Cllr Chris Whitehouse is the Lead Member for Children’s Services for the Isle of Wight Council and Chairman of The Whitehouse Consultancy.
A major operator of academies around the country is damaging the life chances of a generation of children, whilst undermining the reputation of the whole academy programme and of the Conservative Government that stands behind it.
AET (The Academies and Enterprise Trust) now runs 66 academies around England (it was a higher number but already 10 have been taken off them and one has been closed completely), and they have struggled financially, educationally and reputationally ever since they first launched because they simply aren’t up to the job. One Schools Minister told me personally in the past that, had he been in post at the time, AET would have been given no schools to run.
A new Chief Executive, Julian Drinkall, was brought in to turn around the failing organisation’s fortunes in January and now boasts of his detailed discussions with Ministers, the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, and all eight of the Schools Regional Commissioners, about the strategy through which he intends to get the organisation’s finances back on track. The way this is being done on the Isle of Wight is simply crass and risks further damage to education outcomes on the Island.
To a Chief Executive based in flashy offices in Euston, drawing a quarter of a million pound salary, the Isle of Wight might appear as a tiny pimple on the bottom of England, but in fact it is a proud county, made up of several very distinct local communities with their own identities and needs. On a map of England the towns of Sandown and Ryde may look close together, but they are six miles apart and very different communities.
On the actual day of the local elections (4th May), a day of double purdah because the General Election was already called, AET threw every constitutional convention to the wind and announced what they disingenuously described as an “amalgamation” or a “merger” of Sandown Bay Academy with Ryde Academy to save costs. What they didn’t say, until pressed on the matter, was that they would cease all teaching on the Sandown site, forcing in practice those 1,157 pupils to travel to Ryde. As a matter of law, two schools cannot be merged or amalgamated, as AET must have known full well. What they were trying to disguise was their brutal decision to simply close one school blatantly for financial reasons.
There had been no consultation with the governors of the schools in question, no discussion with senior officers of Hampshire County Council who, under the direction of the Secretary of State no less, are responsible for supervision of the Island’s education, and no discussion with the local education authority, of which I am Lead Member for Children’s Services. That the National Schools Commissioner, Sir David Carter, and the Schools Regional Commissioner for South East England and South London, Dominic Herrington, appear to have connived in this damaging and duplicitous behaviour is truly shocking.
The students of Sandown Bay Academy are distraught, the parents are angry, the staff feel betrayed. The Principal and several of the senior leadership are leaving. AET had not even realised that transferring the students to Ryde would incur, for a financially strapped local authority, an annual cost of up to £1 million in home to school transport costs. Parents are now desperately trying to get their children into any school other than Ryde Academy because AET are now so unpopular that the thought of their children being taught by an organisation that is seeking to destroy their school is not acceptable, particularly as AET would benefit financially from every pupil that moved to Ryde.
Sandown Bay Academy has every potential to be sustainable financially and successful educationally. There are plenty of good schools around the country with a student number of around 1,000. AET had based their sums, their Chief Executive revealed, on the declining trend in students over the last few years and extrapolated from that. Had he looked at real pupil numbers, the ones for children in our local primary schools, he would have seen that demand in the area is set to increase, not reduce.
The proposed closure by AET of Sandown Bay Academy merely to shore up their own finances is an act of brutal and illiterate educational vandalism of the sort I have never previously seen in over thirty years working in education policy. Unfortunately, we don’t have a Member of Parliament at the moment, although Bob Seely is our great Island candidate and will be in the House on June 9th, ready to take up the cudgels on this issue, but we desperately need the Education Secretary, Justine Greening, and the Schools Minister, Lord John Nash, to intervene to stop this damage to yet another cohort of children in the Island’s schools; and before the reputation of the whole academisation programme and the Conservative commitment to it are left in tatters by the incompetence of AET.
The educational prospects of a generation of children and the identity of a local community must not be sacrificed on the altar of AET’s financial incompetence.