Academies

The schools that fought off academy orders

Ministers have U-turned on forced academisation more than 50 times since 2016

Ministers have U-turned on forced academisation more than 50 times since 2016

13 Mar 2023, 5:00

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A flagship turnaround academy trust set up to transform “the most challenging schools in the north” was lined up by government to sponsor a Midlands school two days after it was rated ‘good’.

It is one of more than 50 cases since 2016 in which ministers have U-turned on a forced academisation order.

In 2019 ministers unveiled Falcon Education Academies Trust with a remit to transform challenging northern schools.

Schools Week has learned that the Department for Education told West Gate School in Leicester that Falcon was its preferred sponsor in September 2021, and that the board had a “duty” to facilitate transfer.

But an Ofsted report published two days earlier rated the all-through special school ‘good’ in all areas – with inspectors praising leaders’ “effective action” towards removing special measures since 2019.

Falcon had just two schools at the time, when 62 other schools were earmarked for sponsorship nationally, including 31 across the north.

Falcon has since said it would work nationally, with two more Midlands schools now.

‘We expected a harder fight’

Rhian Richardson, West Gate’s head, said proposals felt like an “expensive solution to do what we’d already done; more about fulfilling a process than improvement”.

Rhian Richardson
Rhian Richardson

She joined alongside a new deputy in 2018, overhauling the curriculum, starting to tackle its deficit and improving its systems, ethos and collaboration locally.

The school formally requested the DfE abandon forced academisation shortly after the Falcon announcement – and within three months the DfE gave way. “We’d expected to have to fight harder,” she said.

A Falcon spokesperson said the government approached it before Ofsted’s report, following a previous sponsor’s withdrawal and financial challenges at the school.

A Schools Week freedom of information request found 52 other academy orders have been revoked since the escape clause was introduced in 2016.

Revocations are permitted case-by-case in “exceptional circumstances”.

Abandoned conversions remain rare but hit a four-year high last year (eight). Both orders and revocations slumped during Covid.

Academy order school now wants to run own MAT

Andrew Murray, the head of Chadwick High School in Lancaster, said he was frustrated that a ‘good’ rating in January 2020 had not automatically halted its conversion. The school was rated ‘inadequate’ in 2015 and ‘requires improvement’ in 2017.

The TBAP trust was proposed as Chadwick’s new sponsor in 2018, despite having a £1 million deficit. It later closed. The academy order was revoked in July 2021.

Murray blamed the delay on Lancashire county council, but it said it helped the revocation request, which had required “significant amounts of information”.

Both Murray and Richardson said their schools were now masters of their own destinies. They were even considering conversion, despite ministers dropping academy legislation and targets.

Murray hoped to “create our own MAT” with nearby like-minded schools, while Richardson and local special school heads were “looking at all options”.

Even Yew Tree Primary School in Walsall – which defeated the DfE at the High Court in 2021 – “is thinking about academisation”.

Head Jamie Barry said: “We were never saying it’s the wrong thing, just the wrong time and trust.

“Now we’ve got a stable school, supporting others and with admissions up, we’d look for one aligned with our values and where we’d complement them.”

‘Tinder for trusts’ would speed up matchmaking

Paul Whiteman, the general secretary of the school leaders’ union NAHT, said it was “immensely frustrating” schools had to take such steps, which distracted from improvement.

He said transfer decisions should be for schools, and backed a “quicker, transparent review process” for revocations to reduce the need for court action.

Mark Lehain
Mark Lehain

But Andrea Squires, head of education at the law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said guidance on criteria and processes was limited.

Leaving statutory conversion duties hanging over schools for extended periods was “lop-sided” if schools could not find strong trusts,.

The DfE ordered Hatherden Church of England Primary School in Hampshire to convert in 2019, but gave up its “exhaustive” sponsor search and ruled out a federation in 2022, according to county council documents. Its order was revoked and it closed last year.

Mark Lehain, an ex-DfE adviser now at the Centre for Policy Studies, said ministers could do more to facilitate conversions, even without the schools bill.

A government-funded, independent “MATchmaker” or “Tinder for Trusts” service could informally connect schools and MATs. A DfE catalogue of trust information and metrics could show schools “what they’d be getting”.

The DfE was approached for comment.

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