Hard times continue at beleaguered academy

16th March 2012 at 00:00
The departure of its headteacher is yet another body blow

When Islington Green School was closed in 2008 and replaced by a multimillion-pound City of London Academy, it marked the end of a turbulent 15-year period for both staff and pupils. Its name during that time had, for many, become synonymous with problematic secondaries.

Just four years on, and with the new buildings barely a year old, the City of London Academy in Islington, north London, has been hit by fresh troubles: principal Ann Palmer is stepping down from her role. Her decision comes less than a year after the school posted disappointing GCSE results, with only 31 per cent of pupils achieving five A*-C grades including English and maths.

This is just the latest instalment of bad news for Islington Green in a long line of setbacks that began just before New Labour came to power in 1997. It hit the headlines after local resident and opposition leader at the time Tony Blair chose not to send his eldest son, Euan, to the school, opting instead for the Catholic London Oratory School.

Shortly after Mr Blair moved into Number 10, Islington Green failed its Ofsted inspection and was quickly placed in special measures. The school continued to underperform in subsequent years. The percentage of pupils gaining five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths dipped below 25 per cent and the school went through nine inspections before it finally came out of special measures in 2000, and out of the now defunct "serious weaknesses" measure in 2003.

Trevor Averre-Beeson, director of education at Lilac Sky Schools, who was head of Islington Green from 2002 to 2007, said it had always suffered from particular challenges, which made it very difficult to turn the school around.

"When I was head there, it was in the bottom 10 per cent of schools in London," Mr Averre-Beeson said. "Its socio-economic make-up was always very challenging; it had students from a range of different backgrounds speaking up to 50 different languages.

"It will always be a difficult place to raise results above the national average, but that doesn't mean it is impossible."

Mr Averre-Beeson - who managed to buck the trend and make significant improvements in results - said the constant change in leadership had not helped with school improvement.

The City of London Academy in Islington was part of the first wave of sponsored academies, but despite the backing of City University London and the City of London Corporation, it has continually failed to raise results.

The City of London sponsors two other academies: the City of London Academy in Southwark, south London, where 43 per cent of pupils in 2011 gained five good GCSEs including English and maths; and the City of London Academy in Hackney, east London, which appears on course to post impressive results in its first GCSE year in 2013.

The departure of Ms Palmer from the Islington academy and its run of poor results has left unions questioning further the power of the academies programme to turn schools around.

The NUT said the school's results last summer were worse than those posted by Islington Green in its final year. The teaching union argued that just before the school was turned into an academy it was the most improved school in the capital.

Tim Harrison, the union's London regional official, said that turning the school into an academy left it without the necessary support. "Before it became an academy Islington Green was really progressing, but now it has gone backwards," he said. "Once an academy gets into trouble, it has less support available, but even the likes of (academy chains) Harris and Ark have the back office to support their schools. The City of London had no backup.

"So what we have now is a formerly improving school that has gone backwards after forcing it to restructure and then leaving it with no support. You could not have dreamed up a worse scenario."

However, the academy's board of governors said in a statement that Ms Palmer was moving on to "fresh challenges", adding that the school was now in a position to move forward to become an "outstanding" academy.

"Our immediate priorities must be to concentrate on helping our pupils preparing for their GCSEs this year to get the best results possible," said Richard Regan, the chair of governors. "We must build on the core principles of hard work, good behaviour, discipline, respect for others and, most importantly, of teaching our pupils that they can succeed and that we are here to help them to achieve to the best of their capabilities."

Rise of academies

1,635 academies are currently open in England

337 are sponsored academies

19 academies are sponsored by the United Learning Trust, the largest sponsor.

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