Exclusive: Thriving schools to close to make room for academies

Anger at ‘unforeseen consequence’ of Gove’s education revolution

Judged solely on its record, the case for keeping Harrowden Middle school open looks a no brainer.

The 480-pupil school for nine to 13-year-olds in Bedford which serves one of the most deprived wards in the country, has been rated as good with outstanding features in its latest report from Ofsted, the education standards watchdog.

Its test results are improving with 91 per cent of 11-year-olds reaching the required standard in English and 83 per cent in maths. They have soared from 55 per cent and 53 per cent respectively six years.  With 79 per cent of all pupils reaching the pass mark in both subjects, it is way in advance of the Government’s minimum target for schools of 60 per cent.

Yet it is facing closure in 2014 with heads claiming it exposes an unintended consequence of Education Secretary Michael Gove’s drive to create more independently-run academies. As a result, councils have fewer options when it comes to deciding which schools should close - they can only choose out of the ones they still control.

Schools nearby include the brand new £22.5 million Bedford Academy - which has replaced a struggling comprehensive. Whilst it is said to be making “satisfactory” progress by Ofsted, its  results are still lower than the national average, according to inspectors.

There is also a lower school - Stephenson - which has been placed in the list of failing schools requiring “special measures” by Ofsted.  It is in discussion with Mr Gove’s department over its performance fuelling speculation that it, too, could become an academy.

“Why, in a climate where the Government wants to improve standards and attainment in education - especially in such a deprived area as this - is a school like this closing,” asked Deirdre Murphy, the school’s headteacher,

She was speaking as Prime Minister David Cameron announced 400 of the country’s weakest primary schools would be turned into academies, saying: “We are not going to put up with schools that fail and go on failing.”

Ms Murphy said; “Here is a school which is in the most deprived area I have ever worked in.  You should be making better use of the expertise that has been built up here over the past years- not closing it down.”

Ofsted said of Harrowden in its latest inspection: “Standards have improved.  Pupils reach the expected standards for their age by the end of year eight (12 and 13-year-olds), making good overall progress and achieving well.

“This improvement has been brought about by good leadership, which maintains a sustained focus on standards and improving the quality of teaching so that it is now good.”

Teachers argue that - instead of closing it - one option would have been to make use of its record in achieving above average national curriculum tests for 11-year-olds to become one of the feeder primary schools for the new academy.

Instead, Stephenson, which has no experience in teaching the tests, has been given that role from September 2014.

Surprisingly, the decision to close Harrowden does not appear to have diminished the appetite of parents to want to send their children to it.  Last September, despite the fact its imminent closure was public knowledge, there were 267 applications for 120 places at the school.  Each year group still has a waiting list of parents who would like to transfer to the school.

Christina Fernandes, whose two sons - aged 10 and 12 - transferred to the school last year, said: “My oldest son was very introverted and wouldn’t talk to anyone or have eye contact with other people.  They have brought him out of himself and he is right up there academically. 

“There is fantastic communication with the teachers - there’s always someone available if I have a problem I want to talk through.

“I’ve had bad experiences at other schools where I haven’t felt welcome - but not here.”

Both Stephenson and Bedford academy are said in their latest Ofsted evaluations to be improving. The inspectors said of the academy that it “has made satisfactory progress towards raising standards”. This summer’s GCSE results showed a marked improvement in maths with 65 per cent of pupils obtaining an A* to C grade pass compared with 39 per cent in 2011.  The school was, though, asffected by the national crisis over English GCSE marking.  Overall, the percentage getting five top grade passes  including maths and English rose three percentage points to 37 per cent.

Inspectors  said of Stephenson: “Progress since being subject to special measures - satisfactory”.

Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, believes Harrowden’s fate could be suffered by other good schools in the future.

“I think it does have wider implications,” he said. “With a more fragmented system, the ability to plan at a local level will disappear.  Local authorities will only have limited influence on future planning - and they’re going to have to make more and more decisions like this.

“The competition between schools could lead to a whole level of weakened schools.”

A spokeswoman for Bedford Council said Harrowden was being closed as part of a reorganisation from the current lower, middle and upper school system to a primary/secondary school structure.

“This follows the award of  £22.5 million by the Government for the rebuilding and restructuring of the Bedford academy as a secondary school,” she added.  The council is supporting the conversion of this pyramid by investing in the expansion and improvement of the current lower schools, which will become primary schools.”

A spokeswoman for the Department for Education added: “The closure of Harrowden Middle School is a matter for the local authority.

“Bedford Academy has improved in its first two years as an academy and we are closely monitoring the school’s progress.  The strong external challenge and support from an academy sponsor is the best way to improve schools that are consistently underperforming.”

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