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Why spend £840k renovating a school and then close it?

Posted on: 2018-07-24 07:00:00

When Lorna Middleton was interviewed for her job as headteacher at St Anthony’s free school in the Forest of Dean in March 2017, she felt full of optimism about the future. The little school, based in two Victorian houses linked by an extension, had been lined up to join a local academy chain and move to new school buildings.

By the time she started the job that September, however, that plan had been abandoned and instead a programme of refurbishment had begun – work that would cost taxpayers £840,000. Middleton has never been given a reason for the change of plan.

Then, last Friday, the school closed for the final time, shut down by the DfE.

Middleton and her chair of governors now say the government has let the school down. “The experience, for me, of interacting with the government has been brutal,” Middleton says. She believes the closure shows that its approach to free schools is poorly thought-through. “Having set up the school and invested in the buildings, why did the DfE not provide it with more support?” she asks.

"There has to be some quality control, before these schools are allowed to open. In our case that didn't seem to happen"

St Anthony’s is one of at least five primary and secondary free schools that are closing this summer. By September, 46 free schools, studio schools and university technical colleges (set up under the same legislation) will have shut their doors. This is 9% of the 508 institutions that have opened since free schools launched in 2011. The average rate of closure among local authority schools over the same period is 1.4%.

Free school supporters still champion the policy as a success. They argue these schools have better exam results than others. And they believe ministers’ willingness to step in and close schools when they struggle is a strength of the programme – despite the impact on pupils.

Middleton says: “The DfE will keep telling you that free schools benefit from the ‘freedom’ from control, either by the local authority or by the DfE itself. That sounds brilliant. But there has to be some quality control upfront, before these schools are allowed to open, including the buildings. In our case that never seems to have happened.”

Based in the former mining town of Cinderford, St Anthony’s started out as a fee-charging Catholic day school in the 1960s. It joined the state sector as a free school in September 2013. Middleton says she has never seen any record of a visit by the DfE before the transfer.

In 2015 the then headteacher sought funding from the DfE for improvements after an engineering report showed the buildings were unsafe. The engineers highlighted “urgent/potential for danger to life” in the electrics, including there being no cover to an electrical distribution board and “potential access to live wiring”.

No money was offered by the DfE at the time. In February 2017, a safety audit by Gloucestershire county council, warned that “the risk to life from fire is high”. There were “significant deficiencies in fire precautions” with “insufficient fire separation between floors”. The document set out 17 bullet points of building “hazards”. Draft minutes from a meeting of the school’s governors, five months later, stated that fire safety was “currently inadequate”. Refurbishment to fix the problems began when Middleton arrived.

Then there were the finances. Upon starting her job, Middleton found there was only £130 in the school’s bank account. She managed to secure an interim loan of £65,000 from the DfE to pay the staff.

In December 2017, at the end of Middleton’s first term, St Anthony’s failed an Ofsted inspection. It was the school’s second poor report; the first was in May 2015, long before Middleton arrived. The 2017 report said leadership and management had been “dysfunctional” over time. Teachers’ subject knowledge was “weak” and the curriculum “poorly designed”. Before Middleton arrived, the school had used £150,000 – nearly half of its entire budget – to pay for “leadership consultancy support”, with spending having gone “unchecked and unchallenged by governors”, said the inspectors. Ofsted also highlighted the delay in sorting out the building safety problems.

But Ofsted also said: “The current headteacher has a clear understanding of the school’s failings and what is required to bring about the urgent improvements necessary. Poor performance is now being addressed systematically.”

By January this year, the refurbishment was complete. But then, just days later, Middleton says she was called to the DfE in London for a meeting with Lord Agnew, the minister with responsibility for free schools, to be told that, following the December Ofsted report, he was “minded” to close St Anthony’s. Over the next few months, Middleton and Anselm Jacobs, the chair of governors, tried to persuade the DfE otherwise.

Jacobs, who has 20 years’ experience of school governance, and joined St Anthony’s at the same time as Middleton, says the government’s free schools policy is “chaotic”. He adds: “The voluntary-aided school where I’m a governor works like an absolute dream compared with my experience here. It often seems as if the DfE doesn’t have a clue.”

They are not the first school leaders to fight back after a closure. In 2014, Education Guardian revealed how the chair of governors of the Discovery free school in West Sussex, described the policy as “rushed and ill-considered”.

At Robert Owen academy in Hereford, another free school closing this summer, Chris Morgan, the chair of governors, says the closure has had a damaging effect on some students. He believes the DfE is more willing to pull the plug on free schools than other schools. “Establishing a school from scratch, in the face of tricky local politics a generally unsympathetic Ofsted system and in the context of spare places in other schools was always going to be tough. We needed more support.”

Last month, another free school called Discovery, in Newcastle upon Tyne, announced its closure after four years, despite a reported £9m spent creating it. The local Labour council leader said it was a “damning indictment of the government’s high-risk experiment in our education system”. 

A DfE spokesman says the closure of St Anthony’s was to do with “improvement issues”. The school “was judged as inadequate by Ofsted in December 2017 and since then has received extensive support from the department, including bespoke advice from education advisers and financial guidance to try to bring about the improvements it needed. Funding awarded to the school for building repairs was for essential work to make sure that the building was safe, and had no connection with the improvement issues that the school faced.” Yet the proposal to close the school was announced barely a month after Ofsted visited. Middleton says the only visit she has had from DfE consultants – other than administrators preparing its closure – came from two finance people who arrived for a few hours in May.

The DfE spokesman adds that St Anthony’s was subject to “rigorous due diligence before its free school application was approved”. He did not reply to the specific question of whether this included a visit from the DfE.

He adds: “The free schools programme has brought diversity and innovation to English education. More than eight in 10 free schools are rated good or outstanding, with pupils making more progress at the end of GCSEs on average than pupils at other secondary schools.”


Source: The Guardian 

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