Parents and carers of pupils at King Edward VII School (KES) in Sheffield breathed a collective sigh of relief this week after an Ofsted ‘inadequate’ rating was overturned in just eight months and returned to the previous ‘good’ grade.
This means the end may be in sight for a hard-fought campaign – led by parents – to fend off forced academisation. Under the Department for Education’s (DfE) own guidance this is exactly the ‘exceptional circumstance’ in which an academy order can be revoked by the secretary of state.
Despite the loud and clear protest from the school, teachers, parents, students, unions, MPs and the wider community, campaigners have faced a real uphill battle against a system designed to be as opaque as possible. In these circumstances, the law states that regional education bosses decide which trust takes over a school without any input from those who know it best or any real scrutiny over how that decision is made.
We achieved a great deal of attention from national, regional, local and specialist media but every single time the DfE put out a robotic statement that King Edward’s will become an academy and transferred to a “strong trust” and that there was “no requirement” for consultation.
Last Sheffield school standing
As the last local authority maintained secondary school in the city, KES was always vulnerable against a government policy to force all schools to become part of a multi-academy trust (MAT) by 2030. It is a popular school – one of the most oversubscribed in Sheffield – with more than 1,700 pupils from a diverse catchment. It has a thriving sixth form taking students from across the city.
When Ofsted inspectors arrived last September, my daughter had only been at the school a matter of weeks. Behind the scenes, a rating of ‘inadequate’ on the basis of safeguarding triggered a lengthy complaints process between the school and Ofsted and parents did not see the final report until the end of January.
Unbeknownst to us at the time, the DfE activated that compulsory academy order in December. We were already on the back foot, and it became clear very quickly that not only did parents have no say in the future of our school, but we would also be completely in the dark about what was going to happen next. Our view that the school should be supported to make any necessary changes was ignored.
‘Extremely secretive’ Ofsted process
One of our parent campaigners, solicitor Nicole Houghton, has been keeping track of all the ways in which this ‘extremely secretive’ process has played out. From the start, when parents tried to complain about the first Ofsted and were told they could not. Then later, when en masse parents submitted freedom of information requests to Ofsted and were told ‘no’ to all of them.
When it came to the next step of deciding who would take over, the DfE also refused to answer FOI requests. “Choosing an appropriate trust for a school to join is a huge decision. Trusts vary wildly, and finding a trust that fits the school’s ethos, systems, and nature is a huge responsibility,” notes Houghton. “Every single reply I have seen is dated the same date, and the reason for the refusal is the same, whether it is relevant or not to the details of the complaint,” she adds.
This lack of transparency is most starkly evidenced by the fact we only found out a trust had been proposed by accident. In April, a vigilant parent spotted a draft agenda for the Yorkshire and Humber advisory board meeting which listed an item to discuss KES joining Brigantia Learning Trust, which administers several other schools in Sheffield.
As it turned out, the DfE had not had the common courtesy to inform the school either. Parents and teachers felt very strongly that Brigantia was not at all a good fit for KES on multiple levels. The teachers at the school explained the reasons for this in an open letter, which has been circulated amongst the members of the NASUWT and NEU.
Parents fight back against forced academisation
Despite only having two days at this point to make our representations to that board meeting, we have since learnt they received 140 emails. By comparison, Schools Week reported last month that the 65 regional advisory boards only received 25 between them from September to March. Hardly surprising when agendas are posted without telling anyone. Incensed by the seemingly illogical move, 500 people turned up to a quickly organised protest in town.
In what seemed to be becoming a pattern, parents and the school were not immediately told the outcome of the meeting – this time because it had become ‘too political’ and could interfere with local elections. Eventually we learned that the DfE had deferred the decision in order to conduct a “comparative analysis of additional multi academy trusts”.
This response just highlighted to us the murkiness of the regional commissioning process. What was a comparative analysis? Which trusts and what criteria? How did you make the decision last time? We have yet to have an answer to any of these questions and I doubt we ever will.
We were not the only ones raising these reasonable and quite basic points. An open letter we sent asking for more detail on how decisions are made, was backed by MAT leaders who noted everyone in the system needs more clarity on this. Some much-needed guidance on how schools are matched with MATs was finally published this week.
Return of Ofsted
At the end of May, Ofsted came back, initially for a one-day monitoring visit that turned into a two-day inspection. Parents sent messages of support to teaching staff facing their second Ofsted in the same school year. We mobilised to make our views known with 571 filling in the parent view survey which showed 90% believed their child was happy and safe at the school and would recommend King Edward’s.
After another open letter from parents, the DfE agreed to press the pause button on academisation until the outcome of the inspection was public. Now we know that the school was found to be good across the board, that safeguarding arrangements are ‘effective’. Side by side those reports do not seem comparable, but others have said plenty about whether Ofsted inspections are fit for purpose.
Until Gillian Keegan MP announces whether or not she is scrapping the academisation order, and she is under no obligation to consider our views, we remain in limbo. Teachers have voted to strike if it is not revoked. It is testament to the school and its staff that for pupils it has been business as usual this year. But one parent I spoke to, whose child has special needs, has had months of worry about what the selection of MAT would mean for their education and ability to stay in school. The hundreds of children joining next year have also had months of uncertainty. It is cruel to leave us hanging.
Some have commented on social media that we have only got as far as we have because we are “middle class meddling parents”. My first response is always, go and have a look at the demographics of the school. But they raise a very important point. Among us we had journalistic, legal, education, academic and campaigning expertise. That should not be a prerequisite for parents’ voices to be part of this process.
Forced academisation is not designed to take into account the communities around a school. It is set up to the protect business interests of MATs and meet government targets at any cost. It has become very clear to us that community oversight of education has been lost and we need to reclaim it.
As one education commentator who has been following our case put it, parents deserve a great deal of credit for “effectively getting a system to bend towards being more accountable than it is designed to be”. Schools should belong to the students, teachers, parents and wider community, but the DfE has shown us they don’t think we matter.