clearer that immediate change is needed in order for that to happen.”

Dame Rachel de Souza, head of the Inspiration Trust
Dame Rachel de Souza, head of the Inspiration Trust

Dame Rachel, in a blog post today, added: “The consultation process has not been an easy one and it is a shame that so many misleading claims were made about our schools; I know it will not have been easy for our wonderful staff to have heard their efforts so unfairly maligned.

“Whatever the outcome, we hope for the sake of the students and staff at the Hewett that it can get back on a path to being the great school it once was.”

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