A multi-academy trust might be running a new sixth form with fewer than 20 students, FE Week has learned, just days after the DfE reversed a decision to let it open another one over fears it wouldn’t be able to make up numbers.
Loxford Trust has refused to reveal exactly how many students attend the sixth form attached to Tabor Academy in Braintree in Essex, after two separate sources claimed it was running far under either its capacity or the 200-pupil minimum specified in the Department for Education’s own guidelines.
The Trust also sponsors Abbs Cross academy and arts college in Hornchurch, Essex, and had been due to open a new sixth form there until the government was forced to climb down under the threat of a judicial review led by the Association of Colleges on Tuesday.
The DfE backed out on the morning of the hearing, reversing its decision and admitting that the trust had not “adequately conducted” a consultation with the local authority.
Significantly, the judicial review alleged that Tim Coulson (pictured), the regional schools commissioner for East England and North East London, had flouted government rules when approving the request from Loxford.
Regional schools commissioners work with the national schools commissioner Sir David Carter to take action in underperforming schools, and to decide on applications which can make significant changes to academies and free schools – such as opening new sixth forms.
The decision to approve the sixth forms at both Abbs Cross and Tabor was made by Mr Coulson at a meeting of the East England and North East London headteacher board on May 12.
In addition to the 200-pupil minimum, the DfE’s rules also state that applications for new sixth forms should normally come from academies rated ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ by Ofsted.
Abbs Cross had been rated ‘inadequate’ following its last full inspection in June 2015, losing its previous ‘good’ rating, while Tabor Academy also received an ‘inadequate’ rating at its most recent full inspection, published in January 2015.
A jubilant David Hughes, AoC’s chief executive, now wants full details of all new sixth form proposals to be put “on the public record”.
“Lots of our members think it is very unfair when a school sixth form gets set up on their doorstep,” he told FE Week, “and where the business case isn’t clear or the consultation is not perhaps as thorough as it might be, the transparency of the decision making isn’t clear.”
The DfE has also agreed to pay a “substantial contribution to a figure in excess of £50,000” to the AoC towards legal costs incurred for the review, he added.
A DfE spokesperson would not comment on the costs and said further information about the review would be published in due course, while Mr Hughes told FE Week that he had written to Sir David to set out what AoC believes the review should look at.
It’s unclear exactly how many pupils attend Tabor’s sixth form, which opened in September, while neither it nor Loxford Trust responded to repeated requests asking for clarification on the sources’ claims, that fewer than 20 students attend.
A DfE spokesperson told FE Week that the decision to approve Tabor Academy’s sixth form “was taken following advice from the Education Funding Agency and the headteacher board, taking into account a consultation in which 81 per cent of respondents were in favour of the proposal.
“It is expected that the sixth form will have 200 pupils from 2017-18,” they added, a figure which seems hard to achieve if the 20-student rumours are true.
A spokesperson for Colchester Institute, which also has a campus in Braintree, told FE Week that it had responded to the consultation on Tabor’s new sixth form a few years ago, “expressing serious concerns about the need and viability of further post-16 provision in the area”.
“Colchester Institute’s concerns were noted but the decision was made,” the spokesperson said.
What the AoC chief executive David Hughes told FE Week
On the cost of the legal action: The DfE has agreed to pay a “substantial contribution to a figure in excess of £50,000.”
On fairness between way schools and colleges are treated: “We have just been through area reviews and colleges are having to put down three and five year financial plans that are properly rigorous and robust, why wouldn’t you expect that of a new school sixth form proposal?
“Why wouldn’t you allow that to be published? It should be on the public record so we have asked for that.”
“Lots of our members think it is very unfair when a school sixth form gets set up on their doorstep, and where the business case isn’t clear or the consultation is not perhaps as thorough as it might be, that the transparency of the decision making isn’t clear.”
On the Regional Schools Commissioners: “They need some clear rules and guidance to work to and we don’t think the current guidance offers that.
“The guidance is not written in a way that helps set out clearly what is expected. It is not about individuals. It is about the system.”
On the risk that forcing the DfE to review the policy might result in them weakening it, such as by taking out the 200 minimum student requirement: “That is an interesting question and I hadn’t thought of that.
“I don’t think so. I think there is a realisation that small school sixth forms are difficult financially.
“We have asked the DfE to analyse the evidence that shows small school sixth forms have poorer quality generally and I think they know that.
“I think the way the case has gone and their actions and discussions we have had suggest that is low risk, but it is a political process.
“I’ve just been with Justine Greening and the sort of education system she wants is high quality. Small school sixth forms find high quality very difficult and I think they know that.”
On the Tabor school sixth form: “We are aware of that [issue].
“I don’t want to comment on an individual position because there are probably many other cases like this.”
On what next: “I’m writing to Sir David Carter today, a letter that sets out in a bit more detail of what we think the review needs to look at and what the issues are.
“We have asked for and will ask the DfE to engage us, which they have promised to do, but also engage some of our members in that process.
“Ideally they will do it in an open and transparent way, that is what I think they should do and that is what we will be pushing for, including a timetable and publication.”