Trust seeks legal advice after council claims parents are 'fearful' of 'tough love' approach

An academy trust is seeking legal advice after an “extremely misinformed” letter from Dorset Council urged the education secretary to halt a conversion because parents are “fearful” of its “tough love” approach.

In an extraordinary letter to Damian Hinds, Sarah Parker, the council’s executive director for children, flagged a host of concerns about the proposed takeover of Budmouth College by the Aspirations Academy Trust.

She said the community has a “negative” view of the trust, including its “tough love” approach, warned the takeover would give the trust a monopoly in the area, and raised concerns about the “financial viability” of the trust.

Budmouth College has a deficit of at least £2.3 million. The college was placed in special measures following an Ofsted inspection in May 2018.

The DfE said schools under the Aspirations Academy Trust’s control have shown “significant improvement” and are confident Budmouth College will do the same.

The council told Hinds it will be “testing the legality” of what it believes was a flawed consultation process for identifying a sponsor. The letter was obtained and published by the Dorset Eye independent citizen website.

But Steve Kenning, chief executive of Aspirations, said the letter was “ill-advised” and “extremely misinformed” and that the trust has written to all staff at the school to “set the record straight”.

He added they are taking legal advice regarding the matter, but declined to provide further context on what type of advice.

Parker raised concerns that the trust would have a monopoly in the area, controlling two out of the area’s four secondary schools (Magna and Atlantic academies), which the council argues “narrows the choice considerably”.

She said: “The community do not want an Aspirations Academy by default of it being the only option available at the time.”

The Department for Education has been warned against allowing trusts to expand in areas that result in “monopolies”.

The Competitions and Markets Authority can intervene if a trust’s prevalence in an area leads to complaints and amounts to anti-competitive conduct.

Parker said, given what parents “have learnt” about Aspiration’s current schools, the “local community is very critical, even fearful, of the ‘tough love’ and ‘unreasonable’ approach with young people that is widely reported across Weymouth.”

She claimed that the “no excuses approach” adopted at the trust had resulted in pupils leaving the school through permanent exclusions, adding Budmouth needs a trust that “will support its present identity”.

The council said it is facing “several highly significant challenges” that have arisen because of a process over which it had “no control”.

Concerns were raised that the consultation on the choice of academy sponsor did not meet the requirements of the Academies Act 2010, which Dorset said it will challenge.

The council said the interim executive board, chosen by the council, was not consulted as was required.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Budmouth College dropped from an outstanding school to an inadequate school when it was maintained under the local authority.

“Aspirations Multi Academy Trust has shown significant improvement in the schools it has taken on and we fully expect this will be the case for Budmouth when it joins the Trust.

“We have received the local authority’s letter and will work with the council and the trust, where necessary, to resolve any issues and ensure the smooth transfer so that Budmouth continues to reflect the needs of its community.”

Schools Week revealed earlier this month that Magna Academy retained its ‘outstanding’ grade despite finding “exceptional levels of pupil movement”.