Three prominent education leaders who were closely involved in raising standards in a deprived inner-city borough are joining forces to prevent its schools being split apart by academisation.
In 1998, Tower Hamlets in East London was ranked the lowest performing authority in the country by Ofqual. Today it is one of the best (see graphic, opposite).
Now Christine Gilbert and Sir Kevan Collins – two former chief executives of the authority who went on to key roles in national education – are working with retired Tower Hamlets headteacher Sir Alasdair Macdonald to try and keep the borough’s schools together in the face of academisation.
Their move – to create an overarching umbrella trust for schools in Tower Hamlets – aims to encourage collaboration and is a direct response to ministers’ controversial plan to force every school in the country to become an academy by 2022.
The government policy has sparked widespread outcry. At the NAHT headteachers’ union annual conference in Birmingham last weekend, school leaders overwhelmingly backed a motion threatening to take industrial action against forced academisation.
During the conference, education secretary Nicky Morgan was jeered and heckled as she spelt out the case for a total-academies system, which would, she said, “build the scaffolding to support struggling schools”.
But many heads and governing bodies, particularly those of smaller primary schools, are reluctant to move to academy status as they do not want to lose all ties with their local authority.
Now, the three Tower Hamlet figures believe that their trust – with strong links to the council – could provide a solution and a template for other local authorities to follow.
The group is aiming to set up a company, THE Partnership, by September. It will take over all of the council’s school improvement functions, with a long-term aim of providing all school services to academies in the area.
‘Keeping the family together’
The trio played significant roles in the improvement of Tower Hamlets’ schools. And much of the borough’s success came at a time when none of its schools were academies. Even today, just four out of 97 state schools in the area have academy status, a very low figure for an inner-London council. There are also six free schools, with another four in the pipeline.
Ms Gilbert, who went on to become Ofsted’s chief inspector between 2005 and 2011, said that the new initiative came from a group of heads and governors putting together a business case for such a trust.
“The company will build on the strength of Tower Hamlets – it will keep the collaboration that has gone on but make it even stronger,” she said. “But it would also keep the family of schools together, so you would have within it multi-academy trusts (MATs), federations and single schools, such as free schools.”
The three educationists intend to sit on the board as trustees until the company, or umbrella trust, is fully functional.
“It is really exciting stuff, and I think this is what is going to happen,” Ms Gilbert added. “People have been focusing on the negative, but actually the potential for really interesting things to come out of this is huge.”
The new trust will be wholly owned by the schools in the borough, and local MATs could elect people to sit on the board. The group is seeking £300,000 a year over the next three years in seed funding from the council.
Once up and running, the trust would charge each school around £5 per pupil to carry out a variety of functions, initially helping with school improvement. It could also eventually provide services such as HR and back office support.
Sir Kevan, who went on to become chief executive of the Education Endowment Foundation after his six years at Tower Hamlets, said: “There has been a genuine desire from those behind this, to find out whether there is some sort of construct that allows people to stay together, appreciating that there may be different arrangements beginning to occur for different schools.
“Everybody knew and felt that, actually, there is a value in belonging together beyond our immediate system. So [the company] was a response to that desire.”
The introduction of the government’s free school policy, along with the expansion of the academies programme, meant that the complexion of the school system in Tower Hamlets was changing, he added.
Ms Morgan was last week expected to spell out a range of concessions to give local authorities more say in a fully academised system but, in the end, no such assurances emerged.
However, Tim Coulson, regional schools commissioner for the East of England, has told TES that local authorities are free to approach their own officials to set up MATs for local schools.
The Tower Hamlets scheme is a development of that idea which would allow any existing or new MATs to operate within the umbrella trust. The Association of School and College Leaders said that it could provide a blueprint for other areas.
“We do believe that this type of arrangement is one of the potential routes that other regions can follow,” Malcolm Trobe, ASCL’s interim general secretary, said. “The secretary of state is saying there will be more flexibility than was possible in the past with academy trusts and local authorities. We think this should continue to be relaxed, and that the government should drop its plans for compelling schools to become academies.”
A Tower Hamlets Council spokesman said that the proposed partnership would build on local schools’ existing successes and that the council would continue to play “a crucial role” in raising standards.
TES approached the Department for Education for comment.
How results have risen in Tower Hamlets