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Exclusive – Private firm running first for-profit free school escapes axe despite 'mistakes'

The trust in charge of the first free school run by a for-profit provider will not terminate the private company’s £21m contract, despite admitting the firm had made some “bad choices” and a “mistake”, TES can reveal. 

IES Breckland was placed into special measures by Ofsted earlier this month. In its report, the watchdog condemned work by Internationella Engelska Skolan (IES) as “ineffective”, raising serious questions as to whether the Swedish firm would continue to run the school.

TES has established that the Sabres Educational Trust, which has ultimate responsibility for the secondary in Brandon, Suffolk, could cancel the 10-year contract with the Scandinavian free school operator if it wanted to.

But the trust's members have stated they will stick with the company even though they believed IES was partly to blame for their school’s plight.

Andrew Challiss, chair of the trust, told TES: “We as the trust have confidence in IES to run the school and are pleased to have them as a partner.

“IES is the right organisation to lead the change which is needed to improve the school.”

And he confirmed that the trust could terminate the agreement if it wanted to.

“There is a break clause in the contract that would allow us – if we believed it was necessary after guidance and support from the Department for Education – to remove IES from their contract.”

But he said the trustees’ faith in IES’s ability to turn the situation around, combined with the upheaval of bringing in a new provider, meant that they had decided to allow the company to continue.

However, another trust member did not seem to be aware that getting rid of the Swedish operator was an option. “We have signed an agreement with IES for ten years, so we can't just dump it,” William Bishop told TES.

Mr Bishop conceded that the Swedish company had made “a mistake” in its original choice of principal – who left the school after little more than a year.

But the Conservative councillor, and father of the school’s chair of governors, Kate Curtis, added: “All in all, things are fantastic.

“They [IES] have been very good in supplying various bits and pieces. They have supplied three buses. It is not one sided.”

Ofsted was less complimentary and rated pupil achievement, teaching quality, behaviour and leadership at the school all as “inadequate”. Governors had been “insufficiently challenging” and IES “ineffective in raising standards or improving teaching”, the watchdog found.

Mr Challiss said that he believed Ofsted could have taken more account of the fact that the school had already recruited a new principal when they visited. “Unfortunately they inspect for the day, not the past and not the future,” he said.

However, he did say that he held IES responsible for some of the situation.

“Yes, for sure, there were obviously some bad choices made that has left us in the situation that we are in,” Mr Challiss said.

And he added that the trust did “look into” the possible removal of IES. But it decided this was not necessary and he hoped that the school would be out of special measures within six months.

Failure to achieve that deadline would not necessarily mean the IES contract would be reviewed, Mr Challis said. But he stated that the company had been set targets and if they were not met “the situation could change”.

IES Breckland’s unique status as a state-funded “profit seeking” school has led to outspoken support for the company from high-profile backers of the government’s free-schools programme. The blessing of local Conservative MP and skills minister Matthew Hancock has also raised the political stakes.

But Mr Challiss stressed the trust’s independence. “We are not driven by government,” he said. “We are driven by what we want for Brandon and our students.

“Some restraints are put on us by powers that are above us, we obviously have to work within their guidelines. But primarily the trust is independent from all of that, they can only give us a steer.”

A Department for Education spokeswoman said that the contract with IES was a matter for the trust but the government had the power to terminate the trust’s funding agreement. The DfE was "looking at the next steps" for the school.

Alison Tilbrook, the school’s new principal, responded on behalf of IES and said it was “dissatisfied” with its performance in the Ofsted inspection which “came in the middle of a process of change” at the school.

Steps were already being taken to “strengthen the leadership and teaching staff”.  “The changes we have made are showing improvement and we know that the school is moving in the right direction,” she said.

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