THERE were times when it
looked as though it might not happen, but the new King's Priory
Academy in Tynemouth, North Tyneside, has opened its doors with a
flourish at the start of the new academic year.
The merger between The
King's School, a fee-paying Woodard school, and the nearby Priory
Primary School to create a state sector academy for
four-to-18-year-olds is a first for the Woodard Corporation, a
highly respected Church of England trust founded in 1847. It is
also the first such merger in the UK.
The Woodard Academies
Trust already sponsors four academies: in Littlehampton, Lancing,
Canterbury, and Stoke-on-Trent. These have been successful
conversions of schools in difficulties; but needs on both sides
prompted the merger in North Tyneside.
Falling rolls at The
King's School were a result of the harsher economic climate in the
north of England, where many parents have been struggling to pay
the fees they embarked on in better times. "King's governors have
recognised that the payment of school fees represents a growing
issue for many parents. By assuming academy status, and ceasing to
charge fees, we will enhance and strengthen our ties with the
community we serve," the school's chairman of governors, John
Evans, said, when the proposal was first announced in September
King's also had an
overdraft and loan amounting to £5 million, though that was not
highlighted in the early stages of the process.
PRIORY SCHOOL's chairman
of governors, Geoff Ogle, told parents: "In-come per pupil here is
significantly below local and national averages, costs are
increasing, the condition of our buildings is deteriorating, and we
have exhausted other avenues for savings." The premium per pupil at
Priory School, which OFSTED deemed outstanding in all but one
category, was £2988, as against the local-authority median of
£3579, and the national median of £4199.
Total expenditure per
pupil had been £2972 in the previous financial year, he explained
in his letter to parents announcing the proposal, which meant that
the budget "would be insufficient to meet our needs within two
years, with a potential deficit growing by £50,000 a year."
Capital funds from the
Department for Education would mean that the existing building
could be re-furbished, and new buildings erected to replace
Portakabins on the site, enabling the school to offer much-needed
In urging parents to
accept the proposals, the governors emphasised the excellence of
both schools: "Priory is an outstanding primary school, and King's
an excellent school. They share an ethos and determination to give
Tynemouth children the best opportunities in life."
Since all Priory pupils
would have a guaranteed place at the new academy, there would be a
seamless transition from primary to secondary school, with no dip
Class sizes would be 25,
and merging with King's would improve sport and outward-bound
activities (King's has a field-centre in the Cheviot Hills), and
strengthen the school's offering in music and the performing arts,
the governors said. They voted unanimously to go forward, and urged
parents to "embrace this new and exciting chapter in our school's
long and impressive history".
They emphasised, most of
all, that "our new school will remain a local school at the centre
of the community. It will remain inclusive, non-selective, and
support children with special educational needs."
BOTH schools embarked on
a three-month consultation under Section 5 of the Academies Act
2010 on whether to convert to academy status. Of the 324 responses
from Priory parents and staff (a 91-per-cent return rate), 306
supported becoming an academy, seven were against, and 11 had no
preference. Twenty of the 55 local primary schools returned the
feedback form, of which all but one were against. Nine of the local
middle- and high-schools responded, and all were against the
The local authority,
local teacher organisations, and both diocesan boards of education
were also against the proposal. They argued that, as there were
already surplus places in the area, the introduction of new ones
would have a detrimental effect on other local schools,
particularly the nearest, Marden High. The local authority also
expressed concerns about the time and scope of the consultation,
from December 2012 to March 2013.
Half of King's parents
(303) re-sponded to Woodard's consultation, of whom 251 were
supportive, 26 against, and 26 had no preference. The Secretary of
State for Education, Michael Gove, signed the funding agreement for
the new school on 5 July.
Giving his decision, he
highlighted the increased choice and high-quality provision that
the new academy would bring. There had been 109 first-preference
applications for 75 places in reception, and 78 for 35 places in
Year Seven. He described Woodard Academies Trust as "a private
sponsor which improved results in its open academies by an average
of 11.5 percentage points between 2011 and 2012." He disputed the
local authority estimate that the effect of opening the academy
would be to increase surplus places in the area to 20.1 per cent by
Local authority figures
showed, the Secretary of State said, that the resulting increase
would be two per cent - "a moderate increase that is expected to
reduce over time".
He did not consider the
increase of surplus places to outweigh the "significant advantages
. . . particularly in terms of parental choice, and of high-quality
provision in the area".
THE local authority had
argued that the impact on Marden High School would be a 35-per-cent
decline in its expected intake, and a consequent loss of £85,000 in
funding. The Government's counter-argument was that Marden was a
popular school, and was oversubscribed, with 304 applications for
places in September 2012 against a pupil-admission number of
The Secretary of State
expected that, in future years, "any impact would spread across a
number of schools because of Marden's popularity, and would
therefore be less significant than has occurred in this first
Marden has just achieved
its best-ever GCSE results: 80 per cent of pupils have achieved
five A*-C grades, including maths and English. Of the other three
secondary schools in the area, John Spence, and St Thomas More RC
are both rated out-standing. The smaller Monkseaton High is rated
The Secretary of State
agreed to fund the existing loan and overdraft of King's by
securing a charge against its assets on land and buildings. Woodard
retains the freehold of the land, which the state has on a 125-year
lease. He concluded that "the provision of 980 additional
state-sector places represents good value for money." The school
will eventually cater for 1425 pupils: 600 primary, 625 secondary,
and 200 sixth form.
NORTH TYNESIDE COUNCIL
challenged the decision on 17 July, sending a formal letter to the
Secretary of State asking him to reconsider his decision. It
disputed the figures relating to Marden High, and under the Freedom
of Information Act re-quested to see the supporting statistical
analysis used to reach his decision. It said that the school had
not been oversubscribed in 2012, when it had 304 applications for
181 places, but that there had been 177 applications for places,
and all had been successful.
Recent admissions data
indicated that if the academy went ahead, it would result in a
35-per-cent decline in Marden's roll. It also expressed its belief
that Woodard's debt should have been highlighted in the early
At 7 p.m. on 25 July, the
council received an email from the DfE saying that the original
decision would be withdrawn and reconsidered. But a further
message, 15 hours later, from the Under-Secretary of State for
Schools, Lord Nash, confirmed that he had decided to enter into the
funding agreement, having considered the matter afresh.
The Labour-led council
has robustly defended itself over charges of politicking, or of
being ideologically opposed to academies, pointing out that there
are already a number of academies in North Tyneside that it has not
It will not be seeking
the judicial review that was mooted at one point, but has announced
its intention to focus on protecting the future education of all
the borough's 30,000 children, and to work with schools to address
the issue of surplus places.
IT HAS been a
roller-coaster summer for all involved. The chief executive of the
Woodard Academies Trust, David Bilton, was a pupil at King's
School, and still lives in Tynemouth. He is delighted with the
decision, as is the chair of the trust, Jan Richardson. Speaking
the week before the school was due to open, she said: "Because it
is such an unknown venture, and because we are a family of schools,
we hope that this opening would have thrilled Nathaniel Woodard,
our founder. What we are doing in the 21st century is carrying on
his philanthropic approach."
This fifth academy is in
a part of the country that is perhaps more hesitant about the
political parties' current approach to education, she suggests.
"Politics - yes, it's important, and a great deal of talk- ing has
gone on throughout the last year.
"The parents and children
have been behind us and championing us from the beginning, which
has been wonderful to see. We put our case sufficiently for them to
say: 'Yes, please, come to the north, because what you have been
doing in the south, and in Stoke-on-Trent, has been excellent.' We
took the teachers down to see the other schools so that they could
see how the whole community has ended up feeling involved."
King's Priory, she emphasises, is for all faiths and none, which
is the ethos of the Woodard schools. It is to be officially opened
on 18 October by Lord Adonis, a former Labour Minister for Schools,
who is re-garded as the architect of the academies.