GMB calls for investigation into Bright Tribe Trust which runs schools in region

Castle Hill Junior School (and Castle Hill Infant School) in Ipswich, run by Bright Tribe Trust. The

Castle Hill Junior School (and Castle Hill Infant School) in Ipswich, run by Bright Tribe Trust. The junior school has been rated 'requires improvement' by Ofsted. But before it became an academy in December 2014, it was in special measures. Picture: ARCHANT

A teaching union has called for an investigation into a controversial Stockport-based multi-academy trust which runs five schools in Suffolk and Essex, including three in Ipswich.

The GMB, which represents school support staff, is calling for education authorities to investigate whether Bright Tribe Trust is “fit and proper” to run schools.

It comes after the trust gave up control of 900-pupil Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria last week following pressure from staff and parents concerned over the physical state of the school site, with two thirds described as dilapidated, “minimal budgets”, leadership changes, teacher numbers, and support.

Bright Tribe insists its withdrawal was not triggered by pressure from parents. They say they had hoped to develop a hub of schools in Cumbria, “recognising the value of the collaboration and school-to-school support that happens in our other hubs”, but due to having been unable to grow beyond a single school in Cumbria, they said they recognise the need to explore alternative sponsor options.

They also say the building was in a poor state of repair when they took over in January 2014. The most recent Ofsted monitoring inspection also judged the school to be taking ‘effective action’ towards improvement.

The school’s local MP Trudy Harrison was escorted off the school’s premises during a visit to check on flood damage.

Bright Tribe said she turned up without having booked a meeting and was asked to return at an agreed time.

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The trust’s chief operating officer Mary McKeeman also stepped down last week after being appointed in February.

Last Friday, the Trust told this newspaper that its “financial position is strong”. The first two Ofsted reports into under-performing Ipswich primary schools it runs were also released. Castle Hill Junior School and Cliff Lane Primary School were rated ‘requires improvement’ around three years after being taken over by Bright Tribe. One had previously been in special measures.

The trust runs four other primary and secondary schools across the country, mainly in the north of England.

Colin Greer, GMB schools officer said, said: “GMB notes that Bright Tribe was kicked out of the Cumbria school after a campaign by parents and teachers and others.

“GMB also notes that the chief executive has left Bright Tribe after being appointed in February of this year.

“These are worrying developments. There may be nothing amiss in the five schools in Essex and Suffolk. However, the education authorities should have a look to see if everything is okay.

“They should also assess how Bright Tribe lost the new chief executive and what are the plans for new leadership to be appointed.”

Bright Tribe Trust, established in 2012 by venture capitalist and property millionaire Michael Dwan, has ambitions to run more than 200 schools.

It is government-favoured and receives funds to improve standards. But it has faced criticism over support, pupil outcomes, and commercial partner influence. It has pulled out of other schools when potential sponsors, blaming schools’ deficits. A November 2016 government report found it breached rules over payments to trustees.

In a statement, Bright Tribe said: “All of Bright Tribe’s schools in Essex and Suffolk are shown to be making good progress with Castle Hill and Cliff Lane Junior School recently removed from their previous judgement of special measures (which they were in before Bright Tribe took over) and Alde Valley Academy now rated a ‘good’ overall school by Ofsted with ‘outstanding’ attributes, just four years after being placed in special measures whilst under local authority control.

“Both Colchester Academy and Alde Valley Academy reported positive progress for their students.

“Bright Tribe is in discussion with the Department for Education (DfE) and is disappointed that there is a need to rebroker The Whitehaven Academy but believes that it is in the best interest of the school to be part of a more local network.”

Graham White, of the Suffolk NEU, said: “I expressed concerns about how Bright Tribe were chosen (as a sponsor for the schools) because, in my view, they did not have experience of running successful primaries, and their only secondary Whitehaven Academy (in Cumbria) had some question marks about it.

“Soon after taking over, Bright Tribe got rid of teachers in some of their Suffolk schools, and the early indications are that they have not turned around the primaries they took on.

“I totally agree we need to look into the financial viability of Bright Tribe and if they are the right choice to run schools in Suffolk.”

A Suffolk County Council spokesman said: “Suffolk County Council works closely with the Regional Schools Commissioner to monitor the performance of academies in Suffolk and ensure that our schools continue to meet expected standards.”

Jerry Glazier, of the NUT Essex division, said: “It is crucial that all multi-academy trusts are run in an open and transparent way and are fully accountable to the Education Funding Agency and the DfE.”

A DfE spokesman said: “Academy trusts operate under a strict system of oversight and accountability, and in any instances of under-performance we will not hesitate to take swift action, including transferring schools to new trusts when necessary.

“In the case of Whitehaven Academy, despite the efforts of the headteacher and his team, it was clear that a new sponsor was required to deliver the improvement needed to ensure pupils get the education they deserve.”

The five schools in Suffolk and Essex run by Bright Tribe:

- Castle Hill Infant School, Ipswich

- Castle Hill Junior School, Ipswich

- Cliff Lane Primary School, Ipswich

- Alde Valley Academy, Leiston

- Colchester Academy