Teachers at crisis-hit Whitehaven Academy want Bright Tribe removed

Staff at a failing school in Cumbria have signed an open letter demanding that the school be removed from its sponsor, as local campaigners prepare for a crunch meeting later this week.

Teachers at Whitehaven Academy have been left “broken” by the way the Bright Tribe academy trust has run the school, and want action to stop it from closing.

A community meeting is now scheduled for Thursday to discuss whether Bright Tribe can be forced to relinquish control. At present, academies cannot remove themselves from a sponsor but a sponsor can choose to hand over an academy to another trust. Staff claim they have been told they will be sacked if they attend the meeting, but Bright Tribe has denied this.

We can’t take it anymore, we are broken. Broken in spirit and broken in our faith in a once noble profession which, on this site anyway, has been destroyed

Bright Tribe took control of the school in January 2014. By October 2016, it was in special measures.

In their letter, staff say that two thirds of the school site is now so dilapidated it has had to be closed. The remaining third is described as having “declined to the extent that the slightest rainfall means that large areas of the building we are in are out of action”.

There are also questions over the government’s support for the school, after it emerged that Lord Nash, the former academies minister, had promised to try to find funds for it.

A year ago, more than 50 members of staff signed a previous open letter criticising the trust, in which they said they had no confidence in its ability to improve the school.

Teachers received a response from Nash in January 2017, urging them to work alongside the trust and saying he would “endeavour to secure additional resource” for improvements to the building.

He also reassured teachers that the regional schools commissioner would “regularly monitor progress” at the academy, but staff said they had seen “no evidence” of this.

A Department for Education spokesperson said the government’s priority was to ensure “that all children receive the best possible education”.

Janet Renou, RSC for the north of England

“The regional schools commissioner is working closely with the Whitehaven Academy’s sponsor, Bright Tribe Trust, to ensure improvements are made. There will be more details in due course.”

Whitehaven was one of hundreds of schools that had planned renovations cancelled when the Building Schools for the Future scheme was scrapped by the incoming coalition government in 2010.

During bad weather last week, teachers said water had been pouring through windows and into electrical sockets, and even onto pupils’ food as they lined up for lunch.

There are complaints of “minimal budgets” for textbooks, poor outcomes for learners, broken windows, constant changes in leadership, a lack of teaching assistants and poor support from the trust itself, which they say rarely visits the school.

“We can’t take it anymore, we are broken,” they write in the letter. “Broken in spirit and broken in our faith in a once noble profession which, on this site anyway, has been destroyed. How can it be in 2017 that this is allowed to happen?

“We urge action to be taken and taken now or our school will be closed in the very near future.”

The trust said it has carried out “numerous works” to improve the school site, and continues to lobby for additional funding.

It added that trust staff visit the academy on a weekly basis with remote support also provided, and all “relevant” text books have been ordered.

A spokesperson said the trust had taken on a school with “a legacy of historic underinvestment and underperformance” and since then had carried out “extensive improvements” to both the site and pupil outcomes.

“Bright Tribe fully appreciates the hard work of all staff and students at the Whitehaven Academy and believes that with their support the school can continue to improve to become an outstanding school for the local area.”

Teachers signed the letter on Friday, the same day as pupils started a petition also calling on Bright Tribe to stand down, and a day after the local MP, Trudy Harrison, was escorted from the school’s site as she checked on flood damage.

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  1. Mark Watson

    Without knowing any details other than what’s been reported, it sounds like Bright Tribe made a mistake by taking on the school without understanding what the state of the buildings were. That was their fault. However, buildings do not deteriorate to this state over a couple of years – if 2/3 of the school has had to be closed and the other 1/3 is put out of action when it rains then I can only presume that the LA completely failed in its duty to maintain the building prior to 2014.
    The LA was presumably (and understandably) hoping that the whole school would be knocked down and replaced under the BSF programme, but when they knew that wasn’t going to happen (2010 at the latest) what did they then do to ensure the school was, and would remain, fit for purpose? Did they just get lucky that a naive MAT came along and took it off their hands?
    Bright Tribe don’t come out of this with any positives, but the problem here seems to be state of the buildings and I’m not seeing anyone ask questions of the LA that let it get into such a bad condition.

    • Mark – you’re right to query the state of Whitehaven Academy’s building when Bright Tribe took over.

      Bright Tribe took over Whitehaven School on 1 January 2014. I hoped the Ofsted 2013 report might mention the state of the buildings but the report’s been wiped from Ofsted’s website. An internet search found it, however. Inspectors judged the school to require improvement but I couldn’t find any reference to buildings.
      In 2016 Ofsted judged the academy to be Inadequate and wrote:
      ‘The school environment is in a poor state of repair and does not encourage or celebrate learning. The sponsor has begun work to improve the buildings, such as by refurbishing the canteen.’
      Ofsted Monitoring in May reported, ‘Teachers say that they are optimistic and are keen to move on from what has been a bleak period.’ This doesn’t seem to be borne out by the teachers’ actions above.
      Inspectors criticised the ‘poor standard of accommodation’ but said ‘a planned schedule of remedial work’ made some of the accommodation ‘more tolerable’. Inspectors said trust leaders were ‘acutely aware’ that much accommodate was ‘not fit for purpose’ and were lobbying ‘at the highest levels’ for support.

      This still brings us no further forward in discovering the state of buildings when Bright Tribe took over. ‘Building Schools for the Future – Readiness to Deliver’* by Cumbria Council dated December 2009 said:
      ‘Whitehaven School – remodelling to reduce the school size with the development of a Community Learning hub including the relocation of a public library, adult education, crèche and sports development and provision of 3G pitches with the local rugby league team.’
      But BSF was cancelled in 2010.
      The local paper (August 2015) claimed Bright Tribe had ‘chosen’ to withdraw from a £33m campus scheme which would have included Whitehaven Academy. Bright Tribe disputed this version of events.
      On 24 November 2017, The [North Western Evening] Mail* said the academy’s sixth-form pupils were petitioning for Bright Tribe’s removal. The paper wrote:
      ‘Students have signed the document which says that since the arrival of Bright Tribe “the buildings have fallen into disrepair, funding has been taken away from us and grades have steadily got worse and worse”.’

      *Can’t provide links or this comment will be stuck in moderation.