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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Byron Court battle: Local community rallies against forced academisation

Councillor urges government to stop 'deeply unpopular and potentially disastrous' school academy order as parents stage second protest against takeover

A prominent North London councillor has publicly called on the government to intervene in the ‘deeply unpopular’ forced academisation of a local community school following a scathing Ofsted report. The Inadequate rating triggered an academy order being issued by the Department for Education (DfE) but it has been warned the decision risks ‘undermining confidence’ in both institutions.

Cllr Gwen Grahl called the academy order ‘deeply unpopular and potentially disastrous’. Image: Brent Council.

Brent Council’s Cabinet Member for Children, Young People and Schools, Cllr Gwen Grahl, has written to the Secretary of State for Schools, Damian Hinds MP, to intervene with the DfE decision and allow Ofsted to reinspect the school before an academisation order is issued.

In the letter, Cllr Grahl pointed out that Byron Court Primary School is known for ‘many years of excellent education’ and it had had no ‘meaningful opportunity’ to improve the situation. She said: “Since the [Ofsted] report, the local authority has worked constructively with the local school leadership team and governors to put additional leadership capacity in place and initiate meaningful change.”

She added: “Allowing forced academisation to take place against the overwhelming mandate of parents is likely to be a deeply unpopular and potentially disastrous route for this much-loved community school and risks both undermining confidence in DfE and Ofsted; and negatively impacting educational attainment during what has been a challenging time for everyone involved in the running of Byron Court Primary School.”

It’s a notable intervention as the council is forced to comply with the decision and must take all reasonable steps to facilitate the academisation order. Addressing a recent Cabinet meeting (8 April), Cllr Grahl said the council ‘as a whole cannot oppose or even delay this’.

In January 2023, the Education Committee recommended that the DfE and Ofsted make changes to single-word judgements. In cases where the highlighted issues could be resolved, MPs recommended that the DfE should not issue an academy order until after the school has been reinspected.

In the case of Byron Court Primary School, Cllr Grahl said there has been ‘minimal consultation or engagement’ with the key stakeholders, including parents, teachers, and school governors. A recent parents survey revealed that 62 per cent believe Byron Court should remain a community school.

Cllr Grahl said: “Many parents and teachers have also raised concerns about the timing, methodology, and outcome of the Ofsted inspection, which came at a time of historically low trust in Ofsted and during a transitional period for the school community. […]The majority of the school community are unsupportive of the timescales of these proposals and feel disenfranchised.”

She added: “Parents have also had no say over which the trust is selected to take over the school despite this having profound implications on the future direction of school governance, the ethos of the school itself, and by extension the lives and educational options of their children.”

Following the DfE decision, the school is set to come under the control of academy trust Harris Federation, much to the anger of some within the community. Many parents, alongside pupils and local politicians, had already staged a protest outside the school last month (21 March), but they organised a second one for the Harris Federation yesterday (15 April), who were attending the school for a meeting.

Byron Court Protest. Parents, pupils, and councillors protested for the second time this week over the forced academisation of Byron Court Primary School. Image: LDRS

One of the parents and campaigners, Tanisha Phoenix, told the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS): “We have been told that it is a “done deal” and that it is a legal process in which everyone must facilitate. Our message is clear, whilst we understand that the process may indeed be a legal one, we also believe that it is immoral, it is unethical and it is above all unjust.”

She added: “We will continue to keep fighting the forced academisation, we have not been not consulted in the process, what we want for our children – Harris Federation is most certainly not the answer. Byron Court is still under the remit of Brent Council whilst it still is, we are urging the local authority to commit resources to continue to facilitate the improvements that have been made to the school.”

The Issue was also raised by Brent North MP, Barry Gardiner, who wrote to the Minister for the School System and Student Finance, Baroness Diana Barran, urging her to halt the academisation process and put an end to the ‘turmoil and disruption’ it is causing.

Baroness Diana Barran said academisation was ‘the right decision’ for Byron Court Primary School. Image: UK Government.

In a response, Baroness Barran said: “The judgement that a school requires special measures is an extremely serious one. It means that Byron Court Primary School is failing to provide an acceptable standard of education for its pupils and that the school leadership is not demonstrating the capacity to secure the necessary improvement in the school.”

She added: “[…] for all local authority maintained schools judged to be inadequate by Ofsted, we have a legal duty to convert the school to a sponsored academy […]. Our priority must be to provide the best education for children. The best way to ensure this is for schools to be in a trust and therefore benefit from the additional support that schools and leaders within the trust can offer.

“I believe that high quality academy trusts are the key to improving educational standards. Trusts can facilitate better collaboration directing resources to where they are needed most and enabling our best leaders to support a greater number of schools. It is the right decision for Byron Court Primary School to join a supportive, high quality trust.”

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