Academy seeks new sponsor as South Downs pulls out

Could this be the first crack in FE tie-ups with schools?

Since Barnfield College embarked on its sponsorship of two academies in 2007, partnerships between FE institutions and the autonomous breed of school have become a popular model of cross-sector co-operation. Of the original type of sponsored academies created by Labour, more than 30 now have an FE college sponsor on board.

But the first crack appears to have emerged in the relationship, with the revelation this week that South Downs College in Hampshire has pulled the plug on its sponsorship of Havant Academy.

While South Downs principal Michael Oakes, who founded the academy last September with co-sponsor Hampshire County Council, insists it was always the plan for the college to step aside ahead of his retirement next year, TES understands the news has come as a shock to the school.

"It was never my intention to stay long term with Havant Academy," Mr Oakes said. "I got involved to rescue the opportunities of young people in the community - I think if I hadn't done what I did, the school would have probably closed. But now I'm retiring after more than 23 years as principal, and whoever takes over as principal has to focus on South Downs."

While Labour and Conservative ministers alike are keen to trumpet the success of academies in turning around failing schools, the creation of Havant Academy has so far failed to spark an improvement. This year, just 23 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, including English and maths - down 4 per cent on the results from last year when the school, formerly known as Staunton Community Sports College, was still under local-authority control.

Mr Oakes moved to distance the Waterlooville-based college from the academy's latest results, laying the blame squarely at the door of the school leadership. "Of course I would have liked to have achieved a major improvement in exam results in 12 months, but I don't see that directly as the college's responsibility. It is very much down to the school. There is a cohort of students who haven't done as well as they should have ... It is absolutely clear the children in the community deserve a really good start. That's the single purpose of the academy. I recognise the exam results that came through this year don't achieve that, but they have to in future. No educational institution has a right to survive unless it is doing its job well," he said.

Councillor Roy Perry, deputy leader of Hampshire County Council, said the college's stance was "understandable", given the principal's imminent departure, but said the move would have no detrimental impact on the day-to-day running of the school. "We are working with the college, principal, governing body and the Government to find a suitable replacement. We are hopeful that this will be brought to fruition shortly," he added.

Talks with potential new sponsors are under way. But while Mr Oakes is confident a new sponsor will be found by the end of term, anxiety will remain at the school until a replacement has been found. For a school shrouded in uncertainty, the promise of a secure future would be a most welcome Christmas present.

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