Mention the word ‘academy’ to parents and some hear alarm bells.
With Ofsted criticising a lack of quality and the government toying with the idea of forcing all schools to abandon local authority control, the suspicion is understandable.
But for every tale of failure there is one of success, and a number of Crawley schools appear to have backed a winner, with one in particular reaping the benefits.
The Mill Primary, in Ifield, joined The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT) in September 2013 and has just celebrated a ‘good’ Ofsted rating after years of being ranked ‘inadequate’ or ‘requires improvement’.
Headteacher Matt Lecouyer joined the school last September and said the first thing he did was to take stock of everything The Mill had to offer before working out what needed to be changed and what needed to be developed.
While delighted with the improved Ofsted rating, he said he intended to see his school reach the top ‘outstanding’ mark.
We realised we had a long way to go. It’s the first step on that journeyMatt Lecouyer, headteacher, The Mill
Mr Lecouyer added: “We realised we had a long way to go, so it’s the first step on that journey.”
One of the concerns raised about multi-academy trusts such as TKAT was the number of headteachers and other senior staff who left schools once the trust moved in.
At the end of 2013, TKAT told the government’s education select committee it had replaced 26 headteachers at the 40 schools it had taken on.
The committee also heard all those schools had shown improvement after two years with the trust, so it could be argued these were changes that needed to be made.
Take a look at the Crawley schools.
The Bewbush Academy saw its Ofsted rating rise to ‘good’ after joining TKAT in 2012; and the same applied to Hilltop Primary, in Southgate.
The Oaks, in Tilgate, remained ‘good’; Broadfield East Junior School has made strides toward being rated ‘good’, though Ofsted found it still needed to improve.
When it came to primary pupils’ achievements, the Key Stage 2 results for 2015 saw most academies in Crawley improving by as much as 17 per cent compared to 2014.
Of course, it hasn’t all been good news. Seymour Primary, in Broadfield, saw its rating drop from ‘good’ to ‘requires improvement’, as did Thomas Bennett Community College, though both have been seen to take “effective action” to bring things up to scratch.
After taking over at The Mill, TKAT made changes not only to leaders and the curriculum but to the way the school portrayed itself.
Mr Lecouyer said: “We wanted to get out there, so we’re very visible in school but we’re also out on the gates talking to parents. We’re breaking down those barriers that I think was a bit like a prison before – but now we’re an open school where parents are welcomed. That was picked up by Ofsted as well, that parents do feel welcome in school.”
As it continues to break down those barriers, the school has opened breakfast and after-school clubs and installed a cafe to allow parents to socialise.
Executive headteacher Neil Small said: “We felt the school hadn’t necessarily been the centre of the community and I think that’s part of the reason to put in a cafe – to try and have more of a community feel to the school.”
Parents are also invited to join their children in lessons on Wednesday mornings to find out what they are learning. While teachers were naturally cautious about having mums and dads in the classroom, Mr Small said the idea had blossomed over the academic year.
He added: “There’s still a big mystery around what goes on in school, I think. And we’re trying with the communication – it can always be better but we’re trying.”
While riding the wave of the latest Ofsted report, Mr Small recognised there was more work to be done. He added: “I’m hoping parents can see the progress. We’re still only at the start of it really, we’re not pretending everything is brilliant – because some days it isn’t – but most of the time parents can see that it’s a positive thing.”
He also welcomed demands from outgoing Ofsted chief inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw that each multi-academy trust should be inspected as one entity rather than by their individual schools.
Mr Small said: “I think that would be a good thing. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. I think the difficulty when they previously did that is it was very early on in a lot of academy chains’ lives. So academy chains had taken on some schools that had struggled and turning those schools around isn’t an easy job.
“The point of inspections should be a little barometer of where you are and support to really hone the way forward. So if they’re doing that across an academy chain, I think that’s good.”
Neither Mr Small nor Mr Lecouyer agreed with the government’s recent plan to force all school to convert to academy status. While the idea was eventually dropped, they encouraged schools to look past the “scare mongering” and find out more about what being an academy actually involves.
Mr Small said: “I think forcing the issue wasn’t the right thing. I also don’t think there’s enough good multi-academy trusts to take on all schools and I do think there are roles that the local authority needs to have.
“I do think schools - and governors particularly - need to invite and find out as much information as they can. Because I think there’s a bit of scare mongering about becoming an academy and what that actually means.”
Another government idea TKAT has chosen not to embrace is the idea of dropping parents from their governing body.
Mr Small said: “TKAT are very keen to keep parent-governors involved. If you can hold onto your parent-governors for the first year, then you’re onto a winner. It’s sometimes difficult I think for parent-governors to see the impact they are having in that first year. But they are absolutely vital - they need to hang on in there.”
There is one parent-governor vacancy at The Mill and any parent wishing to apply should contact Mr Lecouyer.
When asked why he had chosen to take a role with TKAT, Mr Small summed up his views in one word - “frustration”.
He had worked at Castledown School, in Hastings - run by East Sussex County Council - and said: “The reason I moved was because when I had a good idea, it didn’t go back to East Sussex and they didn’t move quickly enough. They didn’t change things quick enough. And that wasn’t just me. It was other heads in East Sussex.
“I know, from working in a local authority school, if you had a good idea and you wanted to feed it back, people could agree but it just took so long, like years, to change anything.
“With TKAT, if you’ve got a good idea and you think something needs changing, people at the top can realise that and see it and it gets changed. We’ve seen things change in a period of three or four months.”
Mr Lecouyer agreed, adding: “TKAT give you autonomy as a headteacher about how you run the school and lead the school. But there is a support network behind and there is an ethos that runs through that.
“We don’t all teach the same way. Some of us might do but in the Crawley schools I know of three or four different curriculums going on because we’re all teaching differently.
At the same time we do get together, we do discuss it. We have that same foundation and the same support behind us but we have the autonomy to run our schools how we want them to be run.”
With his first year as headteacher coming to an end, Mr Lecouyer has been impresed with the way his school has progressed and sees bright futures ahead for his pupils.
He said: “Watching the children over the last eight or nine months this academic year, the children at The Mill have really grown in confidence and learning power and in being just well-mannered, polite, respectful children.
“The more and more they’re in school, the greater confidence they build to become those young adults who are going to lead our country in the future.”
‘If they’re not in school, they’re not learning’
Children at The Mill have several very good reasons for ensuring they attend lessons every day.
As well as learning and meeting their friends, there is the chance of winning a new bike.
Any child who is in school for the whole week gets a raffle ticket, and a draw is carried out in assembly each term.
Headteacher Matt Lecouyer denied the academy was bribing children
He said: “Everyone needs a carrot sometimes and everyone needs to have positivity to move forward. I think it’s a positive thing for children to look forward to. It’s something they can see in the future and aim towards.
“It’s no different to the targets we have in school for the children who may have behaviour issues sometimes or who are slightly behind on their learning. We still put those targets in place and there’s a reward at the end of it.”
Executive headteacher Neil Small added: “The ultimate thing for us is it’s our job to get children into school. That’s what we’re paid for. So there’s no apology around what we’re doing to do that! We will do everything we can to get the children in, because if they’re not in they’re not learning and that’s our job.”
Another fun aspect of Mill life are the animals. Goats, chickens and guinea pigs share an outside area where children learn about animal care and take time to chill out if they are having a tough time.
There used to be a rooster among their number but he had to find a new home after his over-enthusiastic crowing kept waking the neighbours.
The goats are a new addition and the children have been given the task of naming them. The names will be announced at the summer fair on Friday July 15, from 2-4pm.
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