We are to get a new high school, the Ruth Gorse Academy. I say we, the sponsors seem to be promoting it as a city centre school, but then they also say it will connect to and the communities of Holbeck, Beeston and Hunslet. The cynic in me thinks that the latter statement is mainly for the ears of the planners.
I mention sponsors because new schools are not built by the Council any more. Local Authorities still have a duty to ensure there are enough school places, but they are not allowed to build new schools. All new schools must be either an Academy or a Free School. Just to confuse matters the Ruth Gorse Academy will be a Free School.
Through our local democratic channels – our elected Councillors and their committee meetings with published reports and minutes – we know that the Ruth Gorse Academy (RGA) will open in September 2014 and that it will provide places for 190 Year 7 pupils (11 year olds, what were called first formers in my day). But we don’t know where it is going to open.
The mystery location will be decided by the Department for Education in that London. It will be an existing building that can be converted into a school that will eventually have over 1,000 pupils. The sponsors, Morley Academy, want it to be in “City Centre South” – the old industrial end of Holbeck and Hunslet, south of the river (to coin a phrase).
The Council, who I would suggest know the city a lot better than any Whitehall mandarin, are worried that there are no suitable sites in the sponsors chosen area. Remember schools need playgrounds as well as classrooms and they need access to playing fields.
And then there’s the timetable, no not the school timetable, the building timetable. If they decide today which building the school is going to use, they now have less than ten months to buy it, design the necessary refurbishment, tender the contract and get the building works completed. Anyone who’s ever watched Grand Designs knows that is a tall order.
What about our existing high schools?
The South Leeds Academy (TSLA) is doing great things after a tricky start. Everyone denies it, but the school seems to have been designed as a bit of social engineering to bring the communities of Belle Isle and Beeston together. I went to a high school that had until recently been four separate schools. It was a bit hairy at first, but by the time I left it had settled down and gang fights were a distant memory.
TSLA is also outside local authority control and is sponsored by the Schools Partnership Trust (SPT). When South Leeds High School became an academy (or was “academised” in the ungainly jargon) in 2009, SPT’s only other project was Garforth Academy. Everything was local, they were a known quantity. SPT now runs 41 academies across West, North and East Yorkshire and as far south as Nottinghamshire.
You might have thought an organisation that grew out of Garforth would play ball with Leeds City Council, but apparently not so. TSLA is engaged locally with other schools. It is an active member of the JESS Cluster. But Councillor Judith Blake raised her anxiety at the Area Committee this week that there had been no Governors meetings called for this term, nor any communication with the school governors at TSLA.
Does it matter who controls the school, so long as they provide a good education?
The problem is that schools link into all sorts of other networks. Most importantly Children’s Services – social services, attendance, careers. We are moving towards a world of fragmented provision. You could argue that each school can provide its own service, I happen to think pooling resources across schools provides a better service.
What really worries me is what will happen to the children who fall between the cracks? If each school only look after the children in that school, what happens to children who are excluded, or who move (as many families in South Leeds do). That’s why it’s so important that schools, whoever controls them, continue to work together locally and be accountable locally.
Which brings us finally to Cockburn high school, which I only hear good things about these days. It has remained with the council and is at the heart of a thriving group of schools in the Middleton, Beeston and Cottingley Cluster. As the Learning Trust (South Leeds) it won the bid to build the new primary school on the site of South Leeds Sports Centre last year.
The new school will be an academy (remember we can’t have new Council schools), so the decisions about it are back down in London. And despite the demolition of the sports centre, there seems to be a growing silence about the building of the new school.
To sum up, our high schools are doing a good job for the children and families they serve. But education is a fast moving area and important decisions are being taken in greater secrecy, by people we don’t know.
I’ll be back next week with more of my views from South of the River. If you’re on Twitter, you can follow me: @BeestonJeremy.