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Trouble in Rushcliffe’s Schools

David Laws MP, who falsified his expenses claims and had to repay Parliament some £56,000, has now been appointed Schools Minister by David Cameron, as we discuss in Spokesman 118. Together with Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, Laws is pushing the Government’s programme of state-funded companies (academies including so-called “free schools”) to run schools, which are then no longer part of the local authority or public sector. This policy of further fragmentation of school education in England is becoming increasingly chaotic, as recent developments in Nottinghamshire indicate.

West Bridgford is one of the leafier parts of Nottingham, south of the River Trent. Ken Clarke lives here, in his Rushcliffe Constituency, five or six miles from where he grew up, in Bulwell, a tougher part of town. County Hall is in West Bridgford. In 2009, the Tories won control of Nottinghamshire for the first time in 30 years.

Back in the early 1990s, the Conservative Government split Nottingham City from the County through “unitary” status. One of several adverse consequences of this structural change was that the City had to try to build an education authority pretty much from scratch. Conversely, the County’s education authority was weakened by the associated reduction in resources. As a consequence, education in the City and the County suffered for a number of years, and some schools continue to struggle.

Fast forward to 2010 and the arrival of the Coalition Government. Almost its first priority was to push through the Academies Act, very quickly, with little critical or careful Parliamentary scrutiny. Head teachers in Rushcliffe saw their chance. The head of West Bridgford School seemingly had little difficulty in persuading his governing body to pursue conversion to academy status. When one parent suggested that a consultative meeting be convened to consider this far-reaching change of legal status, removing the school from the local authority and changing it into an independent company, the head replied that it would be too expensive to organise if lots of parents wanted to attend!

Less than a mile away, at Rushcliffe School, the head teacher changed and the new man also wanted an academy. The chair of governors had hitherto been against such a move, but he resigned. Rushcliffe School duly academised, as the jargon has it.

In rural Rushcliffe, in the small market town of Bingham, the head teacher of Toot Hill School, a comprehensive with 1,600 students, also grasped the new opportunity to go independent and form a company, now the Torch Academy Gateway Trust. Torch teamed up with the Meden School, near Mansfield in North Nottinghamshire, and began to export the Toot Hill model for school improvement.

One consequence of Labour’s generous support for children when in government has been an increase in the birth rate. This has put pressure on the provision of sufficient school places, which remains a statutory responsibility of local authorities, along with educational outcomes and safeguarding. Such pressure is acute in West Bridgford, which is popular with young families who can afford to live there. The County Council is building new classrooms at primary schools which feed Rushcliffe and West Bridgford Schools. By 2015, some of this growing cohort will be ready to transfer to secondary school. West Bridgford School plans new classrooms of its own to accommodate the anticipated enlarged intake, and Rushcliffe School has similar plans. They say they are in discussion with the local authority about funding for such expansion.

Step forward the Torch Academy Gateway Trust. Its head, who lives in West Bridgford, had noticed that Rushcliffe and West Bridgford Schools are already heavily over-subscribed. What to do? Should Torch establish a ‘Free School’ close to Trent Bridge, not far from the ‘world renowned’ TBI, or Trent Bridge Inn, which overlooks Trent Bridge Cricket Ground? This school would specialise in maths and sport. Meetings to recruit parental support are being held, the first of them in the pleasant Long Room at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, attended by some 50 people.

Torch has received a ‘development grant’ from the New Schools Network to help fund its slick presentation to parents and the Department for Education, which is said to be encouraging the bid for the Trent Bridge Free School. The Network recently attracted some controversy when it was revealed that the DfE had given it some £500,000 towards its work without any tendering process, as required by European law for state aid. Indeed, the Network’s accounts, filed at Companies House, indicate it may receive more than £1.7 million from the DfE, in addition to some £250,000 in ‘donations and gifts’ from unspecified sources. Rachel Wolf, the Network’s director, used to work for Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Its trustees include several persons associated with chains of academy schools such as ARK, Harris and United Learning Trust. Interestingly, Rachel’s father, Martin Wolf, writes a regular column for the Financial Times, which newspaper advocates education for profit in the British school system. Questions have been raised about whether charitable status is appropriate for the Network. Its objects include ‘improving educational opportunities for young people and in particular those in necessitous circumstances’, which make the New School Network’s intervention in affluent Rushcliffe all the more surprising.

Torch recently advertised for a marketing and public relations person, and he or she is likely to be quite busy, as the heads of the two West Bridgford schools are clearly unhappy at what they see as an encroachment on their turf by a ‘small and financially unviable secondary school’. If money goes to the ‘Free School’, so the argument goes, where will they get the cash and students for their own expansion? In a pre-emptive strike, both heads have revised current admission plans to admit all children ‘who live in our respective catchment areas’, claiming it is ‘within our abilities to offer places without a detrimental impact’ on children already at the two schools. This year, Rushcliffe admitted 236 students, while West Bridgford School admitted 210.

Far from co-operating, Rushcliffe’s three independent school companies are locked in a struggle which looks likely to run until next June, when Messrs Gove and Laws at the DfE are due to decide on Torch’s bid for the Trent Bridge Free School, which aims to open in September 2014. These three highly paid head teachers (one, at least, receives more than £100,000 per year) currently expend much time pitching for public support. Has the education of today’s students been left to others? And now, two teachers have proposed a new secondary school for the village of Cotgrave, also in Rushcliffe, where the pit was closed in the 1980s. Were this Free School to go ahead in a location where, on the face of it, there appears to be greater educational need, it would draw off students from Toot Hill and elsewhere.

All but five of Nottinghamshire’s secondary schools have now converted to become academy companies. Many of the County’s primaries have been more cautious, with some head teachers recognising that they hold the school in trust for the long term, and that a hasty decision by their governing body to convert now may not be in the long-term interest of education in the area. In Nottingham City, only 17 of the 87 primaries have converted, including 7 Catholic primaries. Nottingham City Council, which is Labour controlled, does its best to maintain contact with all schools in the City, whether academy or not, and has established the Nottingham Learning Trust with a view to sponsoring academisation, if necessary, whilst mitigating further fragmentation of education for the City’s children. This local authority is committed to maintaining the City’s schools for the long haul.

In the country as a whole, rather more than 2,000 schools have taken academy status, out of a total of more than 20,000 schools. This is still very much a minority, albeit a growing one. As the contests in Rushcliffe indicate, the emerging market in school education is showing itself in one of the Tory-controlled shires. Nottinghamshire may well return to Labour control in 2013, if by-election results are a reliable guide. What is Labour’s response to these developments? How will it ensure that there are school places for all the children who need them? How do we maintain a coherent and effective system of education in the face of increasing fragmentation?

Tony Simpson
Rushcliffe resident and parent
Editor, The Spokesman journal


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