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Revealed: RSC offered academy trust a deal to limit ‘reputational damage’

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A schools commissioner offered a troubled academy trust a “sweetheart deal” to quietly shift its schools to avoid information about its failings being made public.

Jennifer Bexon-Smith (pictured), schools commissioner for the East Midlands and Humber, struck a deal to avoid sending termination warning notices to Sandhill Multi-Academy Trust, despite admitting there was “sufficient evidence” to start a formal closure over its two schools.

Termination warning notices are published documents that reveal the failings of a school and list the actions an academy trust must take if it wishes to retain the school.

Parents, the local community and local councillors have a right to know why a trust is being removed from its responsibility

Bexon-Smith told the trust she had lost confidence in its ability to “effectively” manage and govern its academies after it “misled” parents over government intervention in SATs testing.

But documents seen by Schools Week show that the Yorkshire-based trust took up an option to have its schools switched to another trust on the quiet – a move that Bexon-Smith said would save it from “further reputational damage”.

Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “Parents, the local community and local councillors have a right to know why a trust is being removed from its responsibility – and that should be done through formal processes.

“It’s not the RSC’s job to save reputational damage. This is public money.”

Warning notices sent to trusts that RSCs believe are underperforming, or have weaknesses in safeguarding, governance or financial management, are usually published on the Department for Education website.

But a letter from Bexon-Smith to the trust in November 2015, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, said she “preferred” the trust to rebroker without the “formal route of issuing termination warning notices”.

The letter said her alternative would save trustees from further reputational damage and “hopefully bring about swift improvements for the benefit of
the pupils”.

The document reveals a rare glimpse into the inner workings of schools commissioner decisions, few of which are currently made public.

Bousted added: “Is this happening at more than one school? Is there a concerted cover-up of multi-academy trust performance?

“If it is happening on a wider scale, then it casts into doubt the role of schools commissioners and how they are accountable for public money.”

If it is happening on a wider scale, then it casts into doubt the role of schools commissioners

It was reported in December 2015 – one month after Bexon-Smith’s original letter – the trust was to be wound up, with its two schools rebrokered.

The information was only made public after journalists were tipped off by a source.

Schools Week asked the Department for Education if commissioners should be able to dodge publishing warning notices and if other trusts had been offered similar deals.

A spokesperson said: “Where issues are identified, discussions with trusts and actions taken by the department vary according to the particular circumstances facing the trust.”

Robert Hill, an education consultant and former government adviser, told Schools Week he suspected it was “not the first time” formal intervention procedures had been flouted.

He added: “However, my concern would be that we don’t have a formal public record of rebrokering transfers. They should be listed – along with the reasons for them.”



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4 Comments

  1. According to Edubase, the DfE database of schools, Sandhill Primary Academy closed on 30 September 2016. Another school of the same name opened on 1 October 2016. Presumably this is the date Wyckersley Partnership took over. But it’s unusual to ‘close’ an academy on transfer (though not unknown – two free schools were similarly listed as ‘closed’ on transfer). The other Sandhill MAT primary school, Monkwood, is not listed as closed on transfer (at least not yet). The closure on 30 September 2014 was when the community school converted to academy status. It’s quite usual for converting schools to be classed as ‘closed’ before reopening as an academy. But what’s not so usual is for a rebrokered academy to be ‘closed’ and reopened on the next day.
    This suggests the DfE has no coherent strategy for recording the history of rebrokered schools. Changes in trusts can be lost; schools can disappear especially if names are changed.

  2. The Ofsted report for Sandhill Primary Academy 16/17 November 2016 has also disappeared from Ofsted’s website. However, I found it by doing an internet search. It says:

    ‘The school is part of the Wickersley Partnership Trust…The trust associate chief executive officer and executive headteacher began supporting Sandhill at the start of October 2016, at the request of the regional schools commissioner.
     The governance of the school was dissolved when funding for the academy was
    withdrawn from the education funding agency.’
    I could find nothing on the EFA website about withdrawal of funding from Sandhill MAT.