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Fears rise as plan to turn five Hackney primary schools into academies gets thumbs-up

Greg Wallace

Quest for the best: Executive Principal Greg Wallace

Concern is growing over the decision of five Hackney primary schools to opt out of local council control and adopt the academy system, meaning they will have more control over their affairs, including their finances.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) has voiced concerns over the impact the Best Start Federation schools gaining academy status might have on special educational services for the remaining 48 primary schools in the borough.

Traditionally, a portion of the funding for the 53 council-run schools has been fenced off to pay for special services – such as the Traveller Education Service – available to all the schools.

Mark Lushington, NUT press and publicity officer, said: “It is very important to have effective local services.

“What you are looking at is basically a depletion of what the local authorities are able to deliver. It becomes increasingly difficult if a school is doing their own thing.”

However Greg Wallace, executive principal of the Best Start Federation (BSF) – consisting of Woodberry Down Community Primary School, London Fields Primary School, Whitmore Primary School, Mandeville Primary School and Burbage Primary School – said the concerns were unfounded.

“You’re not taking something that isn’t yours; the (Special Educational Needs) funding is linked to the pupils that are in your school.

“As part of the conversion process we’ll review all the contracts that we have and we’ll buy what’s best for the future of the school.

“It might be that that’s from The Learning Trust or it might not be.”

Cllr Rita Krishna, Cabinet Member for Education, said: “If the schools become academies there will be a reduction to central budgets, however this is not significant and will not impact on our services to the other 49 schools in the borough.

“The Learning Trust has a very successful traded service with our other academies and we would expect this to continue with the Best Start Federation.”

Starting off as head of Woodberry Down in 2001, Mr Wallace turned around the fortunes of that school so successfully he was drafted in to help the other underperforming schools.

Each has seen overwhelming improvements since coming under the BSF umbrella, with London Fields and Mandeville – the first to join the federation in 2008 and 2009 – now judged by Ofsted as ‘outstanding’.

Just three years previously, London Fields had been a ‘special measures’ school, meaning that education provisions had been considered inadequate.

But the NUT claims that too much pressure is being placed on new teachers to achieve the high expectations of the BSF, referencing the high turnover of staff each time a school has joined the group.

Mr Wallace argued: “At the point at which the schools joined the federation, all of the schools were not succeeding. They were in special measures, they had some of the worst test results in the country.

“Our job has been to improve schools that were seriously underperforming and we’ve taken action as necessary to secure a good education for the children.”

Penny Smith, Head of School at Whitmore Primary, where staff took industrial action over work/life policy two months after it was taken over, added: “A new team formed in September 2011 and it has been very stable since then.

“I don’t work in the evenings and weekends and to my understanding my teachers don’t, and I wouldn’t expect them to.

“They’re a very diligent team and I think if you’re bright and you manage your time effectively then the workload is very manageable.”

Mr Lushington claimed that the autonomy the five schools will now have over their finances, curriculum and the terms and conditions of staff was “freedom bought with taxpayers’ money”.

“It’s a massive centralisation of power under Michael Gove who seems to think the best thing is to go ‘back to the future’ and the 1950s.

“I think what you are looking at is the softening up for privatisation. It’s the softening up that we’ve seen with the NHS.”

But Mr Wallace countered: “The reason we’re doing this is that, given what’s happened in the past five years – which has been of real benefit to Hackney children – it makes a lot of sense to extend that beyond Hackney.

“We’re not doing this to be secretive or to put people to disadvantage. If that was the case, then why would we have done everything we have done to date? “It’s for each school to make itself successful or not. I can only be responsible for the schools that are in the federation,” he added.

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