There are two new Converter Academies for January, both in Kent: Ursuline College, Westgate-on-Sea (unusual amongst Catholic Schools in being stand-alone rather than joining the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership); Stella Maris Primary, Folkestone (joining Kent Catholic Schools Partnership).
There are also two new converter applications, both in Medway: Balfour Infant School and Balfour Junior school in Rochester. This brings the proportion of primary academies and those in the process, up to 35% of the total number of schools in the Borough. There must be a reason they are all leaving!
Swale Academy Trust now has Ministerial Approval in principle to sponsor The North School as an academy (with effect from 1st September 2015) and Beaver Green Primary (with effect from 1st April 2015), both from Ashford and both placed in Special Measures last year. Clearly, the Trust sees no problem in completing the conversions as it is now advertising for an Executive Head to run the Trust’s four secondary schools, including The North.
I have written about the North School proposal before as it is one of the Kent schools rebuilt under the Private Finance Initiative, around 2005. KCC blocked these and other PFI schools from changing status, as each conversion would place a large financial penalty upon the county, and hence on the budgets of maintained schools if these were allowed through. However, one school, Swan Valley, was allowed to become an Academy sponsored by the Brook Learning Trust. KCC conceded at the time, after a long and convoluted battle with the DfE: “We gave way on Swan Valley, so as not to hold up the conversion process any longer and aid the school’s recovery by supporting its incorporation into the Hayesbrook alliance of schools” . This generous decision cost KCC some £30 million over the thirteen remaining years of its contract, a sum to be recouped from Kent's remaining schools.
This is on top of the £1 million that each academy conversion costs KCC.
The North PFI Contract is for a longer period than Swan Valley, and so one can expect the cost of conversion falling on Kent’s remaining maintained schools to be proportionally higher. One wonders what the explanation for further reducing funding to Kent’s maintained schools will be. As I see it, there are just four possible explanations for KCC’s change of mind.
1) It has been forced down this road by government
2) As with Swan Valley, it has generously chosen to accept the cost to its own schools and aid the school’s recovery by its incorporation into the Swale Academy Trust.
3) The rules have changed so that KCC does not have to make up the costs (I can find nothing to suggest this).
4) Ministerial Approval does not mean that all the hurdles have been jumped.
I look forward to learning which of these possibilities it is.
There is also a considerable cost to fall on the Academy itself arising from the contract. However, government has considerably eased this problem by changing the rules to enable academies to take out loans from government for up to ten years. An inducement to go down this road for all academies, not just the PFIs, is that they will receive priority for funding through the Academy Condition Improvement Fund, a priority that can be improved further by borrowing more! You will find details here. Therefore, this disincentive has been taken away, provided the new academy can be relied on to balance its books as it pays the money back. However, the increasing number of recent financial scandals coming to light at some academies is just one reason why this way forward would be madness for many to risk.
The big question now is whether this decision opens the door to all the other PFI schools to go down the same route, with a consequent large cut in funds to mainstream schools, at a time when these are already financially squeezed.
Quiz question for those who are familiar with prominent Kent figures: who is the person with their back to the camera, by the pillar in front of the school entrance, in the picture above?