Parents not told of academy trust failure until school term began

CREDIT: This story was first seen in the Guardian

Wakefield City Academies Trust collapsed at start of term leaving 21 schools without effective management, MPs told, the Guardian reports.

DfE officials spent a year trying to convince a failing academy trust to give up its schools, before the trust collapsed at the start of term leaving 21 schools without effective management, MPs have been told.

Parliament’s education committee heard from the DfE’s regional schools commissioners that Wakefield City Academies Trust (WCAT) finally decided to give up running its schools in July – but parents and pupils were not informed until a few days into the start of the new school year in September.

The committee quizzed the commissioners – DfE agents who monitor academies – over the recent string of failings by academy trusts, including WCAT, which collapsed amid accusations of asset-stripping.

Sir David Carter, the national schools commissioner, blamed the DfE for giving WCAT an “impossible” task by taking on a large number of schools needing substantial improvement.

“In the period of 32 months, the trust was given 14 schools that were in special measures – 14 schools in 32 months. The department made that decision, yes,” Carter told MPs.

“Whoever made the decision – 14 out of 20 special measures schools with the remaining six requiring improvement – that is an ask of a trust that’s impossible.”

Asked if similar collapses were possible, Carter told MPs: “I think failure is always a risk in the system.”

Vicky Beer, the commissioner responsible for WCAT’s region, revealed that her staff had been working closely with WCAT from September last year.

Beer said her effort had been to challenge WCAT over its running of the schools, and “to move it to a position where the trust board reflected itself that it didn’t have the appropriate capacity”.

Parents were kept in the dark over WCAT’s decision to terminate its contracts until a few days into the new school term – which Beer said was a deliberate move.

“[WCAT] subsequently made that decision in July, and also took the decision – given that it was so close to the end of the summer term – that it was better to wait and make the announcement in September,” Beer said.

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Asked if she was “happy” with the sudden collapse that left pupils and parents shocked, Beer replied: “Any sort of news like this is always going to be destabilising initially.”

MPs also questioned commissioners over the failure of Whitehaven academy in Cumbria, with the local MP, Trudy Harrison, saying that parents’ complaints had been ignored by the DfE for years.

“Staff say they are broken and students say their futures have been destroyed by the multi-academy trust, which was Bright Tribe. Why has it taken so long to considering rebrokering at Whitehaven academy? What has gone wrong?” Harrison asked.

Carter said the school’s problems were a “perfect storm” caused by crumbling buildings and poor management. “This is a trust that didn’t have capacity to improve that school,” Carter said.

Harrison, the MP for Copeland, is said to have been “frogmarched” out of Whitehaven academy by Bright Tribe when she attempted to visit last month.

“What happened to Trudy is outrageous, it’s unacceptable. I’ve never known or ever heard of anything like that happening to any MP,” the committee chair, Robert Halfon, told Carter.

“Of course I can empathise with the experience that you had. But I’ve not spoken to the school, I’ve not spoken to the trust,” Carter said.

“Should you not have done? Because this has clearly been in the papers, it’s clearly an MP on this committee that has been unacceptably treated, allegedly,” Halfon replied.

The Labour MP Lucy Powell said the multi-academy failures showed complacency by officials, with problems being discussed only behind the scene.

“The last people to know about the outcome of these discussions are parents, pupils, staff and local politicians,” Powell said.

“There appears to be complacency in the one, two, three [and] four examples you’ve given me this morning,” Carter said. “But out of 1,350 multi-academy trusts it’s a very, very small percentage we’re dealing with.”

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