Inadequate second-wave free school served with termination notice

Janet Downs's picture
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Sandymoor school boasted it would be ‘outstanding from day one’

When Sandymoor free school opened in Runcorn in 2012 as part of the free school second-wave, it boasted it was ‘outstanding from day one’.   The claim was swiftly removed after Advertising Standards intervened. 

Downgraded from good to inadequate

Sandymoor was judged good in 2014 but downgraded to inadequate in February.  Inspectors said pupils in Key Stage Four (KS4) had suffered from ‘weak teaching, weak leadership and poor curriculum choices’.   KS3 pupils, on the other hand, were making good progress and 16-19 provision, outsourced to the for-profit Robbie Fowler Education and Football Academy Ltd, was good.

Sandymoor has now been served with a Termination Warning.  Vicky Beer CBE, the local Regional Schools Commissioner, was ‘encouraged’ the free school’s board acknowledged that Sandymoor would be better off joining a multi-academy trust (MAT).  

Set up by parent group

Sandymoor was set by parents who wanted a small inclusive secondary school.   It had only 19 pupils in Years 7 and 8 when it first opened in temporary buildings.   These had only arrived two weeks before opening.      The school moved to new premises in 2014.  The cost of the new buildings isn’t known – it’s not included in DfE figures.  These haven’t been updated for two years and weren’t complete in any case.  

Local councils, schools and MP opposed Sandymoor opening

Halton council did not support the opening of Sandymoor as it could have a negative impact on schools already in Runcorn, the Impact Assessment shows.  The Director of Children Services said the free school would increase the already high number of surplus places. 

Warrington local authority also considered the new school was unnecessary.  Objections were received from Ormiston Bolingbroke Academy, St Chad’s, The Grange, Riverside College and the local MP.  They were all concerned about ‘potential flooding of the market in the borough’.  The Impact on Ormiston Bolingbroke was judged ‘high’ and two other secondary schools would be moderately affected.

But competition would ‘drive up standards’, said DfE

The DfE wasn’t convinced by the objections or the possible negative impact on Ormiston Bolingbroke.  It said:

Any negative impact is likely to be outweighed by the positive impact SFS [Sandymoor Free School] will have in increasing parental choice, addressing the demand for high quality secondary school places in the Sandymoor area and increasing competition to drive up standards.’

‘Competition’ not proved to raise standards

The promise of higher standards following increased competition is false.  Competition alone won’t raise education quality and can make it worse by reducing education to the easily-measured.  It can also have negative consequences such as ‘gaming’ and schools taking steps to deflect applications from pupils likely to reduce headline test results.

Education standards weren’t raised at Sandymoor.  However, progress in KS3 is promising.  It’s to be hoped pupils will thrive when Sandymoor is rebrokered.  But care will be necessary when choosing the MAT – the last thing the North needs is another Bright Tribe or WCAT debacle.

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