NUAST – the story so far

This post has also been published on Hands Off Our Schools:

As those following local developments will know, the Nottingham Academy of Science and Technology (NUAST) has actually opened, this September, though not on its brand new site, in the shadow of the Dunkirk flyover. They are claiming to have just over 100 students in Year 10 and Year 12 (‘lower Sixth’).

One of our members attended a recent ‘open evening’, intended to publicise and recruit for next year – again, not in their own building but on the University campus. However, the building will soon be available for these sessions and, presumably, for teaching. Once they are able to ‘show off’ their state-of-the-art facilities, they no doubt think they will find ‘selling themselves’ that much easier.

We remain mystified as to why anyone would sign up their child on a promise, even if the facilities are good (they ought to be, considering they cost £10 million of taxpayers’ money!) The school has had a turbulent few months leading up to a rather low-key opening, with students being taught anonymously (i.e. not wearing uniforms) in another Nottingham college. Famously, the first principal left under something of a cloud partway through the year. We certainly think she was pushed as the University started worrying about what they were getting into. She had fallen out with the Uni authorities over whether or not teacher unions would be recognised – jobs were advertised on basis they would NOT be, the Uni said they would be when made aware, but she insisted, at first, that this would not be the case. Part of the Uni’s panic was also probably down to getting their fingers burned at Samworth (the other ‘Nottingham University Academy’), judged ‘Inadequate’ by OFSTED last Autumn; one of their partners at NUAST, the Djanogly Learning Trust also had its Academy judged ‘Inadequate’ in the same sweep. So they called in The Torch Academy Gateway Trust, rapidly becoming ‘flavour of the month’ in this area.

It must be remembered that ‘Torch’ is effectively one school, Toot Hill Comprehensive, in Bingham, which has achieved an ‘Outstanding’ OFSTED rating and which, to its credit, also helped The Meden School out of ‘Special Measures’. How many Headteachers would find achieving and maintaining an ‘Outstanding’ rating, and helping another school in difficulty, more than enough to fill up their time? Most, we would think, but not the Head of Toot Hill who is now CEO of ‘Torch’ on well over £200K a year.

Last Autumn, ‘Torch’ was called in at Samworth and Djanogly to help out, whilst concurrently spending time and energy (not to mention buckets’ full of taxpayers’ money) on getting the Nottingham Free School up and running (79 students started this Autumn in parts of a converted factory in Sherwood!). ‘Torch’ was also ‘called in’ to ‘provide the education’ at NUAST. It’s not entirely clear what this means but, presumably, they effectively run the place since the Uni isn’t equipped to and the Djanogly Trust shouldn’t, because it was barred from opening any new schools (except NUAST, funnily enough!)

Questions remain to be asked of NUAST:

  • Where is all the money coming from? It obviously hasn’t currently got enough students to make it financially viable without subsidy, even though it is clear they will offer all sorts of courses but reserve the right not to run them if they turn out to be non-viable.
  • In which case, how many years before the taxpayer could be said to be getting ‘value for money’?
  • Unlike many ‘free schools’, of which this is one type, it will have an examination record pretty soon: students in both Key Stage 4 and Sixth Form will get full GCSE and A Level results in August 2016 – so, will they be any good? By what criteria should we judge them?
  • Why have four governors resigned recently?
  • What connection is there between the erstwhile Chair of Governors and the company which ‘managed’ the recruitment process to appoint the new Principal?
  • What effect will recruitment to NUAST have on local schools? As education insiders know, schools seek so-called ‘option choices’ from Year 9 students in January and, on that basis, ‘option groups’, a staffing plan and timetable are constructed for the next academic year. The loss of even just a handful of students could make some groups non-viable with a knock-on effect to staffing and budgets.
  • Will NUAST, based on the ‘university technical college’ (UTC) model, be any more successful than other UTCs such as Hackney UTC, which has closed?
  • More fundamentally, is encouraging children as young as thirteen to ‘specialise’ the right thing for them? A career in engineering or science, the prospect of working with a world-class university and employers with household names might sound alluring, but will the reality be different? These children will not be entering the workforce for at least 6 years (if they are currently in Year 9) or longer. Who knows what specific skills employers might be looking for in a decade’s time? Better, maybe, to keep their options open and make sure they have a firm grounding in ‘the basics’

NUAST is wrong because it has spent, and will go on spending, money we are told is in short supply, which could have been used to improve science and engineering facilities in schools that would NOT require the children to specialise. It is wrong because it offers children and parents an illusion of choice when it cannot guarantee any level of quality. It is wrong because it holds out a promise it cannot necessarily fulfil.

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“You pay, we say”

How galling is it that a government which came in with tales of woe and plans to cut everything in sight because of the apparently dire state of the nation’s finances, has wasted so much on Michael Gove’s pet academies and ‘free’ schools projects? It is one thing to argue about whether they are effective or not (they’re not) but even if they achieved what is claimed for them, they would still be incredibly poor value for money.

Take the Nottingham Free School. This school, as regular readers will know, has been in the pipeline for well over a year and finally, about a month ago, announced that it will open this coming September  in part of an old factory building known as the Courtaulds building and which, for most of us locally, is familiar as the home of a factory shop. So far, so inexpensive, you would think. After all, they’ve shelled out for nothing so far, more than the cost of advertising and setting up a website: a few leaflets, the cost of hiring premises for open meetings in the autumn etc.

Yet, as always, someone (not me) has been burrowing away in documents and websites, statements of accounts and so forth and has found that the parent organisation, the Torch Academy Gateway Trust, and Toot Hill Comprehensive, the academy at the heart of this group, has received £180000 up to the end of January this year, that is, before any work has been done on the Courtaulds building since it hadn’t been announced then. (Maybe there had been a ‘feasibility’ study and an architect’s report to pay for, who knows.)

For greater clarification: Torch received £90000 on 17 September last year from the DfE in the expense area ‘free school group’; Toot Hill school received another £90000 on 28 January this year, again in the expense area ‘free school group’. Toot Hill is the  main school in the Torch Trust and on the NFS website, Toot Hill and its ‘outstanding’ OFSTED rating is heavily used as a way of suggesting the NFS will be excellent. The CEO of Torch has been quoted in the local press as confirming that the NFS and Trent Bridge Free School bid to the DfE, as it was at that stage (October 2012), was financially supported by the New Schools Network, although he didn’t say by how much at that stage. The New Schools Network, quaintly described as a ‘charity’ in the Nottingham Post article, is, of course, a government quango, supported by grants from government (that is, your money and mine) explicitly to support any group wishing to set up a ‘free’ school.

We don’t know whether, in the light of the announcement of the school’s location and the obvious need for refurb and equipment, further money will be forthcoming. We don’t know how many pupils they will start with – estimates vary between 70 and 90, which was the NFS stated aim (originally 120). Normally a school would not receive its per capita funding until the following year but for any new school, ‘pump priming’ is obviously needed. How much, no one at this stage knows but, you can be sure, someone will be doing their best to find out. What is clear is that, so far, without teaching one single lesson. NFS has cost us at least £18000, or, on the NFS’s own figures, £2000 per pupil.

NFS update

Well, sort of. One of my ‘followers’ points out that, if Torch are to appoint ‘experienced’ teachers for their Nottingham Fantasy School, they’d better get their skates on. The resignation date for teachers currently in post is 31 May so time enough. However, I can’t find any jobs advertised on the TES website so they’ve got to get their act together pretty swiftly after Easter as I think this would give them about six weeks to get applications in, short-list, interview and offer jobs. I’ll keep you posted.

Incidentally, whilst searching the TES site I discovered that Meden School (the OTHER Torch school) is looking for eight new staff including an Assistant Head, a Director of English and ‘Head of School’, that is, a Headteacher, basic salary of £80000. Wonder what’s the story?

A visit to the Nottingham Free School website

I originally posted this yesterday on the ‘Hands Off Our Schools’ website – more of this ilk to follow!

Now that they’ve finally got a building, and it looks increasingly likely that NFS will be able to open in some form or other in September, we need to monitor their progress, since nobody else will (remember, a ‘free school’ is only answerable to the DfE in London).

The first thing that strikes you when you click through the site is the photos, for, as any good PR person knows, a picture paints a thousand words. The images in the main are of happy, earnest children in the NFS uniform (a very practical light grey with light blue piping which screams ‘private school’) but, since there are currently no NFS pupils, who are the children in the pictures? Were they volunteers or paid models?

There are a few members of staff – the Executive Headteacher, an anonymous ‘science teacher’ and a caring ‘pastoral’ teacher – and, again, one wonders who the latter two actually are.

And, what about the settings? Since these pictures have been up for a while, presumably none was taken in or around the Courtaulds building so, where is that science lesson taking place, where is the library and where are the leafy environs where the children are happily playing?

Of course, we are not accusing Torch of trying to mislead by these staged pictures of pupils who are not pupils of NFS in surroundings that are not NFS. It’s just ‘artistic licence’, of course, which is nowhere in greater evidence than in the picture of the Courtaulds building, shown in classy black and white and, what’s this, they’ve already put up the Torch logo and NFS name above the door? Well, no, as they admit on their Facebook page, somebody’s been hard at work with Photoshop!

If you want to have a browse, here’s the link:

http://www.nottinghamfreeschool.co.uk/index.php

and, just to give yourself an incentive, see if you can find the inaccurate use of the word “complimented”. . (Picky? Well, they’re the ones who claim they’ll be an ‘excellent’ school – always check your work, we say!)

Torch salary

The Torch Academy Gateway Trust is the rather pretentious title adopted by the wannabe academy chain of the Nottinghamshire schools Toot Hill Comprehensive and The Meden School in May 2012. The erstwhile head of Toot Hill became the Executive Headteacher and Chief Executive of the Trust. Each of the two schools also has a separate head.

The company accounts reveal that in the twelve months ending 31 August 2013, this CEO was paid in the range £200-205 thousand. That’s for overseeing two schools. Admittedly, during that period he led the Trust in trying to set up two ‘free schools’. One of these, the so-called Trent Bridge Free School, was turned down by the DfE but the other, Nottingham Free School was approved and is going ahead to open this September so perhaps he is being rewarded for his work there.

In the current year, Torch has subsumed Nottingham University Samworth Academy, back in the autumn, just before Ofsted descended on it and found it to be inadequate. So presumably this CEO will be expecting a rise this year to reflect the additional stress. After all, £200000 is barely twice what a mere Headteacher of a large London secondary school could expect and the good citizens of Nottinghamshire lavished £143000 on their Chief Constable last year.

And, just to remind you, this is public money, yours and mine.

Overwhelming support

Back in January I visited the website of the Nottingham Free School to see if there was any progress on the announcement of an actual site, and I spotted a tab entitled ‘Consultation’. It turns out they had to complete a ‘statutory consultation’ in order to ‘tick a box’ for the DfE and thus secure a ‘funding agreement’. At the time I assumed this was a paper exercise: a ‘consultation’ hidden on their own site (who but one of their supporters or obsessives like me would be looking at their site?), a ‘consultation period’ that spanned the Christmas vacation and which, I assumed, supporters, friends and family members, would be directed to so that the figures could look impressive.

They have now published the figures and it looks like I was wrong: 23 people agree that the school is needed in the area, and 13 disagree! The figures for some of the questions vary slightly, since some of them are blandly asking things like,  ‘Do you support our policy of only employing qualified teachers?’ but evidently no more than 36 people responded, of whom more than a third were actually opposed. So, presuming they have HAD to publish this material, and send it to Lord Nash for approval, what’s the response?

I intend to write to Lord Nash and ask him whether he thinks this consultation has been rigorous enough (good word, ‘rigorous’) and, if so, whether the figures justify his signing a funding agreement with Torch and thus committing large chunks of my money to it.

I’ll let you know if I receive a reply and what it says.