Academy trust struggling; nearby free school struggling. DfE answer: build another free school
Avonbourne International Business and Enterprise Trust (AIBET) is in financial difficulties. It runs two Bournemouth academies, Harewood College, a secondary boys’ school, and Avonbourne College, a secondary girls’ schools with co-educational primary and sixth form.
AIBET was sent a Financial Notice to Improve on 21 April 2017*. The Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) slated the Trust’s ‘weak financial position’ and financial management.
Company Accounts (y/e 31 August 2016) show the Trust sought extra ESFA funding. It blamed money woes on setting up primary provision at Avonbourne, increased staff costs and the secondary academies being ‘below capacity’.
More secondary places in Bournemouth will be needed as increased primary numbers reach secondary school. But demand won’t exceed supply until September 2019 according to a council forecast.
The council forecast didn’t take into account Parkfield School, an all-through free school (capacity 784) opened September 2013 in temporary accommodation. It currently has 438 pupils (source Edubase) and is facing difficulties.
Parkfield’s relocation has been repeatedly postponed. It’s now scheduled for September 2017. Ofsted judged it Requires Improvement in April 2015. Test results have been poor. And it no longer has a sponsor.
In November 2016, an Interim Academy Board (IAB) was established to help Parkfield manage a takeover. Setting up an IAB is unusual. And it was controversial. The school and the Department for Education (DfE) blamed each other for delegating governance to the IAB.
It was hoped Ambitions Academy Trust would take over Parkfield but it’s ruled itself out. In a report seen by Schools Week, Verity McAuley, Ambitions’ finance director, described Parkfield’s ‘staff spending ratio as an “imminent financial risk”. She estimated Parkfield would need to have 550 pupils by September 2018 to be viable.
The possible effect on Harewood was known when Parkfield was proposed. The Impact Assessment said the risk to Harewood was ‘High’ and could ‘affect the long term financial viability of the school.’ Harewood had a ‘significant surplus’ of places at the time and was undersubscribed.
The situation is this:
- AIBET says its financial problems are caused in part by under capacity in its secondary schools.
- The Department for Education knew one of AIBET’s academies had significant surplus capacity.
- But it allowed Parkfield to open in 2013.
- Parkfield and AIBET are now struggling.
This situation wouldn’t, you would think, be the ideal environment to open another free school. But the DfE has given approval to Aspirations Academy Trust to open Livingstone Academy Bournemouth, a 4-19 free school with capacity for 1,510 pupils.
Aspirations Academy Trust featured in the Channel 4 documentary, ‘How school bosses spend your millions’.
Livingstone Academy was due to open in September 2018 but that’s been postponed for a year. A site in central Bournemouth has been found but there’ll be no playing fields. It could, of course, take over Parkfield’s temporary site if Parkfield actually moves.
The Impact Assessment could tell us whether Livingstone would threaten existing Bournemouth schools. But the one for Livingstone Academy hasn’t been published. Impact Assessments are never published until after a free school is opened. Those for free schools which opened in September 2016 still aren’t on the DfE website.
This debacle shows the downside of the free schools policy. A free school opens where there’s already surplus capacity. It threatens the viability of a nearby school. The temporary accommodation, an old office block, was not suitable for infants. Problems with a potential permanent site weren’t identified. The free school struggles and a takeover is proposed. That hits the buffers. Nearby secondary academies are not full.
But the DfE gives permission for a new all-through free school. And all the while existing schools nationally are buckling through lack of funding.
*Letter sent to the Trust 21 April but not published until 23 June