Trusts offer stay of execution for 440 struggling secondaries

23rd January 2009 at 00:00
National Challenge schools threatened with closure are being offered help under a scheme that twins them with institutions that get better results

Last week, the Department for Children, Schools and Families announced it had agreed support plans for National Challenge schools in all but 13 local authorities. The result will be 70 trusts, which will be established over the next two years.

The scheme was announced last September for schools where fewer than 30 per cent of pupils achieve five high-grade GCSEs including English and maths.

The trusts represent a stay of execution for struggling schools, which were originally told to shape up or face possible closure.

The aim is to keep the schools open and offer them support by providing up to Pounds 1 million over three years, and by partnering each one with a high-achieving school in the same area - and, where appropriate, a local business.

The model is already being welcomed by heads of struggling schools, particularly when the alternative is to become an academy.

Instead of closing the school - as happens when academies are created - it is kept open and an interim executive board takes over with an executive head, who oversees both schools.

Parklands High in Speke, Liverpool, was failing to meet the benchmark and has been paired with The Blue Coat School in nearby Wavertree, which started life as a foundling hospital in 1708 and is now the city's only co-educational grammar school. According to Alan Smithies, Parklands' head, it is the "best result" his school could have asked for.

"Academies didn't appeal to us at all," he said. "This school is at the centre of the community and, personally, I think academies are unproven, and their track record is patchy at best. I think this is the best way of keeping our community links.

"We serve the second poorest ward in the most deprived city in the country, and we have to fight for every last drop out of our pupils to get them to try and achieve the 30 per cent target."

He added: "When we had a discussion with the local authority, we both came to the same conclusion. All that was needed was to look for a suitable partner school."

Mr Smithies' comments have been given added weight since plans to transform Sinfin School in Derby into an academy were overturned following furious opposition from teachers and the wider community, as reported in The TES last week.

In Parklands' case, Liverpool council claimed it already had academy programmes running in the area, and felt another would not be "the right solution". Instead, it wanted a "strong brand" to associate with the school.

"Everybody knows what comes with the Blue Coat brand," said Tim Warren, Liverpool council's executive director of children's services. "It has a reputation in the area that goes beyond just the school, which is that of success."

According to Mr Warren, stronger schools will only be brought into the trust as willing partners. No schools will be forced into a partnership.

Debbie Silcock, Blue Coat's head, said the decision to join the trust was a "brave" one, but she had faith in her team. "I was surprised when we were approached, but we were happy to help," she said. "Blue Coat will continue to be independent and will be run as it always has, but my senior leadership team will be there to help train teachers at Parklands."

Lancashire county council has decided to set up three trusts and told The TES that if a school is "not a willing partner, then they are not a partner at all". The authority also emphasised the role community has to play in setting up trusts.

Helen Denton, the authority's executive director for children and young people, said: "The major issue with National Challenge schools is that they are in areas of serious deprivation, so it's absolutely necessary to harness the power of the community if we want to move the school forward. Trusts give a broader vehicle to help achieve this."

She added that her department would "never consider" closing a school purely on its results over a couple of years. "Schools haven't been given much time to respond to the benchmark, particularly with the inclusion of English and maths. If a school is going to be closed, then it will be down to a number of issues - such as whether there are the pupils there to sustain it - rather than just results," she said.

The NUT supports keeping schools open and particularly keeping them under local authority control. John Bangs, the union's head of education, believes that setting up an academy - thereby separating the school from the local authority - could "make the situation worse" for a school.

"I question whether separating the local authority from the school, in terms of being the employer - as is the case with academies - is such a good idea," he said. "The idea that by changing a school's status you raise the standards of the school is one of the enduring myths in education. Placing emphasis on structural reform is one of the great diversions when it comes to helping a tough school."

He did concede one point, however: "Despite the National Challenge scheme being totally arbitrary, underneath it is the germ of a good idea - and that is that schools in fragile areas will always need support."

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