Balls: we missed the train when Richard Rose was going off the rails

12th March 2010 at 00:00
Long-distance academy micro-management failed, he admits, noting that 'Carlisle is a long way from London'

The problems that hit the Richard Rose Academy Federation were allowed to escalate because "London is a long way from Carlisle", Schools Secretary Ed Balls admitted this week.

The federation, which was the first to be headed by someone with no classroom experience, was put in special measures in its first few months. Academy chief Peter Noble stepped down and the school was forced to shut temporarily in the face of protests by parents and pupils.

The problems garnered bad publicity nationally for the academies programme. Speaking at a Commons schools select committee on Wednesday, Mr Balls said the lack of a local body meant the problems were not acted upon at an earlier stage.

Mr Balls said: "I didn't feel we were in the right place when problems happened with the Richard Rose Academy. No one thought it was their responsibility to understand what was actually happening and Carlisle is a long way from London.

"We were getting anecdotal feeds that there were some difficulties and it ended up with me saying to the schools minister at the time, Jim Knight, that you need to go up to Carlisle by train. He went up when the Ofsted report fell on my desk and we eventually got (interim head) Mick Gibbons in."

He added: "There has been a huge turnaround there, but we could not micro-manage school improvement from the centre.

"That is why we have delegated that responsibility to the newly formed Young People's Learning Agency."

Mr Balls said the new body would provide the "eyes and ears" in the regions and would be able to step in and support academies.

The Schools Secretary's comments have left anti-academy groups "speechless". They believe a network of local bodies already exists in the shape of local education authorities.

Alasdair Smith, national secretary of the Anti Academies Alliance, said: "It's a programme controlled from the centre and this shows that academies are accountable to no one, regardless of whether London is a long way from Carlisle.

"We already have education authorities that are designed to support schools so for the secretary of state to say this leaves me speechless."

Jon Coles, director general for schools at the Department for Children, Schools and Families, also speaking at the committee hearing, said the academies programme provided underperforming schools with answers.

He said: "There have been a number of schools that have been in difficulties where the local authority does not have the capacity to deal with those difficulties.

"What the academies programme, along with National Challenge, has done is made sure there is a system in place that provides them with a solution to their problems."

A bumpy ride

The Richard Rose Central Academy opened in September 2008 but soon after opening its doors it was beset by a number of problems.

The two-school federation in Carlisle was hit with several reports of poor pupil behaviour and threats of industrial action by staff over plans to change their pay and conditions.

By December, Ofsted inspectors were carrying out an emergency inspection - the first of its kind in an academy - which reported that the leadership team had not appreciated the scale of the challenge of merging two schools.

Peter Noble, a former NHS manager, left his role as chief executive of the federation in January 2009. He was soon followed by principal Mark Yearsly.

Concerns were raised that the academy had been fast tracked and had opened too soon. The opening date of the school had been brought forward by a year.

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