Barry Gardiner, the Labour MP for Brent North, The Village School's parliamentary constituency, has written to Cllr Sandra Kabir (Labour), Chair of Governors, with some pertinent questions about the school's proposal to form Multi Academy Trust with Woodfield School.
At the outset I want to put on record my admiration for the work the Governors and staff have done at both the Village School and Woodfield School each of which have been judged by Ofsted as outstanding. However, I write to express my concerns over the current proposal to form a Multi Academy Trust (MAT). I understand that you are inviting comments from parents and staff at schools, other local schools and elected representatives.
I am aware it is for the governing body of the school to determine who should be consulted but I hope you will consider involving local stakeholders with strong links to the school, in addition to the parents, teachers, other staff and their representatives. Can you provide me with a schedule of those you have contacted or who you intend to contact?
I would also ask if the Village School has already applied to the Department for Education (DfE) to become part of a MAT prior to the launch of the Consultation. If so, when did this happen? Can you provide me with a copy of the application and any other correspondence relating to the formation of the MAT, both with the DfE and any other relevant agencies.
The consultation document available on the Village School website sets out all the arguments in favour of forming a MAT, without setting out any of the problems or pitfalls which might arise in the process of creating a Multi Academy Trust or its subsequent operation. I would ask for a specific undertaking from you that during the consultation all responses will be given due consideration, that records of all consultations/responses and minutes of any further meetings are available, in accordance with the Academies Act 2010 and that any necessary further research is undertaken before a final decision is made. I note the five week consultation period ends on the 9th February and the consultation document says a final decision is expected by the end of March 2018.
Does this allow sufficient time for the following actions?
Can you provide me with a time line in relation to each of those points set out in the paragraph above.
- Contact with all the parents and carers to explain the proposals, collate their observations and respond to them and publish the observations on line.
- Arrange a meeting with parents/carers or other opportunities to explain the proposals.
- Respond to requests (in writing) to view the proposals and answer questions.
- Discuss with staff about what becoming an academy means.
- Organise face to face meetings.
The conversion of local authority-maintained schools to academies is a momentous decision involving legal, financial and structural changes and I have a number of concerns that I trust you will consider carefully.
The Village School benefited from a £29m capital investment from Brent Council to ensure the education of children with complex learning difficulties and disabilities would be transformed. Is it right that this public money and the capital assets should be outside of effective democratic control? In recent years the Village School and Woodfield School have worked together extensively on joint projects and in partnership with others such as the College of North West London (CNWL) for post-16 opportunities. It is unclear to me why why this positive arrangement should not continue. This is not the case of a failing school being helped out by joining with a more successful neighbour. These are two existing successful schools. As such the case for a MAT must pass a very high threshold to show that the change is necessary.
I note that the school governors say they feel the extra freedom regarding curriculum and budget will help develop the vision for the school and ultimately improve the lives and learning of children. However, the consultation document states the leadership are still exploring the opportunities and checking staffing, finance, contracts lands an buildings. I find it difficult to see how, until the full details of the above are known, it can be sensible to rush into any change of legal status for either school.
Both schools already successfully develop children in all aspects of their lives, and I would question whether changing the status can deliver the value to compensate the extra work and extra risk involved in conversion to a MAT.
London schools within the local government framework have a proud and distinguished record of working together to reduce inequalities and raise academic achievements. This is founded on a high level of capital and revenue investment by councils across the city and, of course, payments out of the MAT budget allocation will need to be made to pay for services no longer provided by the local authority.
The Village School is an outstanding example of a school which has worked successfully with a council framework and benefited extensively from the capital and revenue investment I have referred to.
There is no guarantee that these services will not cost more 'even if taken from the local authority.' Critically the democratic oversight which the Local Education Authority (LEA) currently provides to ensure that the school provides value for money will be lost.
If the Academy were to struggle financially or academically there would be no back up from the local authority.
As a local authority school, staff terms and conditions are negotiated nationally and have protection. The Village School have said they will put in place protections to secure the staff terms and conditions are safeguarded. But what are these protection(s) and how does the school propose to make them legally binding for the future? This should have been clearly set out prior to any consultation, not alluded to during it. I am advised that many staff at Woodfield are agency staff and all staff are required to clock in and out each day.
Have the governors also considered the effect this might have on staff moral and whether it would lead to a high turnover of staff, including those with many years of experience who contribute so much to the school's current success.
I look forward to your full response to these serious concerns as a matter of urgency.