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Education: At the start of a long climb

by
20 September 2013

The establishment of the new King's Priory Academy, in North Tyneside, is an educational first in the UK, says Pat Ashworth

New start: King's Priory's principal, David Dawes

New start: King's Priory's principal, David Dawes

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 2012.

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 nursery provision.

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 in achievement.

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 proposal.

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 2015-16.

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 181.

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 year".

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 satisfactory.

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 consultation.

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 opposed.

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.

 

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