Schools need to be accountable - and focused on the best interests of children

PUBLISHED: 13:45 03 March 2019 | UPDATED: 13:45 03 March 2019

Clare Flintoff, chief executive of ASSET Education.  Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Clare Flintoff, chief executive of ASSET Education. Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

On March 1 2015, three Ipswich schools formed a new academy trust after nearly two years of deliberation, negotiation and planning.

It was a brave move. The aim was to be a local player in the national arena of large academy trusts - a local solution to the ‘great white sharks’ in the education ocean.

The backdrop was that Suffolk schools were near the bottom of the league tables, the local authority had reduced its school improvement role and outstanding schools were doing little to support their neighbours.

Government-provided financial incentives made it a no-brainer - this was the first time ever we’d had some money to improve teaching and learning.

A year before, in 2014, we had witnessed one of these national academy chains take on schools in this region. It was called Bright Tribe.

With roots in the north-west of England, it seemed full of promise - backed by a wealthy philanthropist who talked about his own childhood, giving something back and a desire to invest for the sake of the disadvantaged.

It was impressive and compelling. High level strategy planning was well articulated. New freedoms were being exploited and, as it turns out, the motivation was probably around education being seen as an untapped market and a new business opportunity.

The business sector was becoming interested in education and thinking it could do a better job and Bright Tribe was the epitome of that.

It is ironic that four years later, the Bright Tribe trust is being closed down and three of their Ipswich primary schools have transferred to our locally formed academy trust which, over that period of time, has grown substantially from its very humble roots.

Most of the original Bright Tribe leadership has gone, to be replaced by interim leaders whose job it is to close down the venture.

They are understandably pre-occupied with the finances. Criminal investigations, triggered by a recent Panorama programme, will follow.

It is a very sorry story of the alleged misuse of public funding and the disastrous consequence of a lack of proper accountability and a maverick approach to decision making that seemed to have very little to do with children.

Throughout this time it is the local people on the ground who are the true heros.

Despite everything, they have remained resolutely focused on their schools and the best interests of the children.

Under huge pressure they have continued to be positive, welcoming and smiling with children and parents. The schools have continued to improve and thrive because of them.

Does this failure mean that the academy system is not fit for purpose?

I am watching with interest the development of Labour’s thinking about their ‘national education service’.

In my view the secrets to success at system level are threefold.

Firstly, strong financial management with both local and national accountability. Secondly, the ability to generate local links and networks in order to maximise support for teaching and learning keeping the spotlight on practice in the classroom and the best interests of children. And thirdly, an outward looking collective responsibility for all children in the region whichever school they go to.

We can fulfil these criteria within a well-run academy system in a way that just wasn’t possible as separate local authority maintained schools.

But we don’t need ‘freedoms’ to behave differently to other schools or trusts - there are too many dangers in that.

Speaking at a conference in Paris last week, the OECD’s head of education criticised England for not making enough of our academy system, not capitalising on the best ideas and for working too much in isolation.

This week we have been able to re-connect schools in Ipswich to an outward looking but local academy trust that seeks to capitalise on, and share, their expertise, strengths and successes and wants to work collaboratively with all schools, whoever runs them, for the sake of every child in this region.

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