Academy sponsored by private chain is 'inadequate'
Both David Cameron and Michael Gove have placed tremendous emphasis on the transformative powers of top public schools when they sponsor academies. Indeed, at the beginning of the academic year a "summit" between the prime minister and top heads was held on the subject in Downing Street.
As such, the news this week that an academy sponsored by one of the country's largest independent school chains has been placed in special measures will prove more than a little embarrassing.
Rather than making the improvements that Mr Gove might have expected, Sir Robert Woodard Academy in West Sussex, which is co-sponsored by the private school chain Woodard Schools, was judged "inadequate" by Ofsted when inspectors visited before Christmas. In its report published at the end of last week, Ofsted said the school was "failing" to provide an "acceptable standard of education".
The school was part of the original wave of academies and was jointly sponsored by the Woodard Academies Trust - a subsidiary of Woodard Schools - and West Sussex County Council two years ago. Woodard Schools owns 19 private schools across the UK, including the #163;26,000-a-year King's College in Taunton, Somerset.
Sir Robert Woodard has seen its GCSE results drop in the two years since converting, forcing the founding principal, Carole Bailey, to hand in her resignation two terms ahead of her planned departure. The school's entire board of governors also resigned, with a new governing body being drafted in. A so-called "superhead", Colette Singleton, has been appointed to turn the school around.
Unsurprisingly, the sponsor - which describes itself as the country's "largest group of independent Church of England schools" - is defensive about recent developments. "As soon as the trust was aware of issues, as highlighted by Ofsted, at the academy last year, it took action to investigate and then address these issues," said David Bilton, chief executive of the Woodard Academies Trust.
He insisted that the organisation is "working hard" to tackle the school's problems. "This included the appointment of a new executive principal. The trust is now monitoring the situation very closely, and is working hard alongside all partners to build a successful future for the academy," Mr Bilton added.
But the sponsor will now have to deal with local reaction to Ofsted's judgement. One former teacher and local resident, Tim Rose, said the watchdog's verdict was a "shattering blow" for the community.
Mr Rose, who taught at Sir Robert Woodard for nearly 40 years, rising to head of department, and sent both of his daughters to the school, questioned whether Woodard Schools had sufficient experience of working with schools in challenging areas.
"The school was showing signs of improvement before it converted. GCSE results were on the way up, but now they have dropped again," he said. "(Lord) Andrew Adonis (the architect of the academies programme) said he wanted to see the DNA of independent schools being injected into the state sector. Well, if this is what happens when you inject that DNA into state schools, you can keep it."
The academy's predicament comes just over a month after TES revealed that the prime minister had written to each of the country's leading independent schools, urging them to consider sponsoring academies. Similarly, Mr Gove has repeatedly called on independent schools to join his academy revolution.
The Conservative-led West Sussex County Council is still backing Woodard Schools. It said the sponsor would "address the concerns raised in the inspection report in as short a time frame as possible".
Another religious independent school chain, the United Church Schools Trust, has struggled in sponsoring academies.
The United Learning Trust (ULT), the charity's academies arm, is the largest sponsor of state independent schools in the country, but it was barred from sponsoring further academies under the Labour government.
Three of the trust's academies - Sheffield Park, Sheffield Springs and Stockport Academy - were judged "inadequate" by Ofsted in 2009-10. Former schools secretary Ed Balls banned the charity from sponsoring any further schools.
ULT's academies have since improved, with Michael Gove lifting the ban in July 2011.