The Turner Schools Annual Report to Companies House, posted on the final due date, 31st January 2020 suggesting some difficulties in completion, continues the saga of well rewarded underperformance. CEO Dr Jo Saxton whose recent main focus has been on Curriculum across the four Turner Schools, was paid a salary of £149,783, conveniently just below the £150,000 level at which government looks askance. The salary is in return for running a small, struggling Academy Trust and is highest of the Kent Trusts I have found so far, excepting four which are large and successful. The Report works hard, as is usual for Turner Schools, on blaming its problems at Folkestone Academy on legacy issues despite the evidence that standards have only declined since it took over. Amongst other own goals: it also manages to excuse the failure of the two Turner primary schools to attract pupils, including Morehall with the highest vacancy rate in Kent; has run up a loan repayable to government of £1.3 million; and has two of its four schools running at a sizeable deficit.
In other news, Government has at last released a Free School Impact Assessment for Turner Free School carried out in 2018, looking at the likely effects its opening would have on neighbouring schools. The good news (??) according to the DfE was that there would be a Minimal Effect on Folkestone Academy in terms of recruitment, but a Moderate Effect on Astor College in Dover. For the Sixth Form there would be Moderate Effects felt by Canterbury College, East Kent College (which have now merged) and Hilderstone College. How much more wrong could government be! See below.
In the list of highly paid Kent leaders of Academies and Academy Trusts, a couple of outliers have now retired leaving Dr Saxton up there alone at £149,783 amongst the smaller Trusts, as far as I have seen so far for 2018-19. To assist her, exceptionally for such a small Trust, she also has one member of staff on £110,000, two more on £80,000 and at Easter also appointed a Deputy Chief Executive on a salary of at least £120,000 to do the heavy lifting whilst she focuses on Curriculum, who doesn’t yet show in the accounts.He has now been moved sideways to become Executive Principal of Folkestone Academy, creating a vacancy in yet another senior position. All in all, an astonishing expenditure for a school that was in serious financial difficulties two years ago.
The main success of Turner Schools is attracting funds through Dr Saxton’s influence in the wider educational world, as praised by Professor Carl Lygo, the founding Chairman of the Board, last year. A previous article, Turner Schools, Fresh Blessings from on High, looks at other sources of additional funding. The accounts also reveal two other closely related funding streams with Friends of Folkestone Academy (total assets £3.3 million) providing £37,998 for projects specific to Folkestone Academy, and £a further 73,500 provided by the Sir Roger De Haan Charitable Trust. The oddity of these is that the Trust regularly runs down the previous leadership of Folkestone Academy by Sir Roger to excuse its failures, as it does in this Report. Janet Downs of the Local Schools Network website highlights current loans of £1.3 million to Turner Schools from the DfE, most payable over ten years.
The Report identifies four Key Risks for the Trust:
1) Standards at Key Stage 4 at Folkestone Academy, and its legacy issues, meaning the Trust does not yet consider the school to be at the standard that Ofsted could judge as Good.
This is of course misleading with regard to the legacy claim, as GCSE standards have fallen since Turner Schools took over at Easter 2017. This can be seen here, with Progress 8 falling to Well Below Average, eighteen months after the school had been found Good by Ofsted, all part of the legacy from the previous management. At A Level, although not mentioned, the fall in standards also looks grim with Dr Saxton boasting in 2018 ‘This past summer, 101 students went on to university but only one per cent went to a Russell Group university’. Back then, full of optimism, she could put the boot into the legacy regime with the snide ‘only one per cent went to a Russell Group university! That year there were 374 students in the Sixth Form, now there are 174, less than half the number in the legacy days, with just 19 taking three A Levels last summer. There is therefore little chance of the school replicating the 101, let alone the one who went to a Russell Group university! In summary I can see no legacy issues when compared with current performance.
2) High pupil mobility at Martello Primary given its proximity to the Harbour, which undermines aggregated outcomes. Falling primary population in the region.
Proximity to the small harbour (fewer than ten small fishing boats and 33 crew) is surely itself no reason for high pupil mobility, although there is a steady loss of pupils from Year 2 upwards over the past year for some reason. The problem is primarily a failure to attract pupils to Martello Primary in the first place and then keep them, with just 10 out of its 30 Year R places or 30% of the total filled. This is the fourth highest vacancy rate amongst Kent’s 427 primary and infant schools. Apart from Morehall Primary School, the other Turner Primary which has 27% of its places filled, itself the lowest proportion in Kent, every other Folkestone School is more than half full at Year R, most at capacity.
The 2020 Kent Schools Commissioning Plan (KSCP) reports that there are 35 out of 353 primary Reception places free in the nine East Folkestone primaries in 2019-20, 20 of which are in Martello, with the same number of 35 forecast in 2023. There has been a fall in numbers entering primary schools, but no further decrease is forecast. As previous larger age groups leave the schools, there will be a total estimated loss of 154 pupils Years R-6 across the area, or 14 pupils per average sized school over the next three years. This is hardly a fatal loss. The problem for Martello is that because it is failing to attract pupils in the first place, it will lose a high proportion of this number. Cunningly, the Report covers up the specific problem at Martello, referring to a ‘Falling Primary Population in the Region’, without specifying the region. Overall across Kent, there will be a small rise in Year R pupils of 0.8% over the next five years according to the KSCP.
There is a similar pattern in West Folkestone, except there has been no fall in Year R places, with a total of 58 free in 2019, including 44 at Morehall. This total falls to 54 in 2023.
So the threat in (2) should be replaced by: the continued failure of Martello and Morehall primaries to attract pupils, which undermines aggregated outcomes as the schools become financial liabilities. Indeed the Report records that Morehall Primary is running at a deficit of £105,000 at the end of the year, up from £90,000, whilst Turner Free School ran up a deficit of £58,000 in its first year of operation, possibly due to the overload of senior staff, with three deputies and a headteacher at the start of the year to manage 120 pupils.
3) Funding challenges, and lack of future visibility on the same due to government change.
The main funding challenge surely arises from the unpopularity of the three established Trust schools, with each one losing pupils for reasons that ought to be within their control.
I have looked at the loss of over half of the Sixth Form at Folkestone Academy above, but the problem in the main school is almost as bad, as the school has been hit by the unnecessary expansion of Turner Free School from the original 120 pupils to 180 (see below). The school has 34% of its Year 7 places empty, sixth highest proportion in the county, with 179 pupils in Year 7, down from 263 in 2016 for its 270 places, as Turner Schools prioritises Turner Free School.
I have already looked at the rising deficit budgets of Martello and TFS above, with Morehall’s empty spaces surely leading the same way, although its Good Ofsted last year may reduce the pressure. Meanwhile, the balance in the central fund of the Trust has declined sharply to £561,000 from £819,000 in 2017-18 – that large loan from the DfE and regular top ups from other sources look even more imperative to keep the Trust afloat as a Going Concern, as agreed is the case by the Directors.
4) Brexit, given our proximity to the Port of Dover and Eurotunnel terminal.
I am not sure how these will affect the operation of the four schools and their finances, but I would have thought there were much more pressing risks.
What I can’t see listed is the risk to Folkestone Academy caused by the expansion of Turner Free School
Not surprisingly one of the Trust’s key objectives for the coming year(s) is: Ensuring appropriate student recruitment as the Trust’s positive work with pupils becomes known. The recent difficulties with discipline at Folkestone Academy leading to Saturday detentions and a whole school detention following three fire alarms set off by individuals, is one of a number of indicators there is still much to be done.
A brief note in the Report records that: ‘Carl Lygo, Sue John and Jennie King all left the Board of Directors during the period due to changed commitments’. Carl Lygo, Chairman of the Board of Directors and integral to its operation, was one of the two founders of the Trust, but resigned along with the other two Directors after an emergency Board Meeting in May, called at very short notice and conducted by telephone over two days. The sparse Minutes of the meeting gave rise to my Conclusion: ‘There had been a bust-up amongst Directors, and shortly afterwards three left with no public acknowledgement of the important services all had made to the Trust since its inception, merely a note about travel difficulties’. I know this Report is a legal document, but it still manages to squeeze in several dubious claims so one would have thought some form of appreciation would have been in order, or were the sins of the three just too great?
Free School Impact Assessment
This is an exercise carried out by Government to determine how opening a new Free School would affect the viability of nearby schools. The Assessment carried out for TFS in preparation for its opening in 2018 has only recently been published. It is no reflection on Turner Schools that the analysis suggests government has no grasp of the local situation in Folkestone and has instead used a seriously flawed algorithm to produce the results.
At that stage, Pent Valley School, the predecessor to the Turner Free School, had closed for new pupils and Folkestone Academy (described wrongly as a Christian faith school) was full to overflowing, although the DfE data suggests it hadn’t noticed the school was and is an all through school. It considers that the opening of TFS with its 120 places would have a minimal effect on this, although FA is the only other non-selective school in town. In practice, by September 2018 when TFS opened, the intake of FA had fallen from 287 in May 2017 to 198 pupils and, after DfE gave TFS permission to expand to 180 places in 2019, FA its fellow Trust school saw intake fall again to 179. That is a loss of over 100 Year Seven places a figure which will in time increase to a fall of 500 pupils for years 7-11. This will have a massive negative effect on the school’s finances. Over the same period, Astor College described as suffering a potential Moderate Impact, saw its intake actually rise by three places to 134 !
The bigger blunders come in the Sixth Form. Clearly as TFS has only reached Year 8, it will be another four years before there is any possible Sixth Form impact. The new College has a reported 8,700 student, its numbers presumably being swollen by the recent unpopularity of Folkestone Academy. FA has lost 200 of its Sixth Form students since Turner Schools took over, with a high proportion inevitably heading towards the College. At the time this document was drawn up with TFS having an intake of 120, it is unlikely that the Sixth Form is even going to compensate for the loss at FA, so the College won’t even notice its arrival amongst the 20+ schools that feed into it. So: No Moderate Impact at all as identified. Not mentioned is the damaging effect a successful Sixth Form would inevitably have on the one already struggling at Folkestone Academy.
The third relevant (?) educational institution listed is Hilderstone College, described as a General Further Education College, although I had never heard of it. This is no surprise as it turns out to be an English Studies Centre for foreign students in Broadstairs, 27 miles and a difficult road journey away. This example merely suggests the pointlessness of the exercise in relation to Turner Free School and by extension must raise pressing questions about the process for other new Free Schools.