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24th July 2009 at 01:00
Troubled sponsor brings in John Lewis manager

The controversial appointment follows second damning Ofsted report within weeks, which triggers major ULT reorganisation.

A former John Lewis manager with no teaching experience is being drafted in to develop school leaders at the country's biggest sponsor of academies. The move, at United Learning Trust, comes as a second of its schools is to receive a damning Ofsted report within weeks.

United Learning Trust (ULT) has learnt that one of its schools, Sheffield Park Academy, is to be failed by Ofsted after a visit earlier this month. It is expected to become only the third academy to be put into special measures.

This follows a criticial verdict last month on its sister school, Sheffield Springs Academy, which inspectors said provided inadequate standards of teaching.

The problems at ULT, a Christian charity which runs 15 schools, raise questions about the Government's proposal to increase the number of school chains. The education white paper, published last month, said this would help to drive up standards.

ULT has now launched an urgent review of the way it monitors school performance. It is planning a restructuring that includes the appointment of Fiona Oomen - a former manager of John Lewis department stores, who has no teaching experience - to a senior role developing its academy leaders.

David Lewis, principal of Sheffield Springs and executive director of Sheffield Park, has now left his job, becoming the latest high-level casualty at the group.

Heads at more than half of ULT's academies have been replaced within two years of the schools opening. Sheffield Springs is now looking for its third head in three years.

The difficulties also cast doubt on Government claims that importing the "DNA" of independent schools will improve the state sector.

ULT is a subsidiary of United Church Schools Trust, which also runs 10 fee-paying schools.

The Ofsted report at Sheffield Park is due to be published shortly. But Sir Ewan Harper, ULT's chief executive, has already written to parents warning them to expect a poor outcome.

"We have yet to receive Ofsted's judgment . but we believe it will demonstrate significant weaknesses that we are committed to addressing urgently," the letter says.

"A number of these are likely to be process and paperwork issues that do not automatically impact on your child's education, but which we have a responsibility to manage much better than has been done to date.

"Others, however, require a restructuring of the leadership of the academy to ensure that we deliver effective and permanent improvement."

The letter explains that Kathy August, ULT's director of school improvement and executive director of Manchester Academy, will now oversee the two Sheffield schools.

Ms August, whose own school was rated outstanding by Ofsted, said that there had been progress at the Sheffield schools, but conceded that it had been insufficient.

She defended the appointment of Ms Oomen. "She has had significant experience in a wide range of leadership roles that are very pertinent to academies and to ULT as a growing organisation," Ms August said.

Ms Oomen will not have any direct input to teaching.

Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said ULT's problems called the Government's policy of chain schools into doubt.

"These groups can have as many secondary schools as a local authority, but with the added problems that their schools are dispersed across the country," he said.

"Too many academies have been opened too quickly without lessons being learnt. Something you can do for 10 schools, you can't do for 200 in terms of finding absolutely the best people to run them."

John Bangs, head of education at the NUT, said academy sponsors lacked the systems available to local authorities to intervene.

"This situation also shows that the whole business of private school DNA is just romantic fluff," he said.

So far only two other academies have been put into special measures: Unity City in Middlesbrough, which has since been taken out again, and Richard Rose Central in Carlisle, which is still in the category.

Richard Rose's chief executive became the first state school leader without a teaching background. He was forced out of his job in January, less than five months after the school opened.

Pay deal refused

  • United Church Schools Trust - parent charity of academy sponsors United Learning Trust - is refusing to award all of its independent school teachers a pay rise from September.
  • The group has said that teachers in only two of its 10 fee-charging schools will be offered a 2.3 per cent deal in line with state schools.
  • UCST has offered the rise to teachers at Surbiton High School and Guildford High School.
  • Teachers in those schools, which are believed to be the two most financially successful in the group, can take the deal or opt for a 2.8 per cent rise from January.
  • In the group's other schools, all teachers will receive 2.8 per cent from January. The decision will not affect pay for state school staff at the ULT's academies, which are operated separately.

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