Last week, BBC Panorama aired shocking revelations about the Bright Tribe academy chain. There are two Bright Tribe schools in Ipswich – Cliff Lane primary in my Constituency, and Castle Hill infants and juniors in Dr Poulter’s Constituency.
I am not aware that any financial misconduct which Bright Tribe may have been involved in nationally had any effect on Cliff Lane school. Although Ofsted rated Cliff Lane last autumn as “Needs Improvement” it also acknowledged that the school is in fact improving.
Ofsted said “Since opening as an academy, the school has been through a time of frequent changes in both leadership and staff. New senior leaders are now making more rapid improvements. The school is now improving at pace. The new Principal, supported by the Deputy Principal, provides strong and effective leadership. They have a clear improvement plan and are monitoring the impact of their work effectively.”
I hope and believe that Cliff Lane can achieve a “Good” rating from Ofsted at its next inspection, in recognition of the effective education it gives its children. I would hate anything that might happen to Bright Tribe to affect what happens to Cliff Lane school, to its teachers, its parents, and above all of course to its pupils.
I have spoken to Suffolk’s Cabinet member for Education to seek his assurance that they have plans in case Bright Tribe ceases to be an academy trust. I have written to the Education and Skills Funding Agency asking about the scope for misuse of funds by academy chains. And I have written to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee to ask them to investigate this situation – the last thing we want is for any of the limited funds available for schools to be siphoned off by charlatans.
The Bright Tribe affair calls into question the role of national academy chains. Felixstowe still does not have the secondary school its students – and staff – deserve. The new Principal and his team are making progress, but it was as a part of the Academies Enterprise Trust that Felixstowe Academy got into difficulties in the first place. East Point Academy in Lowestoft has improved its exam results but at what cost to the students in limiting their range of subjects or indeed in excluding some of them altogether?
This week I visited another primary school in Ipswich – Clifford Road – and saw for myself the difficulties that the Head is having with the Victorian school building. The basic fabric of the building is superb, but the County Council has not carried out enough major maintenance over the years, such as replacing the windows, and that comes down to insufficient funds.
When a Labour-led administration took control of Suffolk County Council in 1993, many of our schools still had outside toilets. Most had “temporary” classrooms – prefabs which in some cases had been there for 20 years. Virtually none had nurseries, most had insufficient classrooms, and many had rotten windows, failing heating systems and uneven floors. The Council took the political decision to increase funding for our schools – and not just for the fabric of the buildings. Educational results improved, until Suffolk was in the top quarter for school exam results in the UK.
We need more funding for our schools. When the Government says they are spending more on education, they don’t take into account the extra children, the general inflation, or the additional costs and taxes that schools are having to meet. In real terms, the funding per pupil has gone down in almost every school in Suffolk.
But we also need an effective and accountable authority for managing education in our County. Parents should be able to find a place for their child in the nearest school. Students who are too far from their school to walk or cycle need transport. Suffolk needs a whole range of special schools and PRUs for those children who can’t fit into a mainstream school – and we need those establishments to be in Suffolk, not in expensive private institutions miles away.
I believe it’s time to sweep away the national academy chains. I fully support those multi-academy trusts in my constituency where schools have come together to support each other – for most, this is the best solution under the present circumstances. But eventually, I look forward to a Local Education Authority – like the one provided for years by the County Council – again having the powers and resources it needs to ensure that all our children can get the education they deserve.