I am strongly opposed to the Conservative Government’s policy of compulsorily converting maintained schools into academies.
It is for that reason that I have opposed the decision taken by the Department for Education (DfE) to forcibly convert The John Roan to an academy as a means of addressing under-performance at the school.
However, there is no escaping the fact that the school is under-performing. Having been aware for some time prior to June 2018 that the school was struggling, the ‘Inadequate – Requires Improvement’ rating that Ofsted awarded in their June 2018 report did not come as a surprise to me.
However, the report was damning, rating the school inadequate in the following four areas:
- Effectiveness of leadership and management;
- Quality of teaching, learning and assessment;
- Personal development, behaviour and welfare; and
- Outcomes for pupils.
I have never shied away from criticising Ofsted as an organisation. However, I have never seen any compelling evidence to suggest that the inspection process that took place on 21 and 22 March was flawed or that the June report’s conclusions are questionable.
It is telling that The John Roan’s Head Teacher, Cath Smith, had the right at the time to challenge the inspection process but chose not to do so. I’m aware that Ms Smith subsequently submitted complaints about the inspection on behalf of the staff and some parents but she did not, to the best of my knowledge, ever come out in support of the legal challenge initiated by a group of parents and staff.
As Head Teacher of The John Roan, Ms Smith also had the right to challenge the rating awarded in the draft Ofsted inspection report or, if she did not believe that there were reasonable grounds for doing so, to send the lead inspector suggested factual amendments and/or comments for their consideration. She chose the latter course of action, namely to propose factual amendments to the draft report and submit comments for consideration by the Inspector, a number of which were accepted.
The conclusions of Ofsted’s June 2018 report must be taken seriously. However, following the publication of the report, I strongly believed that Ms Smith should have been given a chance to turn the situation around, drawing on the support that was in place before the inspection and any additional support as required, without being forced to change the structure of the school.
It was for that reason that, prior to the issuing of the directive academy order in June 2018, I wrote to the Secretary of State in an effort to persuade him to make an exception and hold off from issuing one to allow an improvement plan to be delivered.
I did so because I believed that there were strong grounds to suggest that, if it were given the opportunity to do so, the school could, with the continued support of the local authority and other partner organisations, turn the situation around and deliver rapid and sustained improvement in performance and education standards. To my great disappointment, the Secretary of State declined to do so.
As a result of the 2010 Academies Act and the 2016 Education and Adoption Act introduced under successive Conservative-led Governments, when a maintained school is rated inadequate, as The John Roan has been, the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) has a duty (not a discretionary power) to issue a directive academy order on behalf of the Secretary of State.
The order for The John Roan was duly issued on Monday 12 June and the RSC named the University Schools Trust (UST) as his preferred sponsor. As a result, the local authority has a statutory responsibility to facilitate the conversion and the options that remain available to those who oppose forced academisation are severely limited.
For that reason, my focus over the past 10 months has been on 1) trying to ensure that whoever might become the academy sponsor maintains the ethos and identity of the school, keeps it within our local family of schools, maintains the terms and conditions of staff and support staff, and quickly implements a plan for rapid and sustained improvement under Ms Smith’s leadership and 2) ensuring that every possible avenue for having the order revoked is explored and exhausted.
With a view to exploring precisely how academy orders can and have been revoked, I extracted from the RSC details as to the circumstances in which 18 maintained schools in England had had their directive academy orders rescinded.
Sadly, the cases of schools that had their orders revoked after the 2016 Act received Royal Assent were mostly too distinctive to draw any useful comparisons with the situation we face with The John Roan. The same has been true of other recent cases such as that of St Augustine in St. Helens which escaped conversion because of a Memorandum of Understanding between the DfE and the Catholic Church.
However, I did secure clarification that two of the four revocations were related to further Ofsted inspections which saw an improvement in the ratings of the schools’ in question.
The recent case of William Torbitt Primary School in Ilford is also instructive in this regard. That school had its directive academy order revoked following an Ofsted re-inspection that saw its rating upgraded from ‘inadequate’ to ‘good’. Having discussed the matter at length with the local MP, it appears that William Torbitt’s ‘inadequate’ rating was largely the result of serious but specific issues relating to safeguarding and that the installation of a new Head and Deputy by the local Council meant that in a very short space of time those inadequacies were addressed.
It is clear, therefore, that the only realistic way of avoiding the forcible academisation of The John Roan is to for the school to improve to an extent that would allow for another Ofsted inspection to result in its ‘Inadequate – serious weaknesses’ rating being upgraded to ‘good’.
I understand from regular meetings and conversations with The John Roan’s leadership team that progress has been made in some areas, for example with regard to behaviour.
However, my understanding is that there has not been sufficient progress across the board, particularly in key areas such as outcomes for pupils. Without concrete evidence of rapid and sustained improvement in all areas, there is a risk that a further Ofsted inspection would not produce a different result.
There is of course still time for the school to make further progress and for that progress to result in an improved Ofsted rating. However, I fear that the window for doing so is closing.
Following the UST’s withdrawal as the preferred sponsor, the RSC indicated that he intended to nominate a new preferred sponsor (at present, only the United Learning Trust and ARK remain in contention) before the February half-term. To date, he has not done so but his decision cannot be long delayed.
As such, time is short and everyone’s focus must be on doing whatever is necessary to secure rapid and sustained improvement at The John Roan. A huge amount of work is already being undertaken to aid progress, including efforts to better publicise the achievements of the school and individual pupils. I also know that a significant number of parents are keen to do more to support Ms Smith and the leadership team. I also stand ready, as I always have, to help in any way possible in the time we have left.