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Monday, 20 April 2015 00:20

Medway Academy Monopoly Continues

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about the abdication of responsibility for the Bishop of Rochester Academy in Chatham, as the Diocese of Rochester, the previous main sponsor, decided to abandon its attempts to improve the standards and popularity of the school. The Academy has now been passed on to the Thinking Schools Academy Trust, headed up by The Rochester Grammar School, incorporating Chatham Grammar School for Boys and several primary schools.

Now comes news of a surprising merger between two more Medway Academy Trusts, an agreement having been reached to merge The Thomas Aveling Academy Trust (TA) with the Fort Pitt Grammar School Academy Trust (FP), under the catchy title of Fort Pitt Thomas Aveling Academy Trust. 

Thomas Aveling

What is notable in a Local Authority whose academy chains are currently dominated by grammar schools (the third chain being the Sir Joseph Williamson’s Academy Trust), is that this time the non-selective school appears to be at least equal in status.

Paul Jackson, Principal of TA is to become Executive Principal of the new Trust with Mrs Bell, previous Executive Principal of FP, taking over the role of CEO of the new merged Trust. In addition, the FP Trust’s other secondary school, The Robert Napier School, has a new Principal, Mr Minchin, who was until Easter Deputy Principal at TA.

Although Fort Pitt in Chatham has an ‘Outstanding’ OFSTED Report its popularity has been falling for about eight years when it last admitted around 180 girls. For the second year running it has not filled its places on allocation in March, with 8 of the 120 places left empty before appeals take place. On the surface, this is mainly the result of the expansion by 30 places by each of the two more popular grammar schools this year, Rainham Mark Grammar School and The Rochester Grammar School to 205 places, accompanied by falling numbers of children in Medway over this period. However, the school deliberately reduced its Planned Admission Number to 120 girls around 2009 and for many of the intervening years it turned away significant numbers of grammar qualified applicants. Around three years ago, Fort Pitt made a radical change in terms of its priority admission area, moving from taking those children who had passed the Medway Test who lived closest to the school replacing it by a catchment of 2 miles around the school, followed by children living on the Hoo Peninsula. At the time this highly unusual decision made considerable sense as some grammar qualified children on the Hoo Peninsula often finished up on distance grounds being eligible only for Chatham Girls Grammar, which was logistically impossible to reach. Either or both of these two decisions may have played their part in the fall off of popularity of the school. The Thomas Aveling School in Rochester has remained highly successful and very popular for many years. This year it is the second most popular school in Medway, turning away 61 first choices.

What may have been the greater catalyst however, was a damning OFSTED Monitoring Report on The Robert Napier School in October 2014. Some excerpts from the letter to the then headteacher: “Senior leaders and governors are not taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement…. Your action plan is incoherent and not well focused on the areas for improvement identified at the last inspection. It does not identify the starting point for each piece of work. The plan does not define the specific steps leaders will take to bring about improvements. Intended outcomes are imprecise and unrealistic for the given timescale. No targets have been set for improvements in achievement of different groups of students……. Members of the advisory board have not held you to account effectively since the previous inspection. The reports they receive do not help them gain a deep enough understanding of students’ achievement. They are rightly questioning the way in which they work and recognise the need for an improved approach….. The trust has not held you to account effectively enough. The executive principal has not made sure the academy action plan is fit for purpose. She visits the school weekly to discuss progress and see teaching but the information gathered is not used effectively to support improvement”.

In other words, there appears to have been a comprehensive failure of leadership by the then headteacher, the Local Advisory Board appointed by the FP Academy Trust and the Trust itself. Something had to happen, and this appears to be it.

One further factor which may have led to that change is the Department for Education’s reported preference for academy chains over what are pejoratively called “orphan academies”, or those standing on their own such as Thomas Aveling. I have certainly talked with headteachers of successful stand alone secondary academies who feel under pressure from the Department for Education to take over less successful schools.

An interesting insight into the takeover can be seen from the different ways the three academies have presented it to parents and on their websites. At TA, parents have been kept informed by two newsletters, the first in January informing parents of the proposed merger and the fact that Mr Jackson would become Executive Principal. The second was sent out last week and published on the school website confirming that a merger has been approved, but with no further details. Over at Fort Pitt, there is no mention on the website of what is surely a dramatic change in the fortunes of the school. At Robert Napier (school motto: ‘Excellence in all we do’), there is confirmation of Mr Minchin’s appointment, as head of a leadership team of six, which is itself most unusually all male. In an introductory letter, he refers to the sponsorship of FP and his delight in taking the school into the next chapter of its history, but no mention of the wider events that will certainly shape that chapter.

Read 4916 times Last modified on Thursday, 28 May 2015 06:48

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