The Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC) for the South East Tim Coulson sent warning letters to seven academies in Norfolk and Suffolk between 12 and 16 October, Schools Week reports. The letters were not made public until 16 November. It’s unclear why the letters weren’t published until a month after they were sent. A cynic might say it was to delay bad news about academies while the Education and Adoption Bill trundles through the Lords.
But leave that aside. What is more to the point is that none of the seven schools has been judged Inadequate. The Chafford School was judged to Require Improvement in June. Inspectors were critical, yes, but noted the head had ‘clear vision’ and changes had been made which were beginning to improve student progress. Improvement, however, was hampered by recruitment difficulties. When Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust proposed to open two free schools in Saxmundham and Beccles, Seckford said it would ‘challenge a culture of low expectations and low achievement in the area’. But their first results were poor. Both schools had, however, been judged Good in 2014. The City Academy, Norwich, was judged Requires improvement in March. Monitoring in June found the academy was ‘taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement…’ Admirals Academy, Thetford, run by Academies Transformation Trust which had its ban on further expansion lifted in December 2014, was judged Good in 2014. Diamond Academy, run by the same trust, was judged Requires Improvement in 2014. Monitoring in September 2014 found Diamond Academy was ‘taking effective action’ to address identified weaknesses. Castle Manor Academy, Haverhill, was judged Good in June 2013.
Four of the academies, then, were Good and three Require Improvement. Two of the latter are taking ‘effective action’ to deal with problems previously identified by inspectors. But inspectors’ ratings are disregarded when it came to sending out these warning letters. The schools were targeted because of their low results. The fact that two schools were taking effective action to improve has been ignored. The four Good judgements are seemingly irrelevant.
There may be reasons for these low results. Theresa Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal, defended the low GCSE results at Saxmundham saying the particular year group was ‘challenging’. If she is correct, then it follows that other schools have equally challenging cohorts. At City Academy, for example, the 2014 GCSE cohort was top heavy with disadvantaged children and the intake was skewed to the bottom end.
But this Government will allow for no such excuses. And it can’t believe that schools can have low results but still be offering a good education to their pupils. Yet in 2011 the Education Endowment Fund found that many below-floor schools were actually doing a good job in difficult circumstances.
That’s not to say there might not be cause for concern at these or similar schools. But appropriate action would be to dispatch inspectors to consider the quality of education, the context of the schools and any difficulties such as recruitment they may be facing. Sending out warning letters demanding action in a few weeks is inappropriate, especially when inspectors have said two of the Require Improvement academies were already taking effective action and a third had made changes. Such schools needs support not threats. But if, as appears to be the case, Regional Schools Commissioners are ignoring Ofsted judgements, then it raises the question whether there is any point in having Ofsted. It appears not to matter if schools are Good or taking effective action – they will still be damned if their results are low.