Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Academies and Free Schools in Waltham Forest – a roundup of local and national news (1)

Our Community Our Schools was set up in part to oppose moves to establish Free Schools and to convert our community maintained schools into academies. We were pleased when it became clear back in March this year that one of the proposed Free Schools was not going to happen, but the truth is that it’s very difficult for communities or even for teachers to defend their schools. The legislation has been drafted in such a way that small groups of people in Whitehall can collude with sponsors to set up Free Schools or convert schools to academy status almost at will. There continue to be great successes for communities, such as the recent campaign in Hove, but the fact is that the dice are heavily loaded against local communities and democracy.

Tauheedul Free School opens and St Mary’s/St Saviour’s convert

In Waltham Forest, we’ve seen Tauheedul Free Schools Trust open their new ‘Eden School for Girls’ at the Silver Birches site, in spite of considerable opposition and what we said was a disastrously flawed consultation process. It remains to be seen how it will fare in its current premises and how it is able to fulfil its aspiration to recruit 50% non-Muslim pupils.

In addition, St Mary’s and St Saviour’s primary schools announced in September that following consultation they were proceeding with academy conversion. The decision to convert followed meetings at which a total of 28 people were present and a consultation to which 14 people responded. Even assuming that there was no duplication among these people (not a particularly sound assumption), that’s a total response rate of around 9% of the potential parent body. Hardly a rousing episode in our democratic history and certainly it looks appalling when compared with the turnout in a parent ballot to resist the academisation of Thomas Gamuel primary for example. Yet the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s appear content with their mandate and as a result, yet another community school is being removed from our community to become part of an academy trust. And of course it’s worth remembering that the rest of the community had no say in this whatsoever, in spite of the impact it will have on the rest of the borough.


Meanwhile the academy chain that started in Walthamstow, Reach2 aims to extend its rapidly growing empire of schools by opening a new primary Free School in Leyton. Reach2 has only existed since 2012 when it was established by Steve Lancashire, the head of Hillyfield school following its conversion to academy status. The chain had two schools by the end of 2012 and 27 by 2014, including Chapel End and Woodside in Waltham Forest. Reach2 has powerful friends in the Department for Education, who have seconded a member of their staff to the academy chain and written a glowing report on their unique model (full of praise for their mission and core values embodied in the concepts of ‘touchstone’ and ‘cornerstone’, etc etc etc). Teaching unions seem less keen. The NUT and NASUWT have been convening Trust level talks to try to get acceptable pay and appraisal schemes across the trust’s schools, but so far without success. Reach2 are also currently refusing to pay into borough-wide schemes that pay for union reps to have facilities time.


Reach2 appear to operate by taking over ‘struggling’ schools, often as a result of forced conversions and then grouping them within a regional Multi-Academy Trust. This is seen as a way of negotiating the problems that arise when a chain grows fast and takes over individual schools across huge geographic distances (someone really ought to invent some local borough-based way of organising schools, some sort of accountable local body….).

Even the DfE’s glowing account of the rise of Reach2 includes an admission that growing fast and covering huge distances has caused problems for the management of the chain. And this should ring alarm bells for Reach2 as the fast growth of academy chains was criticised in 2013 by the Academies Commission and earlier this year by Ofsted. Basically, it is widely recognised now that there is a real problem providing public oversight of unaccountable academy chains and it’s proving almost impossible to monitor what’s going on.

One result of this is the emergence of scandalous situations such as were seen with the chain AET which had to have schools removed because they were performing so badly.

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