From Warrington to Brighton – let’s hope history isn’t repeating itself.
Back in 2013 the University of Chester Academies Trust opened an academy in Warrington – the University Academy Warrington. Three years earlier the proposal to open the academy had sparked controversy. The Warrington Guardian quoted the Council’s shadow spokesman for children expressing concern that the academy ‘would destabilise the current system, which works well’ and the president of the teachers’ union, the NASUWT, who lived locally, warned that the academy would be run outside of council control. He said ‘I’m certain that people don’t understand the implications it will have on the families and children in Warrington.’ However, a senior Council officer was more sanguine: ‘We are currently in an ongoing dialogue with the University of Chester to assess if an institution of this type is required in the area’ he said. ‘There are no firm plans or timescale to share at this moment as we are at the very early stages of this process.’ The controversy didn’t stop.
In early 2013, the still locally based (but now) former president of the NASUWT said he found the number of schools converting to academies in Warrington ‘worrying’. ‘The issue with academies is there is no accountability to the local community. ‘You lose that family of schools that has made Warrington one of the most successful local authorities. ‘It’s survival of the fittest and the weakest can just go hang themselves. ‘There is no evidence that academies will raise standards. ‘They are racially and socially divisive. ‘The children that will suffer are from working class families. ‘It’s very worrying and it’s very disconcerting.’ The same senior Council officer – the Assistant Director of Children and Young People’s Services – was far more relaxed about the number of schools becoming academies. He responded by saying that the exodus would not impact on the ‘family’ of schools in the town’. And that year the academy sponsored by University of Chester Academies Trust did open. The University of Chester Academies Trust also opened a Free School. What could go wrong? The University of Chester’s education department was rated ‘outstanding’ enabling the University of Chester Academies Trust to claim that it was in a ‘unique position to deliver high levels of teaching and learning, teacher training and bespoke professional development to its family of Academy members and partner schools’.
Roll on another year and in 2014 the University Academy Warrington was inspected and found to be ‘requiring improvement’. Not a great advert for the University of Chester Academies Trust and those who had supported the proposal. Worse was to come. The same year the Department for Education barred the University of Chester Academies Trust from taking on any more academies. Three of its academies were highlighted for ‘unacceptably low’ performance forcing the University of Chester Academies Trust to withdraw from two of them. Perhaps those who had warned against academies were correct and the senior Council officer, who assured the community otherwise, had been mistaken. However, by the time the University of Chester Academies Trust sponsored academy opened in Warrington the senior Council officer had left his post to take up the post of Director of Children’s Service for Brighton & Hove.
In March this year, Brighton & Hove City Council, without any consultation with the local community or teachers, announced that they had asked the University of Brighton Academies Trust to open a free school. The Director of Children’s Services told the BBC that the Council’s proposal for the University of Brighton Academies Trust to open a free school was in ‘very early days, but this is a very exciting proposal that has the potential to be of enormous benefit to the city’. Words not dissimilar to those he used when assuring the community in Warrington over the University of Chester Academies Trust and the number of academies in the area. And by 2015, six of Warrington’s secondary schools were academies – with 50% of them graded by Ofsted as ‘requiring improvement’ – a far worse proportion than the national average! The people of Brighton & Hove are hoping that history isn’t about to repeat itself.