Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Seckford move to poach Thurston pupils as Ixworth numbers revealed to be low

The Seckford Foundation have already opened two schools with disappointingly low numbers at Beccles and Saxmundham. Beccls opened with less than a hundred children in three year groups and at one point famously only had 37 confirmed pupils. Numbers at Saxmundham were somewhat higher but still considerably under capacity.

With Ixworth Free School due to open in September this Blog can reveal that its numbers also look really low and it appears likely that the school will open with 120 children, an average of 40 for each of the three year groups it opens with. If the school was full it would have 360 children at opening, 120 in each year group.

This looks like an exact repeat of what happened at Beccles and Saxmundham. Perhaps this is what has prompted the Seckford Foundation to take the step of writing to parents who have already confirmed a place for their children at Thurston Community College and “inviting” them to consider switching to Ixworth. To “help” they have even enclosed the Suffolk County Council form parents would need to complete - even though overwhelmingly this process is done online now.

The letter can be seen below and appears to be poaching plain and simple:

Seckford Letter to Parents P1
Seckford Letter to Parents P2
Whilst competition between schools is well established large numbers of children switching schools at this stage is destabilising and stops schools planning their numbers and staffing properly for September.

Once again Seckford have failed to convince all but a small group of parents as to the value of their educational proposition. Parents have voted with their feet and chosen Thurston by and large or schools in Bury for year 9 children. Now we are witnessing a desperate attempt at poaching - ironically paid for at public expense as part of the opening “marketing costs.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

IES Breckland admits it it is sub-standard as Ofsted report due to be published soon

Matthew Hancock MP with the SABRES trust mascot

Brandon parents eagerly awaiting the publication of IES Breckland's Ofsted report after it was inspected some five weeks ago may be interested in reading two reports in the press today. Firstly in an article in the Times Educational Supplement (TES) IES themselves actually admit that education at the school is sub-standard.

Speaking to the TES an IES spokesperson said:

We inspected our school in Breckland after the former principal stepped down and decided that it wasn’t representative of our schools or our vision of how our schools should be. With this in mind we set to work to make improvements at the school so that it could provide the education the students deserve.

Unsurprisingly IES aren't exactly expecting the Ofsted inspection to go well and this is all beginning to look like an exercise in managing bad news before it breaks.

This impression is even stronger in an article in the Telegraph by Spectator editor Fraser Nelson (which itself is based on an earlier spectator article). Nelson predicts the school is likely to be judged inadequate and I seriously doubt any bookies in Brandon would take a bet on this now. Nelsons says:

But then, a week before the new head teacher was due to start, the inspectors called. Ofsted had been tipped off that there was trouble and found a school that was, to put it politely, in transition. Ofsted’s report has yet to be published but, given the circumstances of the inspection, it would not be surprising if IES Breckland were categorised as “inadequate” – the worst result. For the teaching unions, who loathe reform in general and profit-seeking schools in particular, this will be seen as vindication. It would be taken as proof that the much-hullabaloo’d Swedish system is failing in Britain and that Michael Gove’s experiment is heading for disaster.

However Nelson doesn't accept this as proof of failure instead seeing it as an inevitable consequence of "the market" which has to have failure to create success:

The test is not whether schools stumble – the test is whether they can recover, and, if not, how fast they can be closed.

Nelson appears to be convinced that IES did just this and acted to sort out the evident problems at IES:

Late last year, the IES managers in Stockholm felt their new flagship British school was not on the right track and they dealt with it in the Swedish way. This meant immediate, decisive action. The company’s operations manager, a former head teacher from Lancashire, flew over from Stockholm to take personal control. A replacement was found for the head teacher, a search started to replace six other teachers, and a detailed recovery plan was put in place with the aim of sorting out the problems by Easter.

However I am far from sure he is right. Significant problems remain at IES as the large number of quite shocking comments from parents on this blog show. A number of parents have already moved their children to other schools. Concerns remain about the appointment of the new Principal who was recruited from a school that several parents had actually moved their children from to take them to IES.

Nelson is right to point out that plenty of maintained schools have failed as well as free schools but if you have children at IES Breckland this is not much comfort. Nor is Nelson's market approach to education that would see parents move children away and schools close. This completely misses the point of what Brandon parents wanted for Breckland school, a decent local school in their town so children didn't need to travel elsewhere.

What they got was an ideological experiment that has gone wrong. I challenged Fraser Nelson to come down to Brandon and express these views in the market place and whilst he has replied saying he has visited Brandon before he doesn't seem that keen on another visit any time soon!


Friday, February 14, 2014

Stradbroke Parish Council Chair claims council business discussed in the pub not the lodge

Much like J.K.Rowling’s novel of the same name it began with a casual vacancy. Another recently appointed Stradbroke parish councillor decided she had better things to do on a Monday night. Thankfully unlike in the novel she was still alive. I forget the reason we were given for her departure.

As I entered the room just before the meeting started it was strangely full of people. The assembled masses of Stradbroke come to defend their beloved council from the calumnies perpetuated by this blog and its owner. Tension was high.

Then I looked more closely at who was in the room. As I checked off the dozen or so people against  a mental list of family members of other councillors there were a handful remaining. The meeting began with two pre-written speeches the first from a wife of a long standing parish councillor.

That was followed even more bizarrely with another from the former clerk to the council Pam Cane. She gave a speech suggesting the council had done “all it could” to save the spar shop with no apparent acknowledgement of the fact she owns the freehold of the shop herself. As such she continues each month to receive rent on the empty shop whilst we continue to have no shop.

Once these people sat down I replied and the meeting began. The agenda continued until we came to the Chairman’s “report”.  I awaited another pre-written speech about my blog and disloyalty but what followed astonished me. Nick Stones began:
I was a bit surprised by James’s blog….discussions about parish council certainly aren’t held in lodge meetings they are always held in the Queen’s Head on a Thursday night
Stones then went on to suggest that the council act to censor an article in the village magazine called View from the Gallery - full disclosure this is written by my mother-in-law - as he claimed it was “inaccurate”.

Attempts to pin down just what was inaccurate led to a discussion about an incident at the last meeting where Chairman Nick Stones turned to a member of the public who was requesting money for a project and asked him how much he wanted. The member of the public replied with a humorous “please give generously” but Stones appeared to have no recollection of this happening and certainly not in the closed part of the meeting when he shouldn’t have been addressing members of the public. Another Councillor even tried unconvincingly to suggest it was him who had said this.

Thankfully censorship of the parish magazine was a step too far for other councillors. Even the two members who sit to the chairman’s right and eagerly propose and second every resolution Stones makes were silent. Stones admitted he hadn’t even consulted the magazine editors although one councillor somewhat bizarrely said they should be “held to account” which is a bit of a strange suggestion when it comes to volunteers.

The meeting got onto more comfortable territory - dog poo - and eventually ended.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stradbroke and Laxfield primary schools begin partnership

PartnershipSmall schools in Suffolk are increasingly forming partnerships and more formal federations. This is clearly in part a response to the challenging financial situation and falling numbers of children in rural Suffolk. Yesterday Stradbroke and All Saints Laxfield primary schools announced to parents that they will begin a collaboration in the Summer Term that will see Melanie Barrow currently the Headteacher at Stradbroke become Executive Head of both schools. The deputies at each site become “Heads of School” responsible for day to day issues under the direction of the Executive Head.

The opportunity for a collaboration between Stradbroke and Laxfield came about when Laxfield’s head moved onto another school and Laxfield actively sought partners. At Stradbroke we had already spent quite a bit of time discussing collaboration which we saw as a good way forward but wanted to be careful to choose the right partner. This meant we were in a strong position to move when the opportunity arose.

Laxfield is a very similar school in terms of size although there are differences due to it being a Voluntary Aided (VA) school rather than a Voluntary Controlled (VC) school. Basically the church has more influence at Laxfield but both schools are church schools and that is also a common link.
Geographical proximity is also a major advantage. Both schools want to retain their individual identities but the collaboration will enable savings in time and money to be made for both schools helping to make them more sustainable than they would be on their own.

Governors and staff have already invested a lot of time and thought into the partnership and at a joint meeting of both Governing Bodies last week appointed a Joint Committee to steer the partnership which I am chairing. It’s been a lot of work already but we are already looking to see where we can save time such as holding joint governors meetings to discuss the County Papers and shared issues.
Once the partnership has run for a year or more we are planning to explore a formal federation which would mean a single governing body for both schools.

Inevitably comparisons are drawn to personal relationships when setting up a partnership. It’s a bit like that and it is true to say we are probably still in the “honeymoon” period. I even suggested at one meeting when encountering some resistance to the idea of a formal federation that it was a bit like saying we should live together but not get married! Such talk still raises eyebrows in church schools!

For any school thinking of a partnership I would encourage making sure that you understand the amount of work involved to set things up. Governors and senior school leaders are going to have to spend time in meetings and working on actions in order to make things work.

It’s also vital to keep stakeholders informed and involved. Clearly this includes all of the governors as well as staff, parents, the local authority and in the case of church schools the diocese.

Like any relationship if the foundations are weak then it is more likely to fail. The stakes are high we are seeing several Suffolk schools that were part of unsuccessful partnerships looking like they will close soon.

I think collaboration gives the best hope for small schools to continue to thrive. It’s a much better model than either closure or being gobbled up by an academy chain - not that academy chains appear that interested in small rural schools. It also helps recruit and retain school leaders and other staff something that is becoming increasingly problematic for small rural primary schools who face a high challenge particularly in recruiting heads.