Northern Education Trust, which runs two schools in Hartlepool and one in Sunderland, has issued a lengthy response to the conclusions of a report by government inspectors from Ofsted.
Here it is in full:
The trust welcomed the request made by Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector to carry out a focused review of nine of our twenty academies in November 2016. We are pleased that the review recognises that “Principals and governors are fulsome in their praise for the support they receive”.
Such acknowledgement is rare in a review of this kind. They also identify the challenge of the task of taking on schools “that have much higher levels of deprivation found nationally”.
We also welcome the review’s appreciation that “the school improvement strategy is on a firmer footing”.
However, we are astonished by the lateness of the report which is therefore incapable of recognising the effect of the significant developments in our school improvement strategy since 2016.
Ofsted has apologised for the inconvenience that the delay has caused, but we recognise that the regional offices are under increasing pressure due to their diminishing capacity.
We have made significant new appointments, injected substantial resources and made major changes to our systems over the last six months.
We are also concerned that there has been no acknowledgement of the Trust’s existing ‘Supporting Schools to Improve’ policy and arrangements despite evidence of this being supplied to Ofsted twice.
The Northern Education Trust took on the challenge of working with a group of schools, most of which had a history of endemic failure, at the request of the DfE and local authorities four year ago. When NET took them over from local authorities, many schools were not popular with parents and carers.
Often they were not financially sustainable and they had limited support from business and local communities.
Indeed, one could reasonably argue that many fell into the category that the Education Select Committee recently called ‘untouchable’ schools.
At the point of transfer to NET only 20 per cent were considered by Ofsted as functioning well with 55 per cent being classified as inadequate.
The DfE, local authorities and governing bodies invited NET to take on this challenge, which NET readily accepted. Without any additional resources provided by the DfE or the Regional Commissioners.
NET has made steady progress in addressing many of the issues raised in the review whilst also creating a financially sustainable organisation.
Ofsted inspections judge 83 per cent of the schools inspected since joining NET to have either improved or to have maintained standards.
One of our secondaries (10 per cent) and two of our primaries (20 per cent) have been downgraded. This is unacceptable to us and we are increasing our planned improvement programme in these schools. But, it should be noted that in the north-east region 80 per cent of secondaries and 50 per cent of North East primaries were downgraded in the last round of inspections.
This is a wider issue throughout the region, and again NET schools have performed well above this level.
In 2016, GL Assessment, a leading specialist in educational assessment and stakeholder surveys interviewed 729 parents, 359 members of staff and 1,324 students; NET’s performance was rated ‘very good’ compared to similar schools
Over 80 per cent of parents and staff said they would now recommend their school. Since conversion, almost all academies in the Trust have significantly increased pupil intake with a projected total of more than 600 pupils expected in our academies in 2019 compared to 2014.
The Education Funding Agency has also been very positive about NET’s financial health, probity and processes, clearly stating that they endorse the way in which we manage our finances, regarding NET as an exemplar of good practice.
Additionally, we are delighted to have received some extremely supportive statements from Ofsted and DfE advisers about our academies over the past two years, and about how we have supported and challenged them.
Ofsted has also stated that the Trust has built ‘overwhelmingly positive relationships’ with academy principals and chairs across its 20 academies observing that “principals talk of the NET family as a close-knit partnership where all are prepared to ask for and accept support”.
Recent DfE adviser visits have also found this to be true.
Business and education leaders have praised NET’s moral purpose and the people within the organisation who have a history of taking on incredibly challenging projects.
It is clear to all that the ethos of NET – “The education of every child is held to be of equal value” – is at the core of everything NET does and this is fully supported and carried forward by all staff.
However, NET and Ofsted would also agree there is still a lot to do.
Commenting on the Review, Ian Kershaw, the Chief Executive said: “I am pleased that the review acknowledges that the “Principals and governors are fulsome in their praise for the support they receive” and that the Trust already had in
place ‘a planned restructure to ensure that the school improvement strategy is on a firmer footing for the future.
“I am disappointed, and a little shocked, by the delay in the presentation and publication of the Ofsted letter to us because we voluntarily took part in the review and then put in place measures to address the issues and recommendations raised by HMI some time ago now.
“I do accept their apology for this and recognise that Ofsted’s regional offices are under increasing pressure because of their diminishing capacity to respond rapidly.
“Sustainable improvement can often take longer to achieve than government guidelines suggest, or we would all wish. But our commitment is to improving the life chances of the eleven thousand children we are responsible for and ensuring that each of them enjoys school life and has access to a high standard of education.
“NET took on schools displaying signs of endemic failure and in the last three years we have begun the process of transforming them through a dedicated and unremitting commitment to our core values to secure improvement. This has been undertaken with no additional funding from the DfE despite our various requests for financial support or the support of the RSC’s in allowing us to grow capacity by taking on schools rated as good or better despite their desire to join the Trust.
“These are schools and communities which have rarely succeeded for decades. If any group can succeed with such schools, it is NET. And we will.
“We have taken on the toughest challenge of any Trust within the UK. Consistently Ofsted reports have praised the quality of our support to our academies over the last two years. The most recent review letter differs greatly, with a harshness of tone that we find surprising – especially as we have worked closely with Ofsted in the past and have been judged to have improved in many areas over time.
“Since we started in 2012, the standards expected of schools by Ofsted and the government have rightly been raised and we are of the view that overall, the quality of education across the academies of the Trust have substantially risen since we began.
“We believe that we are on a trajectory to clear the new higher standards bar that has been set, and expect to do so even if we receive no additional funding support from the DfE. It is surprising that the DfE and Regional Commissioners’ offices have failed to offer additional funding support to the Trust over the past four years despite requests we have made but we accept that there may have been higher priorities with which they have had to contend due to a growing number of academy sponsors.
“The Regional Commissioners Schools’ Education Advisers are now visiting ten of our academies to ascertain how the Trust is supporting improvement. We would hope that these reports are made public to ensure that there is transparency in the proper process of holding multi-academy trusts to account for their improvement strategies and in accordance with the Nolan principles for public life.
“I have no doubt about the challenges that lie ahead for the Trust and that more needs to continue to be done to raise standards in our academies. I am, nevertheless, immensely proud of the team of principals, senior leaders and governors we now have in place in our academies and of their impressive capacity to rapidly improve standards. These are leaders who will transform the lives of young people in the north of England and they should be supported not criticised.”