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Primary Education News
News Education in brief: private school's £5m debts paid off as it becomes an academy
An independent school's debts have been cleared by the state as it becomes an academy; pressure is on to finish free school buildings; a search for wise academy governors; the year 6s who are staying local; and meet the 'presumed consent' team
How to wipe out private school debts?
Michael Gove cleared the £5m debts of a private school as the government pushed through a controversial proposal to turn the school into a state-funded academy, Education Guardian has learned.
The arrears of the King's school in North Tyneside, which is part of the Woodard group of independent schools, were covered by the Department for Education as King's gained government approval to merge with Priory school, a state primary in the town.
The new Kings Priory school will open next month. While fees at King's, a day school that has faced declining pupil numbers, reportedly approached £10,000 a year, parents whose children attend the new school will not be charged.
In June, North Tyneside council, which opposed the merger, uncovered information in the accounts of King's, posted on the Charity Commission website. This shows that the school owed £1,042,612 payable within the next year, and a further £4m over future years.
A letter from Lord Nash, the academies minister, to the council confirming the merger, says: "The Department has agreed to fund the existing loan and overdraft of one of the predecessor schools [King's] by securing a charge against the assets of the Woodard Corporation on the land and buildings of the King's School, Tynemouth."
The government told Education Guardian that the King's site, which the DfE says is valued at more than twice the total of the school's debts, has now been transferred to the public sector. The merged academy's new sponsor, the Woodard Academies Trust, has been given use of the buildings on a 125-year-lease, though the freehold remains with the private school's owner, the Woodard Corporation.
The DfE said: "In return for funding the school's existing loan, we will receive a 125-year-lease for use of the buildings … for next to nothing. This represents excellent value for money for taxpayers."
But one finance source not connected to the schools said: "Woodard seems to keep the freehold but the state sector gets a 125-year lease to use the buildings. This appears a great deal for Woodard."
Builders work overtime to convert free schools
A further insight into the last-minute nature of preparations for some free schools due to open next month arrives courtesy of a planning judgment in Chester.
Plans for St Martin's academy were approved by Cheshire West and Chester council only last Tuesday. Although backers of the scheme were jubilant after it had faced controversy, including over possible traffic impact, it does not appear to leave much time to get buildings ready.
The website of St Martin's, the first free school being set up by a group called North West Academies, was still saying last week that it was hoping to receive "confirmation" of its preferred site – a former council building on a commuter road into Chester – by last January. It would then "transform the building into a modern, purpose-built learning environment for its first pupils in September 2013". But the planning application, it seems, was submitted only in late May, with approval granted a week ago.
The school had an application for a temporary classroom on the site rejected last month and it has yet to announce what changes it will make to the approved site in time for the admission of the first 25 children next month. The school could not be reached for comment. Last week, we reported on concerns over the apparent rush to convert an office building into a free school in Bournemouth.
Desperately seeking governors for academies
Is the DfE a little bit desperate to improve governance within academy chains? We only wonder, after it sent an email last week to 160 National Leaders of Governance (NLGs) asking them to consider offering "additional governance support" to academy sponsors.
The email, sent by a civil servant within the Sponsor Recruitment and Development Division of the DfE's "academies group", said: "The secretary of state … has signalled his commitment to drive up standards in underperforming schools as quickly and effectively as possible.
"One of the strategies we are employing is to facilitate optional governance support for academy sponsors from outstanding school governors. We are writing to you, as a valued NLG, to find out if you would be interested in supporting the academies programme in this way.
One recipient was unimpressed. "My worry is that NLGs are being used to support a particular government policy. I'm a believer in local democratic control of education, so I can't support this." He questioned why governors were not being asked to support non-academy schools, too. He added: "The interesting question is whether academies are finding it difficult to get governors of the right quality."
The DfE said it had received 60 positive expressions of interest from NLGs, with only one negative, adding: "The department wants to encourage excellent school governors to work in all types of schools."
Just the job for a local teacher
In May, we reported on the outrage of parents in the Devon village of Lapford over an academy chain's decision to transfer year 6 pupils from the local primary school to another one eight miles away. The Chulmleigh Academy Trust, which runs four primary schools and Chulmleigh community college, advocated the move for a combination of financial and educational reasons. The school to which the pupils will be sent has a better Ofsted report.
The parents failed in their bid to stop the plan going through. But now at least four families have reacted by deciding to home-school their children for a year, under the tutelage of the year 6 teacher they would have had at Lapford primary, who lost her job in the restructuring.
"We are thrilled with this and we believe it is the best possible outcome for our children," said parent Janet May.
All the children are expected to move to Chulmleigh community college in a year's time, though, which could make the relationship between the parents and college management interesting.
Finally, civil servant job titles at the DfE continue to tell their own story. In June we commented on how the department's Academies Central Operations Division had a military, almost Orwellian, ring to it.
Now, we find out that, within the DfE's "Education Choice and Access Division", there is an "Academy Presumption Team". The DfE has already said it needs the ability to "overcome resistance [to academies] at the local level". So perhaps the idea is that the public gets to choose what type of school it wants, so long as it fits certain DfE "presumptions".