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Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust Schools

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust schools.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Edward. All Members would agree that a good education gives young people, no matter what their background or where they live, the life chances to be the best that they can be. Education is an open door to opportunity, and that is something I want for every child in Telford. The Minister, who is not here, may be aware that in Telford all our academies benefited from the highest level of Building Schools for the Future funding. Every school is newly built with impressive facilities that every student can be proud of. Good education, however, is more than investment in the best buildings and facilities; it is about good leadership, high expectations and enabling students to reach their full potential, giving them a sense of personal responsibility and self-worth and ensuring that they feel cared for and valued.

In my constituency, the education of 2,000 children was affected by the collapse of the Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust last year. Following inspections by Ofsted, all four secondary schools within the trust were put into special measures after receiving “inadequate” ratings. All four Ofsted inspections made similar observations. There were widening gaps in the achievement of the most disadvantaged children and a culture of low expectations on achievement, behaviour and attendance. Specifically, Ofsted said that the multi-academy trust had failed to take action to halt the decline in achievement and failed to provide effective support and challenge to the schools.

The “inadequate” ratings were based on far more than merely exam results. The schools failed because of failings at the top and because of the leadership decisions taken by the multi-academy trust. Ofsted was clear in every report that that was the case. It is true that schools within the cluster had very poor GCSE results in consecutive years. Only 20% of the most disadvantaged children were achieving five good GSCEs including English and maths. All four schools within the trust fell below the 40% floor target, with two falling below 33%. In one school, almost three quarters of children failed to achieve five good GCSEs in consecutive years.

In seeking to raise the issue, I speak as someone whose mother was a teacher in a comprehensive school and as someone who has been a governor in schools in areas of significant disadvantage, so I understand the challenges that teachers and governors face. I pay tribute to those at the coalface in Telford who tried so hard in circumstances that in hindsight were far too challenging. However, I also want to speak for the young people who were failed. We can make no mistake: in schools where 80% of children are in receipt of the pupil premium and 80% are leaving school without getting five good GCSEs, we have to ask about their life chances and talk about the impact on their future. Children’s education, particularly that of children from the least advantaged, least educated families, is an important duty of local authorities.

In the case of the Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust, the portfolio holder for children and young people was on the board of directors, as was the local authority’s assistant director of education. In 2014, it became apparent that there were difficulties. Immediately, the local authority ceased its involvement, leaving behind well-intended, ill-equipped and inexperienced people to shoulder the burden of financial failings and educational shortcomings. After the schools were placed in special measures, councillors brought a motion at a council meeting in Telford in October 2015 expressing

“deep concern and censure of the authority’s…leadership with regards to Education policy, provision and achievement”.

The portfolio member responsible for children and young people claimed that the way Ofsted had conducted the inspections had triggered the problems, but that in any event it was an academy chain, so the local authority had no responsibility. It appeared to many that what had happened was being brushed under the carpet.

The portfolio member could have accepted that the children had been let down. He could have recognised the shortcomings and seen an opportunity to learn lessons for the future. Instead, he criticised those who wanted to find out what had gone wrong. He claimed they were guilty of playing party politics with our children’s future. In reality, everyone supported the schools while they were in special measures. Opposition councillors did not raise the issue publicly until students had finished their 2015 summer exams. As the new MP for Telford, I have waited until now to raise the issue, because as the Minister may know, a new sponsor has been found and things are starting to go well.

Whenever something goes wrong there are lessons to be learned. Unless we are prepared to speak out, nothing will change and an opportunity to build a better future for our children will be lost. There are three clear lessons from the Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust story. They are on, first, the crucial importance of strong leadership and governance; secondly, the high expectations of students and of teachers; and, thirdly, the willingness of a local authority to intervene quickly when things go wrong and to accept a duty towards every child in the borough. In his response, will the Minister confirm that a local authority has a statutory duty for every child in a borough, academy or no academy? It must be right to ask whether the local authority fulfilled its statutory responsibilities in this case.

I commend my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. There is surely nothing more important than the next generation and ensuring that they have the very best opportunities going forward. Education and good schooling are absolutely critical to that. She does full justice to the strain and stress around Ofsted and around being in special measures and what that means for the school and the wider community. I subscribe to her plea that the local authority has a duty of care in that. We all have a very important part to play. She talks about school leadership, but I commend her for showing significant political leadership in bringing this issue to light to better help the children of Telford.

I thank my hon. Friend for her excellent intervention and sensible words. I know how experienced she is in this field, and I am grateful to her.

I believe those asking questions on behalf of the children who lost out are right to do so, and their questions deserve answers. Will the Minister confirm that if things are not working—if leadership and governance are struggling—local authorities should be proactive and get help from the Department for Education and regional schools commissioners? Will he encourage local authorities to intervene early and not to tolerate an inadequate education for any of our children, but particularly the most disadvantaged?

The Minister will be pleased to know that there is good news in Telford. We already have two fantastic academies: Madeley Academy and Abraham Darby Academy. Those schools give their students a good and rounded education. They serve areas with a similar demographic to those served by the Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust. Those schools show that no matter where someone lives and no matter what their background is, they can have a good education.

The Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust was dissolved. The DFE got involved and a new sponsor was found. The sponsor formally took over in November 2015. It is early days, but the signs are encouraging. The new academy chain has ensured a full staff restructuring, with shared leadership across all schools. New timetables, new day structures, new approaches to behaviour and teaching and new leadership and governance processes have been successfully put in place.

An early DFE monitoring visit saw examples of excellent practice being identified, and there were two successful Ofsted monitoring visits where the positive impact of the new trust and the work of the school-based leaders were recognised. The chief executive told me earlier this week:

“We are still in the early days of school improvement and there is still much to do, but the young people in the schools are getting a better deal.”

A recent Ofsted visit found that the trust

“has played a crucial role in removing barriers to the academy’s progress and putting in place a clear strategy for the academy’s improvement. The structures, mechanisms and foundations are now in secure sustainable improvements.”

I offer my full support to the new trust chain, the leaders, the teachers and the students as they all move forward on this exciting journey, and I know the Minister will join me in that support.

I will conclude by saying to the Minister that if the Government’s education policies are working, the Telford schools will be a benchmark of that success. If in four years’ time, given the right leadership and high expectations, the schools have been turned around, and if children from the least advantaged areas in Telford have the same life chances as others, that will show that the Government have got their education policy absolutely right.

As Telford’s MP I will pay close attention to the progress of the schools and the students. I will continue to raise their progress with the DFE and with the Minister. As we look to the future, we should not discard the lessons of the past or avoid an understanding of what went wrong. We should all hold on to the belief that young people, no matter where they live or what their background, deserve the life chances that a good education provides and an open door to opportunity.

I apologise to you, Sir Edward, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) for being a few minutes late for the start of this debate. Never has the journey on foot from the Department for Education to Westminster Hall been as swift as the one that I have just undergone in order to hear my hon. Friend’s speech and to be able to respond to it. I congratulate her on securing this debate. I pay tribute to her for her work on this and other education issues, particularly for her work on children in care. She made a powerful speech on children in care in early January, and today she has made another powerful and compelling speech about education in her constituency.

I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Caroline Ansell) that our hon. Friend the Member for Telford is showing significant political leadership in taking up these issues in Westminster Hall today. She is right to celebrate the achievements of the Community Academies Trust in improving schools in her area. The trust is a fine example of the success of the academies programme, which is raising academic standards by giving headteachers greater freedom and also greater responsibility. Before 2010, there were just 203 academies, but the Academies Act 2010 opened the programme to every school in the country so that the benefits of academy status were available to any school. Headteachers have seized the opportunity to raise standards. There are now more than 5,000 open academies, and 65% of all secondary schools are academies or free schools.

In 2015, secondary converter academies outperformed national average attainment at GCSE by 7.2 percentage points, with 64.3% of pupils achieving five or more GCSEs at A* to C, including English and maths. I am pleased that there are already 10 open academies in Telford and Wrekin, and I know that my hon. Friend is encouraging more schools in her constituency to consider the advantages that academy status brings. Despite the overall success of the programme, the performance of some academies falls short of our expectations. Where this is the case, we do not hesitate to intervene swiftly so that the necessary improvements are secured. The answer to the question about intervention that she raised in her speech is that it has to be swift, and it is swift thanks to the academies programme.

My hon. Friend raised particular concerns about the performance of the Telford Co-operative Multi Academy Trust, which was joined by four academies in Telford in April and June 2013: Lakeside, Phoenix, Sutherland and Wrockwardine. At the time of conversion, the schools were performing well. In February 2015, however, all four schools were judged inadequate by Ofsted and serious financial issues were uncovered by the Education Funding Agency. Standards at the schools had dropped significantly, as cited by my hon. Friend in her speech, and fewer than 40% of pupils were leaving the schools with good key stage 4 results.

Although technically part of the trust, the four schools effectively operated in isolation, losing the benefits of closer collaboration and support for each other. The poor performance of the schools was unacceptable. The Department therefore intervened and secured the trust’s agreement for a new sponsor, the Community Academies Trust, with a proven track record of school improvement. CAT was originally formed by two outstanding schools, Polesworth secondary school and Birchwood primary school, in 2012. In all the schools within the trust, there has been significant improvement, and the two founding schools continue to be judged “Outstanding” by Ofsted. At Polesworth secondary school, 64% of pupils achieved five A* to C, including English and maths, and 38% achieved the EBacc combination of GCSEs in the summer of 2015. At Birchwood primary school, 80% of pupils achieved at least a level 4 in reading, writing and maths.

The Community Academies Trust took responsibility for the four TCMAT schools in November 2015. I am pleased to confirm, as my hon. Friend has said, that recent Ofsted monitoring visits in December and January have noted significant improvements. Ofsted inspectors commented positively on the schools’ leadership and governance, and praised the support being provided by the Community Academies Trust. Specifically, Ofsted has said:

“New leaders have acted with drive and determination to alter the culture and ethos of the academy...The clear strategic vision and ambition of the executive head of school and Community Academies Trust, supported by an able team of deputy headteachers, is now beginning to have an impact on standards...The quality of teaching, pupils’ attendance and behaviour are improving. This is starting to raise the achievement of some pupils...The signs are that pupil numbers will be up to sustainable levels within the 4 years.”

This approach—recognising and quickly addressing underperformance—is fundamental to the academies programme. To date, we have issued 134 formal notices to underperforming academies and we have ensured a change of sponsor in 123 cases of particular concern.

The Education and Adoption Bill will strengthen the Department’s powers to ensure that every failing or coasting school, whether maintained or an academy, receives the support that it needs to improve. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising these issues today, and I congratulate the Community Academies Trust on the progress it has already made. I wish the schools in her constituency every success as they continue to improve.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.