‘Vast majority of Pont parents satisfied with academy trust plans’

Ponteland High School headteacher Kieran McGrane.
Ponteland High School headteacher Kieran McGrane.

The majority of responses to Ponteland High School’s consultation on a proposal for a multi-academy trust (MAT) to be established in the area were positive.

If the move is approved by the various governing bodies, the two schools in the Ponteland village area and schools in Darras Hall, Belsay and Heddon-on-the-Wall would form a single trust company with a single board of directors and it would be funded directly by the Government.

As part of the re-organisation to a two-tier system, four of those involved will be called Ponteland Primary School, Darras Hall Primary School, Belsay Primary School and Heddon St Andrew’s CofE Primary School from September.

Richard Coates CofE School is transitioning to a primary school. From September, Years 5, 6, 7 and 8 will continue to operate in the purpose-built middle school and the younger primary aged children (nursery up to Year 4) will be accommodated separately in a refurbished area.

As well as discussing the MAT proposal, Pont High headteacher Kieran McGrane and the Diocese of Newcastle have responded to concerns raised by Northumberland resident Richard Jolly about the top tier of the MAT, called Members.

There would be five of them and they would have the power to appoint directors.

Two of them would be appointed by the Church of England, two by the schools and one would be jointly approved by the schools and the church, but Mr Jolly says the church involvement is more than the Government’s recommended representation figure.

Prior to launching their consultations in May, the schools looked into the different types of academies and discussed various issues – including whether they felt the MAT model was in the best interests of the children, teachers and staff.

Mr McGrane said there were 86 formal responses to the Ponteland High School consultation and 56 of them were from staff members.

Of this number, 47 were in favour, one was against and the rest were uncertain.

The 17 responses from parents were mostly positive and the others came from members of the Ponteland community and stakeholders, including teaching unions and governors.

He said: “I believe we received a low number of responses from parents because the vast majority of them are satisfied with what they read in the consultation documents. We went into great detail and answered questions that we anticipated would be asked.

“They can see the benefits of the schools working more closely together and with the number of academies that have been formed since 2010, they know that what we are proposing is not different from what is happening across the country.

“An advantage of our approach is the idea of forming a protective blanket by bringing together primary schools across our area. In some parts of Northumberland, there is one academy chain responsible for a set of schools in part of an area and another chain responsible for the remaining schools.

“There would be a benefit to making joint appointments as the liability would be shared across all the schools rather than just one and certain staff positions, for example our recently appointed educational psychologist, would work at primary and secondary levels.

“We would have a dedicated finance team for the trust and this would free up more time for headteachers and senior staff to focus on educational outcomes.

“We would look for common threads that bind us together and operate a best practice approach, but the unique ethos and character of each school would be protected.”

Mr Jolly said the same format for Members is being proposed for a MAT in the Tynedale area, even though only one of the 10 schools involved is a Church of England school.

He added: “I have done some research and established that the Government-recommended representation of the church in these minority cases should not exceed 25 per cent.

“This is directly from the Regional Schools Commissioners office in Darlington. Anything more is a deviation from Government policy and considered exceptional.

“However, based on these examples, appointing three members from the church now appears to be the ‘norm’ for mixed MATs.

“The concern for parents is clearly around the encroachment of religious influence within currently non-church schools.”

A spokesman for the Diocese of Newcastle said: “The Government recommendation that church representation in minority cases should not exceed 25 per cent is based on nationally-agreed model documents, which apply to community schools joining with voluntary controlled church schools only.

“In Ponteland, one of the two church schools involved is voluntary aided, so this option was not appropriate in that case.

“In the Tynedale Community Learning Trust, the church school involved is voluntary controlled, so two options were offered: one of having 25 per cent church representation and one of having two members with church links, tow community members and a fifth member mutually agreed on between the Diocese and the community schools.

“The preferred option chosen by the schools was the second one.

“The proposed MATs will be true partnerships, with equal consideration given to church and community schools. There are also clear protections in the legal documents that ensure each school’s own unique ethos and character is protected.”

Mr McGrane said the role of the Members would be ‘eyes on, hands off’, with the day-to-day decisions taken by the board of directors. Nine members are being proposed, with one church appointee.

Any major decisions, such as the sale of land, would require a special resolution where four out of the five Members would need to be in favour.

He added: “The make-up of the Members is the same or similar to other MATs across the country and the alternative would be to exclude the church schools from the MAT, which I think would be detrimental to Ponteland.”

What happens now?

Governing bodies have been meeting this week to discuss the following three questions:

• Is the governing body minded to progress to a formal application to the Department for Education for academy status and forming a MAT?

• Is the governing body supportive of the inclusive approach being proposed to ensure that all primary and secondary schools can enter into the MAT?

• Is the governing body supportive of moving to conversion on January 1, 2018, or soon thereafter?

If the answers are generally positive, the application will be progressed in the autumn term.

Mr McGrane said: “I would like to stress that we are in no rush to become a MAT. We want to make sure the process is carefully planned and well-considered.

“If we decide to become a MAT, we would continue to work closely with the Department for Education and Northumberland County Council during the conversion process.”