I have provided a brief history of the troubled school below, summarising the evidence for the case, followed by a paragraph about Academies Enterprise Trust. However, one must not forget that at the heart of this are children who have spent their whole primary school years in a badly failing school, enduring a dismal start to life in the real world, let down by all in authority. No one can recompense them for the loss of a decent education.
History of Bell Wood/ Tree Tops
Bell Wood before Academisation
Bell Wood Community Primary School was created in September 2004, from the amalgamation of an Infant and Junior School. In November 2005, whilst under the control of Kent County Council, the school failed its first OFSTED Inspection, being given “Notice to Improve”. The Report stated: “Significant improvement is required in relation to the achievements of pupils in English and mathematics, the quality of leadership provided by senior and middle managers and the expectations teachers have of how well pupils can achieve”. It identified the key problem, that whilst “The school contains a wide social mix but most pupils come from highly deprived backgrounds”. From the start KCC allowed a poor situation to develop and “Despite the good leadership provided by the headteacher, other managers do not have sufficient expertise to support her in the drive to raise standards”. A monitoring inspection in 2006 found satisfactory progress but criticised the Local Authority’s Action plan. In November 2006, OFSTED found the school to be ‘Satisfactory’. By November 2009, it plunged into ‘Special Measures’, the lowest possible Grade. ‘For too long, the attainment of pupils at Bell Wood has been low and their progress inadequate’. ‘key issues raised at the last inspection remain as concerns’. However, by this time KCC were at last on the job, and a Monitoring Inspection of May 2010 found that: ‘Before being put into special measures, Bell Wood was already receiving a range of external support. Since September 2006 the school has been in the Intensive Support Programme and the Raising Attainment Plan, with a focus on literacy and numeracy. Additional help was provided to improve attendance and to strengthen support for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities. The local authority’s statement of action following the school’s being put into special measures meets Ofsted’s requirements and is thorough and realistic’’. By November 2009 however, the long suffering headteacher had gone, and in a second Monitoring Inspection: ‘There have been substantial changes in the school’s leadership and management since the previous monitoring visit. Consultation about possible federation with a neighbouring primary school is almost complete’. A further monitoring Inspection in March 2011 saw the amalgamation through, with an Executive Head of the two schools in charge. This proved a disaster, and yet another Monitoring Inspection in November 2011 found progress inadequate. Attainment was poor, and Inspectors criticised lack of continuity in staffing: ‘In 2010-2011, for example, one class had six different teachers, which contributed to pupils’ low attainment and slow progress’ . This was followed up by a full Inspection in February 2012, which once again failed the school serving it with ‘Notice to Improve’.
Tree Tops Academy
In April, along with its amalgamation partner Molehill Copse Primary School which had just got out of its own OFSTED failure, it became an academy under Academies Enterprise Trust.
OFSTED soon visited with a Monitoring Inspection in December 2012, but found ‘Having considered all the evidence I am of the opinion that at this time the academy is not making enough progress in raising standards for all pupils. This visit has raised serious concerns’. As I wrote in an article at the time about the school and the controversial Academies Enterprise Trust: “I am sure that KCC heaved a sigh of relief when the problem was taken out of their hands but, for the poor children of the area, who have been provided with a shocking standard of education for so many years, it appears there is no relief yet. One can only speculate on how many life chances have been damaged by those responsible for these children's education. It may well be that Mr Gove was right to say that such schools should be taken away from Local Authorities incapable of providing an adequate education in them, but surely the solution was to improve the Local Authority rather than hand schools over to non-accountable bodies who, even when provided with additional resources, appear to do no better”.
In the summer 2013 KS2 Tests, Tree Tops was the fourth worst school in the country, with just 15% of pupils achieving Level 4 Grades in Literacy and Maths, a result that triggered a Department for Education pre-warning letter, one of just 36 nationally in the past three years, another having gone to its neighbouring AET academy, Molehill Copse Primary School.
The letter records that “the Secretary of State considers that the standards of performance at Tree Tops Academy are unacceptably low and are likely to remain so”. With regard to AET, the letter records “Financial issues have prevented the Principal from ensuring staff have the right resources to support their teaching. The sponsor has not acted to provide resources even temporarily to resolve this issue” . To me this says that AET was itself the main problem with the school, but unfortunately there is no mechanism to take it away from them.
So far so bad. But OFSTED has now carried out yet another Inspection in December, published last week and guess what? Tree Tops Academy has been plunged into Special Measures yet again. Key issues include: “Pupils’ attainment is low because they make inadequate progress, particularly in reading and mathematics. Pupils’ reading skills are weak throughout the school. Significant groups of pupils do not make adequate progress in mathematics during Key Stage 2, including disabled pupils and those with special educational needs. Teachers and teaching assistants do not expect enough of pupils and work in lessons is neither sufficiently challenging nor carefully matched to pupils’ abilities. Teachers do not ask pupils enough challenging questions or regularly check on pupils’ progress during lessons. Pupils’ behaviour and attitudes to learning require improvement. In the weaker lessons, too many pupils either stop paying attention or are slow to start work. When this happens, pupils make slow progress. Recent instability in the leadership of the school has hindered improvement. New arrangements for the leadership and governance of the academy have not been in place long enough to have sufficient impact on improving standards or the quality of teaching. Subject leaders have not yet been successful in improving provision in the subjects they are responsible for”.
AET is one of the largest of the Academy chains in the country, currently running nearly 80 academies.
An article in The Guardian last year makes clear AET’s financial interests in running its schools, along with other major criticisms of the Trust (the definition of Trust includes not-for profit). In March 2012, the Anti-Academies Alliance turned its spotlight theme onto the Academies Enterprise Trust. It makes unhappy reading. This month the Alliance also published an article highlighting individual growing problems with academies, including immediate resignations of three of AET’s headteachers last year, and the departure of its Chief Executive after problems with the chain, expected to comprise 80 academies by the Spring.
The DfE has sent just 36 pre-warning letters over the past three years, an astonishing 11 of which have gone to schools run by or associated with Academies Enterprise Trust, including both Tree Tops a federated school and its partner Molehill Copse Academy, also in Maidstone, and also the Marlowe Academy in Ramsgate, which has now terminated its connection with AET.
Allegations are currently being made in the national media that the Secretary of State for Education wants to take the OFSTED Inspection regime away from the academies, and set up a new inspecting body. Ignoring the children whose life chances are damaged by the repeated failures, and given the number of academy failures recently, this may be a wise strategy to reduce them and avoid stories like this - or am I being cynical?