Debate rages over school Academy status

COUNTY education chiefs have today moved to defend controversial proposals to turn an Ipswich school into an academy.

Neil Puffett

COUNTY education chiefs have today moved to defend controversial proposals to turn an Ipswich school into an academy.

As part of a bid to provide investment and boost results at Holywells High School, Suffolk County Council is pushing ahead with plans to turn the school into an academy.

Traditionally a method for improving failing schools, academy status would see the school controlled by an independent sponsor.


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The move is being opposed by staff, students and the schools' governing body.

County chiefs have moved to allay fears, claiming academy status is in the best interests of both the school and students.

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Rosalind Turner, director for children and young people at Suffolk County Council, said the school had initially approached the council with the idea of becoming an academy after being placed in “special measures” by Ofsted.

The wheels were set in motion to establish an academy to open in September 2009.

However, due to the preferred sponsor already being involved with several other projects and being unable to make the September deadline, the project was put on ice.

A subsequent Ofsted inspection grading the school as “satisfactory” and “improving” combined with concerns over the religious nature of the council-selected preferred sponsor led to the school cooling on the idea.

Despite this the council is keen to push ahead with the move - now with a September 2010 start date - in the face of growing opposition.

Ms Turner said previous concerns centred around the fact that the previous preferred sponsor was a religious institution - the Church of England.

“It caused a lot of concern amongst the school community and people locally,” she said

“We did a lot of work to try and unpick what those concerns are.

“The community and local residents still stand by that but that's where we are.”

She said the authority is now working closely with the school to find a way in which the best possible sponsor can be selected.

So far there have been around six “expressions of interest” from potential sponsors since an advert was placed at the end of last month.

“Part of the wobble the school had about becoming an academy was the sponsor.

“We have agreed parameters for finding one - it is important the school is involved in that process.

“Hopefully we will come to an agreement with the school about who that sponsor may be.

“It is all about what will produce the greatest benefit for the pupils.

“Every school should be a good school and improving - academies should be considered where schools need an additional boost to help them along.

“It was a reasonable Ofsted result but there is still a lot more to do to get the school to where we all want it to be.”

n Are county chiefs right to push for academy status? Write to Your Letters at Evening Star, 30 Lower Brook Street, Ipswich, IP4 1AN or email starletters@eveningstar.co.uk

Academies are state-maintained independent schools set up with the help of outside sponsors.

Former prime minister Tony Blair established them in 2000 to drive up standards by replacing failing schools in struggling education authorities.

Originally called city academies, the government dropped the word "city" to allow for academies in struggling rural areas as well as inner cities.

Lindsay Martin, building schools for the future programme director at Suffolk County Council, said cash generated by creating an academy offers a great opportunity to enhance facilities and the quality of education on offer.

“The money helps - it gives some resources for children and staff to work with,” he said.

“A new build school can be very attractive for teachers to work in - brand new state-of-the-art facilities.”

Should Holywells become an academy it is understood around �3million will initially go towards the “transformation of teaching and learning”.

The county council also believes the creation of an academy would go a long way to convincing central government to commit around �36million to build a new school on a nearby site.

Despite the apparent positives some debate exists over whether academy status delivers long-term improvements in terms of exam results.

Last month it emerged that 34 out of 73 academy schools in the UK failed to clear the minimum hurdle of getting 30 per cent of pupils to obtain five A* to C grade GCSE passes including maths and English.

Gary Nethercott, service director for learning at Suffolk County Council, conceded that “very limited” research exists on the benefits as academies have not been running for a long period of time.

However, he argued that the early signs are “very encouraging”.

“What has been shown by Department of Children Schools and Families research has demonstrated that when you look at existing academies and compare the starting point with where they are now there is a significant increase in attainment for the children,” he said.

“Within that there is variation - early academies were often taking over from failing schools.

“We have now moved on from that.”

THE school has no power in the process with staff and the governing body possessing no way of preventing it from becoming an academy.

It is the local authority's job to make a recommendation to ministers as to whether the school should become an academy and who is the preferred sponsor.

A final decision is then taken by the secretary of state.

Gary Nethercott, service director for learning at Suffolk County Council, said the council is committed to working with the school on finding the right sponsor.

“There are many examples of authorities that have just informed schools that they will be an academy and who their sponsor is,” he said.

“We are trying to make sure we have the best possible chance of success with this.

“There is no difference between the ambition of the school and the authority - we both want to get the best possible partner for the community and children of Holywells.”

If it was impossible to find a sponsor that the secretary of state wasn't happy with it wouldn't become an academy.

TERRY Duffell, headteacher at Holywells, said current concerns are based around pay and conditions for staff under any new regime as well as admissions criteria.

He said: “The school would transfer from community control to private sponsor control and with that goes the right to determine pay and conditions.

“We have been working on a series of principles that would offer protection to staff, however the sponsor would be able to change those when they get hold of the school.”

“We are also concerned that in some academies arrangements have been to the detriment of local children.

“We are very much opposed to that.

“We want to serve the community to a greater, rather than lesser extent.”

Suffolk County Council maintain that academies will be bound by the same school admissions code.

January 26, 2009 - Academy advert published

Mid February 2009 - deadline for initial expressions of interest to be logged

Late February/early March 2009 - interview with potential sponsors

Early March 2009 - potential sponsors to be considered against agreed criteria

Early March 2009 - SCC and school governors agree sponsor to be proposed to the Office of the Schools Commissioner (OSC) and the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)

Mid March 2009 - Proposal to OSC and DCSF

End of March 2009 - Decision expected from the Schools Minister

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