UK's biggest sponsor set to open new academies after ban is lifted
A major academy sponsor that was banned from expanding over concerns about its substandard performance has been given the go-ahead to establish a series of new schools.
United Learning Trust (ULT), the country's biggest single sponsor, was told it was not allowed to open new academies after suffering a string of problems, including two of its schools being described as inadequate by Ofsted.
But the bar on expansion, imposed by the Labour government, has now been lifted, with education secretary Michael Gove praising the Christian charity alongside other academy chains last week for doing an "amazing job".
ULT, which currently runs 20 academies, is set to sponsor the Regis School in Bognor Regis, West Sussex, when it becomes an academy. The conversion is due in January 2012.
Sir Ewan Harper, ULT chief executive, said: "Last year, three out of the top four most improved academies in the country were sponsored by ULT and we believe that the Regis School has the potential for similar improvement."
ULT was stopped from opening more schools in October 2009 by the then government after its two academies in Sheffield were heavily criticised by inspectors. Sheffield Park Academy was put into special measures just three months after Sheffield Springs was also judged "inadequate" by Ofsted.
Then schools secretary Ed Balls expressed "very serious concerns" to ULT about their performance. The charity was told to concentrate on improving its existing schools before opening new ones.
ULT was hit with more problems in May last year after another of its schools, Stockport Academy, was also described as "inadequate" by Ofsted.
But performance has since improved, with none of ULT's schools now in an Ofsted category of concern.
Statistics released by the Department for Education show that three of the top four most improved academies between 2009 and 2010 - Barnsley, Paddington and Stockport - were sponsored by ULT. At Barnsley, the most improved academy in the country, the proportion of pupils gaining five GCSEs with English and maths rose from 18.9 to 50.7 per cent, figures show.
The Office of the Schools Commissioner, which supports academies and brokers sponsorships, is understood to have reviewed ULT's performance, including key stage attainment and recent Ofsted inspections.
A DfE spokesman said: "Ministers are now satisfied for ULT to take on further projects based on the improved performance of their existing academies."
The re-evaluation of ULT has led government officials to encourage the charity to take on more schools as the academies programme grows, and it is understood that ULT is currently in talks with a number of other schools about becoming a sponsor.
The green light for opening new schools follows ULT assuming control of three well-established academies and a city technology college, formerly sponsored by the Emmanuel Schools Foundation, last year.
But Russell Hobby, general secretary of heads' union the NAHT, said that chains should not be allowed to grow beyond around "a dozen".
"Generally, I don't think large chains of schools will be a positive force," he said. "I don't have a problem with a group of schools with a clear identity working together, but as these things grow to dozens or hundreds of schools, you are recreating local authorities but without the accountability."
Speaking in parliament last week, education secretary Michael Gove praised academy chains, including the United Learning Trust, Harris and Ark for doing an "amazing job" in "turning around schools in the worst condition".
Mr Gove said he wanted academy chains to grow "at the fastest sustainable rate". His comments follow an announcement by another sponsor, E-ACT, of plans to run as many as 150 academies within five years.