College bankrolls failing schools in new academy trust

An ‘outstanding’ FE college is having to bankroll improvements to struggling schools in its new academy trust.

Two of its schools are rated ‘inadequate’, one just five months after the chain launched.

The Dudley Academies Trust, sponsored by Dudley College of Technology, was handed four schools by the Department for Education last September.

One of these, Holly Hall Academy, received the lowest-possible Ofsted rating last month amid criticism of teaching, leadership and behaviour, causing the resignation of its headteacher.

Another of the trust’s schools, Hillcrest School and Community College, had was rated ‘inadequate’ by inspectors in January last year, before the trust took it over.

The other two schools, the High Arcal School and Castle High School, were rated ‘good’ and ‘requires improvement’ when they were still standalone academies.

Lowell Williams (pictured), the chief executive of Dudley College, who also chairs the MAT, said that the college was funding extra remedial maths and English lessons for all four schools, as well as a “big injection” of ICT equipment, and had even planned a restructure of central support services.

He would not reveal the total spent on school improvements so far.

Government guidance says any potential sponsor for a multi-academy trust must demonstrate “a strong track record of school improvement”.

And although Dudley College is an ‘outstanding’ college, it does not have school improvement experience.

A spokesperson for the DfE would not comment on the rationale behind the decision, but said officials are working to ensure the academies are “fully supported and their pupils have access to the education they deserve”.

In its report on Holly Hall, Ofsted did acknowledge that the “newly formed trust has swiftly gained an accurate view of the quality of education in the school” and said there were “early signs” of improvement.

“This was a routine inspection of an academy that had been judged to require improvement in May 2015,” an Ofsted spokesperson said.

“It did not become a new school when it joined the Dudley Academies Trust in September 2017 because it was already an academy. In our inspection report we recognised the impact that the trust was beginning to make.”

Dudley became the first general FE college to receive a grade one Ofsted rating in 14 months last June.

But Mr Williams admitted that the college’s “biggest fear” when taking on the schools had been whether it had the skillset to work with school pupils.

He said he had been “shocked” by how much translated across between the two sectors, which are “not dissimilar at all”.

The college had been approached by the schools for “support”, and he hopes the initiatives will improve pupil outcomes.

The trust is still hoping to grow to include primary schools and wants to open an alternative provision free school, and aims to have all its schools achieving the national average progress score within three years.

“It’s not going to be easy, but I think there’s every opportunity to make this work,” said Williams.

Colleges have had mixed success with forming multi-academy trusts in the past.

Three of the four schools run by Midland Academies Trust, which is sponsored by North Warwickshire and South Leicestershire College, are rated ‘requires improvement’; two have fallen from ‘good’ since the trust took over and another only recently rose from ‘inadequate’.

In 2015, the trust also shut down two studio schools, the Midland Studio Colleges in Hinckley and Nuneaton, due to low pupil numbers.

However, the Bridgwater College Trust, sponsored by Bridgwater and Taunton College, now has four ‘good’ schools on its books after two improved from their previous ‘requires improvement’ and ‘inadequate’ ratings.