Now, young ladies, we've become an academy

19th December 2008 at 00:00
Why did a high-achieving girls' private school join the state system?

Why did Belvedere, a high-achieving girls' private school in Liverpool, opt to join the state system? Chloe Stothart investigates

Fierce victorian schoolmistresses glare down from a row of photographs as the girls of the Belvedere Academy swarm past on their way to lessons. A grandfather clock ticks in the corner of a high-ceilinged hallway and young feet clatter on polished wooden floors.

Established in 1880 and housed in a row of elegant period villas, the school looks every inch the independent establishment it used to be. But, in September 2007, it opted to join the state sector by becoming an academy.

The school's traditional exterior masks a complex reality. It is in Toxteth - a deprived area of Liverpool better known for its riots 28 years ago than its educational excellence - and has long had a socially mixed population through admitting the children of poorer families via the assisted places and direct grant schemes. From 2000 to 2007, it ran the Open Access scheme, under which academically able girls from poorer homes had all or part of their fees covered by the Sutton Trust education charity.

Peter Kennedy, Belvedere's headteacher, says the Girls' Day School Trust, which ran the school when it was independent and is now one of its sponsors alongside HSBC Global Education Trust, was keen for the school to convert.

The school needed to expand so it could offer more subjects, he says, and it would eventually need more investment in facilities and equipment. The local private market offered little scope for expansion. The trust was also keen to build on Open Access and offer education to a wider range of girls.

Mr Kennedy, the former head of an inner-city comprehensive in Manchester, arrived at Belvedere, its first male headteacher, a year before it became an academy.

"When you go into a challenging comprehensive school, it is easy to get staff on board because they know it's not working," he says. "But when you go to a school that's top of the league (and turn it into an academy), you have to get people behind you because they don't see why you are doing it and are frightened about what lies ahead."

Belvedere is expanding from 500 to 800 girls and takes pupils from 65 primaries across the city. All except the youngest two year groups joined when it was still independent. The difference is that now they do not pay fees.

The school is spending Pounds 11 million on new facilities, including language and science labs and dance, drama and fitness studios - all of which are rising out of the mud behind the school gardens.

As a private school, Belvedere would get about 100 applicants for 70 places, and children sat an entrance test. Last year, as an academy, 400 children applied for 112 places.

This year, 97 per cent of pupils achieved five good GCSEs, down from 100 per cent in the previous two years. But all these pupils joined the school when it was still private.

Some pupils, teachers and parents were uneasy about the switch to the state sector, associating academy status with failing schools. There were public meetings and events for parents, and an association was set up to represent them. In the end, only a couple of families withdrew their daughters.

Some staff were nervous about learning the national curriculum, grappling with Ofsted and mixed-ability groups. Six took early retirement and one simply left.

So, after just over a year as an academy, have people's fears been realised? It is hard to say for sure because only two year groups have not been part of the private school's selective intake. But the signs look promising.

Fears that discipline would slip have not been realised. Attendance last year grew to 95.5 per cent from 93.5 per cent two years ago. The level of fixed-term exclusions in the academic year remains at two.

The school decided that one way to protect its positive atmosphere and ensure good discipline was to avoid mixing former fee-payers and new girls within a year group.

"Younger girls learn from the older ones, so you keep the ethos," says Mr Kennedy. "If you in-fill year groups, you would upset the balance. Who would the younger girls be learning from?"

Another factor was that parents who previously paid fees might want their child's year group to remain selective.

The school is still working out the impact of accepting a mix of abilities. It has split the girls into top, middle and bottom groups, with smaller class sizes for the middle and lower groups and a teaching assistant for the lower set. So far, two girls have moved from the middle to the top band and two from the bottom to the middle.

"We have a strong ethos of achievement here," says Mr Kennedy. "We are trying to get lower-ability kids to rise to that level rather than drag the others down, and it seems to be happening."

He is waiting for data from tests taken by the first academy cohort, sat when they joined in Year 7 and then in Year 8, to see whether the school has helped them to improve.

"The feeling is that it is working," Mr Kennedy says. "It is too early to prove conclusively, but we are fairly confident."

Belvedere is allowed to choose 10 per cent of its intake on their ability in its specialist discipline - foreign languages - and fills the rest of its places with equal numbers from five ability bands, giving priority to the siblings of existing pupils. Children in care and those with special needs get top priority.

In practice, this meant that 11 of the 112 places this year went to selected girls and 21 were admitted as siblings of existing pupils.

The number of girls eligible for free school meals has increased slightly - to 14 per cent - and 15 per cent of pupils in the two academy year groups have special educational needs compared with 9 per cent in the older, selected intake. A quarter of pupils are from ethnic minorities.

The girls who joined Year 7 in September include 16 per cent from local primaries in the deprived L8 postcode surrounding the school - a 3 per cent increase on the non-academy years.

The teachers are positive about the switch to academy status - despite the fact they only learnt about the plans when they were revealed in a newspaper.

Karen Gilmartin, curriculum leader for languages, says that after she got over the shock she was excited to find out that the academy would be specialising in her subject.

She had already introduced the National Curriculum in her department and former state sector staff had taught it before in other subjects. A few teachers who were new to it struggled at first, but most were keen to learn.

Several say they now enjoy better contact with colleagues in other schools through the local authority.

The school's 176-day year is 14 days shorter than elsewhere in the a state sector. Teachers' contractual terms could not be changed when the school switched to an academy, so the school decided to ask them to teach two hours' "enrichment" activities each week - ranging from Arabic to knitting - as well as taking revision classes and helping out with various subjects.

Ms Gilmartin likes the arrangement and says by teaching knitting means she and her pupils get to know each other in a different way.

Sixth formers who have watched the change happen are supportive, although staff say some are still nervous about the change.

Stephanie Chen, head girl, says: "The ethos and atmosphere hasn't really changed; the only significant difference is the size. We notice more Year 7 and 8s around."

Seniors point out that Open Access always gave Belvedere a mix of social backgrounds.

Joy Coppell, deputy head girl, says that even when it was private the school was not rigidly selective. "Belvedere has always understood that just because you can't offer academic brilliance you can still achieve in other areas," she says.

The parents of Nikki Gallacher, another deputy head girl, wanted to withdraw her when the school switched, but she didn't like the other schools they showed her and persuaded them to let her stay. "I think it is one of the best decisions my parents made for me," she says.

Pupils from the first academy cohort are also happy. Several were the only ones from their primaries to join and were worried they would be bullied, but instead have made friends. Two were admitted after their parents appealed against decisions not to give them places.

Amee Marnell, a Year 8, says: "I was debating whether to come (after a month in another secondary school) because nobody really likes the new girl, but I thought I could do so much better in a school like this than the one I was in."

And Ellie Floid, head girl of Year 7, puts it even more simply. "I'm glad it became an academy because if it was private, mum wouldn't be able to afford it."


Are other independents likely to follow Belvedere's lead? William Hulme's Grammar School, a private school in south Manchester, became an academy at the same time as Belvedere, while Colston's Girls' School in Bristol, Bristol Cathedral School and The Steiner Academy in Hereford have converted since. Birkenhead High School is preparing to change while Culham, a European school in Oxfordshire, is in early discussions with the Government.

The parallels between Belvedere, William Hulme's and Colston's are noticeable. In particular, all three are in inner city areas and had relatively diverse intakes before converting to academy status, funding less well-off pupils through scholarships, the assisted places scheme or direct grant system. So is it essential for independent schools to be socially mixed before they become academies?

Peter Kennedy, Belvedere's head, certainly thinks his school's demographic helped its transition to the state sector. And Lesley Ann Jones, head of Colston's, says the same goes for her school. "I think the fact that we were an inner-city school was probably significant, and possibly assisted places was important too," she says. "They would not have given me this status if I was in a green leafy site."

But the department for children, schools and families says it is not obligatory for academies to be in inner-city areas - Culham and the Steiner School are both in villages - but frequently the areas that need them will be deprived locations.

"We wouldn't do a conversion in an area where there were a lot of high- performing schools," a department spokeswoman adds.

A few private schools are rumoured to have been turned down for academy status, although the department will not comment on this.

So, as the recession hits parents' ability to pay school fees, will more independent schools decide to become academies? Mr Kennedy reckons others will consider it. "It is a serious option for certain independent schools as you retain some independence as an academy," he says.

But Geoff Lucas, secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, which represents 250 leading independent schools, disagrees.

"No school would give up its independence unless it felt it was the choice between surviving or not," he says emphatically.

"Once you take government money, there is no way back. Academies may be quite benign at the moment and give heads and governors a fair bit of independence, but they are susceptible to further change."

A number of choir schools are considering joining Bristol Cathedral School in becoming academies, but so far at least two - Lichfield and Salisbury - have decided against the move.

The ex-private schools that have become academies are still at the start of the journey to becoming fully fledged state institutions. They have one or two year groups of academy pupils, but the majority of their pupils came through the old fee-paying, selective route. It will be some time before conclusions can be drawn on the effects of the switch.

Kennedy is conscious that the results will affect the image of the academies programme as well as his own school.

"A lot of people are watching this to see what will happen," he says. "We need to prove it can work."

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