Sheffield parents fight academy order as transparency rows reignited

DfE wants to transfer King Edward VII School to the Brigantia Learning Trust

DfE wants to transfer King Edward VII School to the Brigantia Learning Trust

20 Apr 2023, 16:34

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Parent power has pushed back plans to academise Sheffield's last maintained secondary school

Parents are fighting plans to force Sheffield’s last maintained secondary into a trust that has “coasting” schools, reigniting controversies over the transparency of academy decisions.

The Department for Education wants the Brigantia Learning Trust to take over the King Edward VII School (KES) after its ‘inadequate’ Ofsted in September.   

Department bosses said its regional director had taken “swift action” to give the secondary – which calls itself one of the “most prestigious” in the city – a “rapid” boost.

Contradicts ‘coasting’ crackdown 

But education professor Mark Boylan, whose daughter is a pupil at KES, said the move contradicted the government’s own “coasting” crackdown to force schools with two less-than-good inspections into new academy trusts.

Two of Brigantia’s five schools – Yewlands and Concord Junior – are ‘requires improvement’ and classed as “coasting” under the government’s criteria. The latter has been run by the trust for nine years with less-than-good Ofsteds in 2017 and 2019.

Parents, who said most did not think Brigantia was the right choice, also criticised transparency over the decision. They planned to protest outside Sheffield’s City Hall this weekend.

They were only alerted to the proposal when a “vigilant parent” spotted a copy of a draft agenda for a regional director’s meeting next week.

Parents said this left them with just three days to “make our views known”. They also claimed KES was not made aware until this point. The school has not responded to a request for comment.

‘This has been done to us, not with us

Emma Wilkinson, whose 12-year-old daughter attends KES, said: “This has been done to us, not with us.

“It’s being done behind closed doors. We have asked for the criteria used to select this academy trust, but have been told we’re not allowed to have it.

“We asked who else came forward, to be told we’re not allowed that information. There’s no transparency at all.” 

An official complaint to the government from Boylan, seen by Schools Week, also questioned a potential conflict of interest.

Rizwana Parveen, one of Brigantia’s trustees, is a senior DfE civil servant, based in the Greater Sheffield area.

She also worked in the office of the regional schools commissioner (RSC) for the East Midlands and Humber between 2020 and 2021, which made decisions for Sheffield schools before boundaries were redrawn and it became known as the current Yorkshire and Humber office.

Boylan called on Alison Wilson, the regional director, to “consider whether it would be appropriate to declare a conflict of interest in the matter”.

Previous guidance outlining the approach of RSCs to finding sponsors for schools stated factors that included the trust’s capacity and “track record of school improvement” be considered.

But it has since been superseded by the regional directors’ decision-making framework, which is less specific and notes that the aims of transfers are “educational excellence for all”, “creating a self-improving system” and “preserving independence”.  

Boylan said Brigantia had not delivered significant and sustained improvement for its existing academies. “Adding KES to its portfolio sends an unfortunate message to schools and trusts about DfE expectations.” 

Academisation is liberating

However when challenged by Wilkinson during a Times Radio call-in on Thursday, Nick Gibb, the schools minister, said: “I wouldn’t worry about academisation – it’s a liberating experience. 

“It’s not a punishment. It gives professional autonomy to the school. They’ll have a sponsor to help them [KES] deal with the problems of safeguarding to help them improve.”

KES was rated ‘inadequate’ over ineffective safeguarding. Inspectors said leaders did not do enough to keep children safe, with a significant minority of pupils feeling they did not have “an adult to speak to”.

But three of the five areas were rated ‘good’.

The DfE said there was “no requirement” for the governing body, the chain or regional director to carry out a consultation.

The department also claimed Brigantia was in “the process of driving up standards” at its two less-than-good schools and had “already made improvements”. 

A Brigantia spokesperson said further information would be provided by the regional director, advisory board and the DfE after the regional meeting. “Ultimately a decision will be made by the secretary of state.” 

The trust and the DfE did not comment when asked about Parveen’s position in the civil service.  

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