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13 June 2005

When ministers trash your life’s work

In justifying its new city academies, the government loves to dwell on the perceived failure of ordi

By Francis Beckett

Unsatisfactory pupil behaviour, poor academic progress, inappropriate buildings, absent staff, high rates of exclusion, fragile leadership – you name a symptom of failure from the Ofsted catalogue, this school seems to have it. In any other circumstances, ministers would be fairly wallowing in these findings, publicly outraged and privately delighted at such shocking evidence of the collapse of the old ways in education. Parents should not have to put up with poor teaching and feeble management, they would be telling us; failing schools prove the need for radical alternatives, such as the new city academies.

In this case, however, we have sullen silence. Why? Because the subject of this critical Ofsted report already is a city academy. Despite spanking new buildings and taxpayers’ largesse on a scale ordinary schools can only dream of, Unity City Academy in Middlesbrough is in serious trouble after just three years. The silence from ministers is especially galling to the many heads, deputy heads and ordinary teachers up and down the country who have felt the lash of official rebuke – who have been branded as failures, just to help the government sell its city academies scheme. The denigration has been as unfair as it has been routine and poisonous, so it is high time we heard from its victims.

Dr Gill Reed is one. She got so sick of hearing the promoters of the sleek new city academy in the London borough of Brent talk about the “failing” school to which she and her colleagues had given their careers that she decided to put the evidence on the record, in a document called Willesden High School, the Last Decade: a story of success against the odds.

Her school’s troubles began when other schools in the area went grant-maintained because the Conservative government was offering extra money to any that did. Willesden High School stayed with the local authority, but then the Conservative-run Brent Council cut its funding. Local parents naturally wanted to get their children into better-funded schools. “From 1997 to 2003, we taught the pupils who could not get in anywhere else, because other schools were in effect selecting,” Reed says. That meant a high proportion of refugee children. Classes of 30 without a single fluent English speaker were common. And because these children often started late in the year, after fund- ing had been allocated, the school got no money for them. “We were used as a dumping ground,” says Reed.

In 1997 the school was placed on special measures for poor examination results. In those days there was no value-added element in league tables, but Reed has done the sums with a value-added element, and the results are startling. By this measure the school was in the top 10 per cent in Brent. “Our value-added scores were consistently very good indeed, despite the appalling resources and conditions in which we worked. We welcomed and supported students from all over the world, even though, often, the only resources available were our time and effort.”

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None the less, says Reed, “we were named and shamed. Yet the staff did not leave, as they normally do from failing schools. They stayed, because they knew they were doing a good job.” In 2000, Willesden High’s examination results were excellent, and much better than the target set by Ofsted. In 2002 it was taken out of special measures and the inspectors reported that “the school operates very well in particularly challenging circumstances”.

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But by then it had been identified as a place where the city academy experiment might prosper. In theory parents were consulted. In practice they were offered a straight choice between a city academy and a Church of England takeover – in a school where two-thirds of pupils are Muslim. For the next year the school continued to operate in its crumbling building while watching the city academy being built on its grounds. The school closed, and the city academy opened, in summer 2003. In its first year the city academy’s results were fairly good – but no better, says Reed, than she would have expected. “Some years were better than others, and they inherited a rather good year from us.”

Another angry teacher is Gordon Potter. The former deputy head at Coulby Newham School in Middlesbrough, one of two schools closed in 2003 to make way for a city academy, is equally sick of reading about what a rotten school he used to run. In a recent interview with a local paper, the principal of King’s Academy, Nigel McQuoid, claimed that it had “inherited 1,000 pupils and 130 staff from failing schools – and all the baggage that came with them”.

The two schools were not failing. “We had six times the national average of special needs pupils and 35 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals – the other existing school had 50 per cent on free school meals,” Potter says. “We had the best Key Stage Three results in Middlesbrough in 2002.” That year, Ofsted inspected Potter’s school and stated that “the school provided a good quality of education, a good climate for learning, and good management and efficiency”. Knowing that Coulby Newham was doomed, the inspectors recommended that the new city academy should learn from how its predecessor did things. That did not happen. Instead, King’s Academy fosters the myth that Coulby Newham failed.

Owned and controlled by the car sales mogul and evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy, the new academy teaches its students that creationism is at least as valid as Darwinism. Nigel McQuoid has declared: “I don’t have to respect everyone’s opinion. I don’t respect the opinion of people who believe it’s fine to live with a partner. Headteachers are responsible to God and the standards of the Bible. Nothing in the school should contradict the teachings of the Bible.” The academy started with a target of 50 per cent A-C grades at GCSE, and achieved 34 per cent, despite expelling ten times as many pupils as the national average. Potter is entitled to wonder what benefit the trashing of his career and reputation is supposed to have produced.

The plain political fact is that, for these privatised schools to be seen to succeed, other schools must be seen to fail. That is why ministers queue up to rubbish the work of teachers such as Gill Reed and Gordon Potter. And that is why Ofsted’s verdict on Unity leaves ministers and their carpet-bagging friends in the academy business so uncharacteristically dumbstruck.