Excluded: Specialist school under threat after local education authority pulls out pupils

The CE Academy has changed the lives of hundreds of students who have been excluded from school, but is now at risk of its own expulsion after a bad Ofsted

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By Sarah Ward

A flagship school for excluded pupils says it may have to close after the local authority has decided to remove students following a critical Ofsted inspection.

The Complementary Education (CE) Academy, which until this month had been rated as outstanding by Ofsted for several years, has now been downgraded to inadequate after inspectors visited in May and judged the school to be failing in its safeguarding duties.

The Local Education Authority (LEA), run by director of children’s services Cathi Hadley, has now decided to immediately remove more than sixty of the children and place them in other schools.

Head teacher Bobby Kelly, who has been in charge of CE for 20 years, says she thinks financial considerations are largely behind the decision, as her service is one of the more expensive for the county’s excluded children. She says before the Ofsted visit she had not had any criticism from the authority.

The LEA has for a number of years overspent its high needs budget, the pot from which alternative educational provision for excluded children is paid from.

The situation

Ofsted inspectors visited the school campuses in May in an unannounced two-day inspection.

In the report published last week the inspectorate downgraded the school from outstanding to inadequate and said:

“The leadership and management of the school is inadequate. Leaders have not established a secure culture of safeguarding. They do not always check on the attendance and welfare of all pupils who learn away from the school’s sites. 

“Leaders do not consistently follow up on the well-being of all pupils who are absent. This places pupils at risk. Leaders do not maintain accurate records of attendance. They do not always use the correct codes to record absence. 

“Staff routinely authorise pupils’ absence, regardless of the reason. This is not in keeping with the national guidance. This practice means that leaders do not have an accurate view of pupils’ attendance and absence.”

The school says the identified safeguarding issue was to do with confusion over which codes to use in a register, an issue that was immediately rectified and the remedial actions requested by Ofsted were dealt with quickly, with staff given updated training.

Ofsted rated the quality of education, the progress of students and the behaviour and attitudes as good.

The Ofsted visit came in the same month the school had been visited by newly appointed consultant Ann Marie Dodds who is currently being expensively contracted through an employment agency as North Northamptonshire Council’s interim director of education.

Bobby Kelly says Ann Marie Dodds was the first visitor to the CE Academy who she felt had not been impressed by what the school does.

That same month at a council meeting the interim director made a presentation to a panel of councillors and said the current AP provision was a ‘system challenge’.

She said:

“We have some challenges with our AP because we have been heavily reliant at  secondary level in a single provider. That single provider does not always meet all of the needs for all of our children and if we have a challenge with that provider we have a challenge for very many of our children and we need to address that. 

“We also need to look at the cost of AP and how we manage the contract. So we have started to do some work now to ensure we are not defaulting to one provision because we have always used that one provision.”

CE Academy has a current contract with the Department for Education to provide school places for 230 pupils. Central government pays this funding (place funding which pays for the upkeep of the school estate and staff salaries) and then the local education authority pays top-up funding for each student it places with the school (of around £10,000).

It had placed just over 70 pupils with the school, but last week following publication of Ofsted’s findings it told the school it would be reducing this number to just 13 students and sending 62 pupils away to other providers. It said it had deemed 31 students to be at very high risk, it had significant concerns about another 31 students and it was ‘happy’ for 13 to remain on roll.

The school has not been told which students will leave and is only finding out from parents. Education officers have also not visited the school to do individual risk assessments and appear to have based the decision largely on the Ofsted verdict. A spokesman for the local authority told NN Journal officers had spent time reviewing each placement, speaking with families and looking for other new placements and would inform CE Academy when new arrangements are confirmed.

Also in a letter to the head teacher Cathi Hadley has said the decision to stop placing children at CE Academy was made before the Ofsted inspection, but a reason as to why has never been given.

The CE head teacher says she has had parents on the phone in tears about the decision to remove their child, but many, who may be vulnerable themselves, are afraid to speak out.

She has also been called by fellow head teachers who have called the situation ‘ridiculous’.

“If a mainstream provision was judged as inadequate they would not be able to remove all the pupils. They seem to be blind to the outcomes we achieve here at CE Academy,” she said.

As an AP provision which only employs specialist qualified teaching staff, the head says the closure of her school, which has campuses across the county, will have a major impact on the prospects of young people, as many of those who come to her provision go on to achieve academic qualifications.

She said:

“Their life chances will be reduced significantly in that they won’t have the opportunity to take academic exams that will give them success in the future.”

The CE Academy way

Bobby says the CE Academy will never give up on a pupil once they arrive at her school. Many have been excluded from more than one mainstream school and come to the CE Academy, after a number of turbulent years. Some have troubled home lives, others have been groomed into gang culture and are on the verge of criminality.

“We never exclude a pupil and we never restrain,” she says. The curriculum is tailored to the individual needs and abilities of each student and there is a huge emphasis on academic studies and ensuring young people leave with qualifications that will help them into the next stage of education or to secure a job.

The school has nine different sites and class sizes are small which means that even if students arrive at CE Academy in Year 11 they have intensive support to help get their GCSE qualifications. There are also vocational qualifications on offer and students have access to a first class kitchen and garden. The academy also has partnerships with outside providers such as Youth Works and horse therapy centre Seeds of Change.

The school also maintains links with its ex students who regularly pop in to say hello or to ask for assistance with their further education.

Jon Scargill has taught for three decades and says the CE academy is the most effective school he has ever worked in.

He said:

“We are the best. We have students who make successes of their lives, who to all intents and purposes have been written off by mainstream education.

“When they are sent to CE academy they are not being forgotten about - they are being put in the right place.

“These kids are not awful people. They are young people who have as much potential as any other child in the county, but they are not suited for mainstream education.

“To my mind, if you take away CE Academy, what you are saying is we are just going to create a dumping ground for young people who don’t matter.

“I would say to the councillors - any young people can be permanently excluded, it only takes one act of silliness. Would they not fight for their children to go to the school that gives them the opportunity to get qualifications.”

He accused the LEA of using ‘dirty tactics’ to try and undermine the school.

The school has a specialist campus for teenage mothers and current teacher Dawn Austin, was a pupil there in the late 1980s. After completing her education she went on to university, got a teaching qualification and then went back to teach at her old school.

She said:

“Part of the reason I teach at CE Academy is to give back what they have given to me. I say to the students, ‘if I can become a teacher you can become anything you want’.

“Bobby does a remarkable job. She really does support the students and she always supports the staff too.

“The other providers don’t offer the same level of education that we do. 

“It is really terrible what is happening and if CE Academy closes, so many kids are going to lose out.”

Former student Joel Ackon, started at Leeds Beckett university last week.

He went to the Cromwell campus in Northampton as a Year 10 student after being excluded from a mainstream school in the town. Before he arrived at CE he says he was not interested in education and was not achieving. But going to CE Academy changed his life.

“If it wasn’t for Cromwell I could have gone down the wrong path. They said to me: ‘There is more to life. What has happened, has happened. Now what’s the plan?’

“My getting to university has been all their doing. They even helped me with the personal statement for my application. If the CE Academy closes a lot of young people will be at risk. They may continue to be doing things they shouldn’t be doing.

“These people change lives. They offer you things that normal schools can’t offer.”

What happens now?

The CE Academy is in talks with another academy trust to become part of its group, but without allocated pupils it could make it an unattractive prospect to take over. The headteacher says that unless it has its pupils and funding restored then it will no longer be viable and will have to close. The funding agreement with the DfE means it will have to cover staff redundancies which means it could not afford to stay open any longer than the end of this year.

The decision by the education officers to take more than 60 children out of their school and move them to another provision was not made known to elected councillors in the opposition groups of the North and West unitaries.

The shadow member for education at the north unitary Cllr Leanne Buckingham was not briefed on the decision, despite asking a number of questions. She was only alerted to the situation by a fellow councillor who had been contacted by ourselves.

She said:

“I was really disappointed that I have been asking many questions about special educational needs provision and I have been told nothing about CE Academy having funding removed. I should have the same level of briefing as my counterpart.”

Cllr Buckingham visited CE Academy this week and after being impressed by the tailored education offered to students, she has now asked the senior education officers a number of questions.

She said the situation has highlighted that there needs to be a close look at education provision in Northants.

She said:

“I think now, as a new council, it’s a good time to look at all of our school provision, from mainstream to specialist provision.

“What we shouldn’t do is start at the end and lower that option. We start at the beginning and hopefully stop children from having to even get to an alternative provision.”

The local authority response

The authority says there are currently 187 Northamptonshire children (67 in the North and 120 in the West) placed in alternative provision and it uses 13 different providers. It says the issues highlighted in the Ofsted report have not been rectified and the action plan is being reviewed by the Regional Schools Commissioner, an appointed official who has responsibility for the standards of academy schools.

A joint statement issued by both unitary councils said:

“The Complementary Education Academy (CEA) is an academy overseen by a board and is totally independent of the local authorities. The CEA is accountable to The Regional Schools Commissioner (RSC).  The Academy provides alternative education services for vulnerable children, young mothers and pupils excluded from mainstream schooling.  

“The recent Inspection by Ofsted rated the school as Inadequate (latest Ofsted report), highlighting the inability of the CEA leadership to provide and manage safeguarding appropriately.   

“While North and West Northamptonshire councils have no authority to direct the CEA to make the changes necessary to meet Ofsted inspection requirements, the councils are responsible for the safeguarding of children they place at the CEA.  The Councils will be offering to work with the RCS to support improvements.   

“The councils have decided not to place any further children at the academy at this time, and those currently enrolled have been reviewed, in consultation with parents and families, to ensure they are appropriately safeguarded.  

“The wellbeing and safety of young people in Northamptonshire is a core priority for both councils and we are working hard to ensure existing CEA pupils see as little disruption to their education as possible. We will also continue to work with the RSC and support the CEA to ensure all children are safeguarded.”

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