Warrington academy reduces intake, blames nearby free school

A secondary school in Warrington intends to reduce its intake, blaming the arrival of an award-winning free school on its patch.

Birchwood Community High School (pictured), an academy in the Birchwood area of Warrington, is consulting on a proposal to reduce its intake by 40 pupils from September 2019 after the King’s Leadership Academy Warrington, a free school, completed its move to a nearby site.

For five years, Birchwood has had a large intake of 210 pupils, mostly due to the closure in 2012 of Woolston High School.

Moira Bryan, headteacher at Birchwood, told the Warrington Guardian the school planned to reduce its numbers “now that King’s Leadership Academy is fully open in Woolston”.

It is one of the clearest examples of a free school prompting a reduction in places elsewhere. Advocates of the free school policy said such changes would happen as a consequence of competition working to drive up standards, but opponents worry the changes destabilise local schools.

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For its part, King’s has challenged the assertion that its move into Woolston is to blame for the downsizing.

“We were mystified by this statement to be honest,” principal Shane Ierston told Schools Week. “None of our children come from the Birchwood catchment area.

“Due to popularity, our catchment has contracted to 0.7 miles around the academy. We take in predominantly from four local primaries with around 40 per cent arriving under the sibling rule.”
Ierston said the school had deliberately set its annual intake at 120 so as not to harm other schools, but had been inundated with applications every year.

“Every year since 2014 we have received around 400 applications. The Great School Trust [which runs King’s] is committed to high-quality education. We believe education to be a civil rights issue and see our purpose to improve social mobility by providing a free, non-selective alternative to the independent sector.”

But Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington North, said the government’s free schools policy created unnecessary competition between the schools.

“I have not been informed about the reasons behind this decision but it seems that the choice of school places for my constituents in the north of Warrington is being reduced yet again,” she told Schools Week.

“Instead of encouraging schools to cooperate to provide the best provision for young people the government’s policy has introduced an era of cutthroat competition.”

The King’s Leadership Academy Warrington opened in 2012 on its original site in Seymour Drive, Warrington. It was rated ‘good’ at its first Ofsted inspection in 2014.

In 2015, the school was named as the winner of the Department for Education’s character education awards, and has since been praised by ministers for its approach, which includes the use of “King’s passports” in which character education is logged.

In the school’s first set of GCSE results this summer, 86 per cent of pupils achieved five A* to C grades including English and maths. In a subsequent interview with the Warrington Guardian, Ierston described his school as “Eton without the £45,000 fees”.

The Leadership Academy’s new site is less than two miles from Birchwood, and under a mile from its original site.

Birchwood Community High School became an academy in 2013, and is part of the Birchwood Community Academy Trust, which also runs Birchwood College. It was rated ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted in May this year.

The school’s consultation will remain open until Friday December 22, and can be found online here.

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  1. The Impact Assessment for King’s Leadership Academy reveals that there was a ‘current surplus of places across the borough’. The LA didn’t want the free school to go ahead because pupil numbers were falling and if the proposed free school was allowed to open and filled all its places (which it’s now done) then ‘this could significantly affect other schools nearby, and their long-term viability.’

    At the time the assessment was written (pre Sept 2012), it was thought King’s would have ‘minimal’ impact on Birchwood but ‘high impact on one local secondary school (Lysander)… and a moderate/high impact on another local secondary school (William Beamont)’.

    This seems to be an example of the DfE allowing a free school to go ahead despite there being no need for extra places.

    Notes: Lysander became University Academy Warrington in Jan 2013 and William Beamont became Beamont Collegiate Academy on 1 March 2013.

  2. It’s not the first time a free school has had a negative effect on a neighbouring school. An established sixth form college had to close in Rutland after a free school sixth form opened. Far from extending choice the free school sixth form actually reduced it because it doesn’t offer the vocational courses offered by the sixth form which has now closed.

  3. Mark Watson

    School A (which has been RI since May 2016, not May 2017 as the article states) blames School B, seemingly for being good at educating children.
    It’s all very well publishing statements from both schools, but what about checking what they’ve said? King’s say “none of our children come from the Birchwood catchment area” and that “our catchment has contracted to 0.7 miles around the academy”. If this is true, which it seems would be eminently easy to check, then Birchwood should be asked to explain why it is blaming King’s.
    Don’t get me started on a politician who starts by saying she doesn’t know the details, but then proceeds to give their opinion anyway.

  4. Mark – the situation is more complex. And it isn’t ’eminently easy to check’ as I’ve just discovered.
    First, King’s has moved site. When it first opened it had only 38 pupils in Y7 out of a PAN of 120.
    As the first (and possibly subsequent) intakes didn’t meet the PAN then King’s would have accepted all pupils wherever they came from.
    Second, King’s head said the catchment area had ‘contracted’. And the head admitted it had only been oversubscribed since 2014 (Sept 2014 intake or 2014 applications for 2015?) This again suggests the area from which King’s drew students was once wider than it is now.
    However, since the school has moved site it wouldn’t be easy to check.
    Third, I’ve tried to check the intake of Birchwood using school performance tables. 2015/16 was easy because it’s still on the DfE website. Birchwood had 1075 pupils which is less than its capacity of 1250. I searched school performance tables historical info for Birchwood in 2014/15. Not so easy because the search facility no longer works as the tables have been archived. However, I searched for Warrington and found Birchwood. The school population was 1087 – slightly more than 2015/16 Was there a historical decline and if so did it coincide with the opening of King’s? I asked myself. That’s when the search became unstuck. Historical info for 2013/14 wouldn’t allow me to search for Warrington and I couldn’t even raise the info for the whole of the UK. Brick wall.
    Fourth, I looked at Birchwood’s Ofsted. Its monitoring in May 2017 said Birchwood’s school population was ‘stable’ and the school had just received 14 extra pupils from a closed studio school. The full inspection in 2016 didn’t mention Birchwood’s population except that it was larger than the average secondary school.
    Fifth, I looked for Birchwood’s pre-conversion Ofsted. The DfE impact statement for King’s said Birchwood was Outstanding in 2008. I wanted to know if this Ofsted had mentioned Birchwood’s size. No luck – the report’s no longer on Ofsted’s website.
    Sixth,I looked at King’s Ofsted in Jan 2014. King’s intake comprised just 150 pupils in Year 7 and 8. This shows it didn’t fill all its places in its second year so would have taken all pupils who applied no matter where from.
    It’s highly likely that the Good judgement boosted applications to King’s.
    The above neither proves or disproves Birchwood head’s assertion that Birchwood needs to reduce its PAN because of competition from a free school. The only thing that is certain is that the LA warned there were already surplus places in Warrington and that a new free school could threaten other schools.
    All this searching has taken a considerable amount of time (I really should get out more) and there’s no guarantee that anyone will actually read it.

    • Mark Watson

      Yup, my reference to ’eminently easy to check’ was a bit tongue in cheek.
      However what you’ve done, as referred to above, is what I think should have been done by Schools Week who refer to themselves as “in-depth, investigative education journalism”. What annoys me is when they identify that there may be an issue of interest, and then simply republish statements they’ve been given by the relevant parties. There’s no investigative journalism there.
      As a well known publication, once they had done what you’ve done, Schools Week could have gone back to both schools to challenge their initial statements and try and get to the bottom of the matter. What doesn’t help is reporting an issue as “Here’s an issue that’s arisen. School A says this, School B says that, and another person with a vested interest comments as follows”.
      However, as I’ve said before, I completely agree with your frustration about online records (such as historic Ofsted reports) being taken offline. Unnecessary and most unhelpful.

      • Mark – a cynic might say the removal of reports together with the difficulty of finding school performance tables for past years is deliberate to make it difficult, if not impossible, to check statements. The DfE might claim there’s no need to look at old school performance tables because tests have changed and comparisons aren’t possible. That’s true but if politicians, the media, heads etc make comments such as ‘When we took over X school, it was one of the worst-performing in the country’ or ‘In the year we took over X school it was in special measures’ or ‘Headteacher Y turned the school round from inadequate to outstanding’, these statements need to be checked. I’ve found instances when comments like these have been misleading. But this becomes impossible if the records are difficult to find, if at all.
        There are examples of such misleading statements here:
        Unfortunately, they’re not alone.