This is the story of another non-selective school, formerly known as Wye Valley School. It too is in financial trouble.
In 2013, Wye Valley School was put into special measures. The next year it was converted to an academy, Bourne End Academy (BEA) and taken over by Wycombe High School Academies Trust (WHSAT). WHSAT also manages Wycombe High School, a girls’ grammar school in Wycombe. The latest OFSTED assessment for BEA is “requires improvement”.
According to the latest accounts (up to August 2017), things seemed to be going alright. WHSAT aimed to expand to 10 schools and 5000 pupils. It was operating with a small surplus of £110 with over £30 million of net assets.
There were a few warning signs. The Trust had considered taking on a local primary school which was in special measures but decided it was too much of a financial risk.
The Trust were also aware of the financial risks from BEA’s continuing unpopularity with pupils. Whereas Wycombe High School more than filled its places, BEA was only 72% full (down by 5% from the previous year).
The message was clear. Schools get paid on the number of its pupils. If the school doesn’t fill places, it doesn’t get the funding, it has to cut staff, the school struggles to keep up standards and it becomes even more unpopular. It is a vicious circle – unpopular schools are a financial risk.
Then on 19 June, the Executive Headteacher of WHSAT, Sharon Cromie, wrote to parents to consult about an expansion of Wycombe High School. She proposed to bid for some of the £50 million being made available by the Government for extra grammar school places.
Then on 2 July, she wrote to parents and pupils to say the Trust was dumping BEA. These are my words of course. What she actually said was
“The popularity BEA is now experiencing is a testament to all that has been achieved. We can all be proud of this local success story and note that all the signs, including predicted data, indicate that BEA is poised to go from strength to strength and is in very good shape.
It is therefore with sadness, but realism, that WHSAT must recognise that now is the time for Bourne End Academy to be part of a larger Trust that has the financial capacity and resources that a small local Trust of two schools does not. In this way, BEA can keep moving forwards”.
This of course is nonsense. BEA is not a success story. How can it be when it has taken nearly 5 years to get from special measures to “requires improvement” – still not good enough. Moreover, not one child at BEA who was classified as a low prior achiever obtained a GCSE in Maths and English at Grade 4 or above last year. (Cressex Scool by comparison got 11% of its low prior attainers to Grade 5 and 21% to Grade 4).
Ms Cromie predicts that 165 pupils will start at BEA this September. However, to achieve that number, BEA will have to fill its last places from pupils who choose the school as its 4th preference. The school continues to be unpopular with pupils.
But the big question is if BEA is in such good shape and WHSAT’s declared ambition is to expand to 10 schools, why would it dump BEA?
Well, it doesn’t take long to conclude that Wycombe High School Academy Trust has not been successful in turning BEA around. BEA is a financial risk. Neither is WHSAT a big success at being an academy chain and expanding across Bucks. It looks as though it is drawing its horns in and focusing on the expansion of the grammar school.
Parents and pupils of BEA might like to know that Ms Cromie was paid £120 – 130K in the year ending August 2017 as Executive Headteacher of WHSAT.
Meanwhile we learn BEA is to be transferred to a new multi- academy trust. And guess what? It’s going to an academy chain called E-ACT – the very same chain I blogged about on 6 February 2018 (below).
Far from being able to provide the “financial capacity and resources” which Ms Cromie says are necessary for BEA to move forward, E-ACT was required by the Department of Education to reduce the number of schools it managed because of its poor performance.
8 out of its remaining 25 schools are currently still rated as “requires improvement” or worse. One of these, Burnham Park, remains in special measures. Burnham Park remains, understandably, a very unpopular school for pupils: only 15 pupils put the school as its first preference last year for its 140 places.
So a transfer of BEA to E-ACT can only increase E-ACT’s financial risks; it would have at least 2 schools below capacity and operating at a loss.
In addition, recent DfE and Ofsted reports on E-ACT have identified a number of failings, which include:
Ø Pupils from low-income families making less progress than equivalent pupils achieve nationally.
Ø Slow progress and low Key Stage 4 standards in their secondary schools.
Ø High turnover of trustees within the MAT.
Ø Poor financial management.
So, unless someone called the Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) changes his or her mind, I think BEA will get none of the help it needs in transferring to E-ACT.
A whole cohort of children at BEA will have gone through all their secondary schooling getting sub- standard education.
Bucks County Council could help. It has a responsibility to “work closely with the relevant RSC and local partners to ensure schools receive the support they need to improve”. BCC actually has a grant from central government to help them fulfill these responsibilities.
Local authorities are required to raise any concerns it has about an academy’s standards, leadership or governance directly with the relevant RSC.
However, Sarah Callaghan, BCC’s Director of Education says that WHSAT’s decision to dump BEA is “a matter between Wycombe High School and the RSC; it is not something that BCC were consulted upon or had involvement in”. The replacement of WHSAT by another MAT, “is a decision made by the RSC, in which the Local Authority has had no involvement at all”.
So BCC has a responsibility to ensure BEA has the support it needs to improve. BCC is paid to do this. But the Director of Education says it is nothing to do with BCC.
I do wonder if the Cabinet member for Education and Skills knows his Director had said it is nothing to do with BCC.
Because he is both the county and district councilor for Bourne End. I’ll ask him. I wonder what his constituents would say – if they know of course.