Does anyone want the Isle of Portland Academy?

The story of the Isle of Portland Aldridge Academy is one that illustrates many of the dubious features of academy sponsorship. This academy is an all through school formed in 2012 as an amalgamation of four primary schools and one secondary school. It was sponsored by the Aldridge Foundation and Dorset County Council.

The Aldridge Academies Trust was founded by Rod Aldridge of Capita. In addition to the Isle of Portland, it currently has four schools in Darwen, Lancashire, two in Brighton and one in North Kensington. It is planning to open two UTC’s in Salford and Newhaven and is responsible for the National College for Digital Skills in Tottenham.

In 2014, the Isle of Portland was rated good by Ofsted. Since then however things have gone downhill rapidly. Results have dropped sharply and the financial situation of the academy has become critical. It’s under a Financial Notice to Improve, owes £520k to the government and has made 21 redundancies. Part of the background to this was the delay in uniting the school on a single site.

The plan was for the school to become a full member of the Aldridge multi-academy trust – up to now it’s been a single academy trust with Aldridge as one of the trust sponsors. This is a subtle but significant distinction – it means the MAT doesn’t control staffing and can’t use its other resources to support the school financially. Joining the MAT though was not popular – 1000- parents signed a petition opposing it and the chair and vice chair resigned. But of course these days, local people’s views count for very little.

However this plan has fallen through – Aldridge has withdrawn from any involvement and the Regional Commissioner is stuck with trying to find a new sponsor for a school in very significant difficulties.

So what can we learn from this story –

First we need to ask what possible coherence there can be for a smallish trust with schools spread the length and breadth of the country. The government’s vision for MATs is that they foster collaboration and the sharing of best practice. They are meant to nurture talented staff and spread them across their schools. You would expect the trust’s central staff to be engaging regularly with the schools – especially those in difficulties. It’s hard to see how any of this can happen in such a disparate organisation. The trust actually recognised that the isolation of Portland from the rest of the trust was a problem but it’s equally hard to see how Kensington, Darwen and Brighton add much value to each other.

Secondly, the MAT has taken the decision to withdraw based entirely on its own interests. Portland comes with a big debt which would fall to the trust to sort out. It knows sorting out the educational issues of this isolated school would be very hard – and it’s not wrong about that. The point is here that this is a decision taken by a private business – no one started by asking what does this school need. It’s a school that comes with issues so no one wants it. A local authority doesn’t have that choice – it can’t walk away from any of its schools. It’s the fundamental difference between the public interest and the private interests of a trust.

It’s important to recognise that Aldridge is not one of the cowboy trusts that so disfigure the educational landscape. It’s had its successes and there’s no sign of the bad financial behaviour seen in too many MAT’s. But in a sense, that makes this issue all the more important. This is what even the best trusts are expected to do – to make decisions according to their corporate interests.

We have had cases elsewhere in which the government has effectively bribed trusts to take on tricky situations. But as we go forward there will be many cases where schools are not attractive to sponsors – small schools that are potentially unviable, those with PFI debts or falling rolls or just endemic low performance. Getting a market place made up of private businesses to take on schools where it’s not in their interests to do so will be a huge issue.

Fundamentally this story reminds us that there is a basic contradiction between the equitable delivery of public services and the interests of private business. Until this is sorted, more and more schools will be at the mercy of unpredictable market forces with serious consequences for staff and students alike.

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