On 15 December 2020, the UK Government gave notice to The Griffin Schools Trust that it would be terminating their funding agreement to operate Stantonbury International School as soon as possible, and certainly before 1 July 2021, following up earlier warning notices issued on 15 July 2020 and 28 August 2020.
This followed an emergency Ofsted inspection on 28-29 January 2020 which concluded that the performance of the school was inadequate and raised serious concerns about pupil behaviour, pupil safety, pupil safeguarding, pupil attendance, the quality of teaching, teaching staff absence, teaching staff vacancies, teaching staff turnover, leadership, management and the oversight provided by The Griffin Schools Trust.
This is in addition to the continuing concerns about the financial dealings of the Trust – its founders, Liz Lewis and Ange Tyler, have become very rich thanks to the Trust paying their consultancy company, Capital Talent Limited, more than £1.4 million since The Griffin Schools Trust was established in 2012 and £221,891 in the 2018/19 financial year alone. Lewis still plays a formal role in the school’s governance via her role in The Griffin Education Trust and both are officially celebrated by schools throughout the Trust every year on Founders Day. Coincidentally, Stantonbury Campus paid the Griffin Schools Trust £1.4 million in the first three years it was a part of the Trust for “Central Services” and ended the 2018/19 financial year £451,286 in debt to The Griffin Schools Trust after spending £567,534 more than their income in that year, which The Griffin Schools Trust’s accounts rather incredibly blame on “inherited issues” from Milton Keynes Council when they took the school over in September 2016.
The decision to remove the school from The Griffin Schools Trust has sparked a political fight locally. The Labour administration of Milton Keynes Council is pushing for the school to be brought back into local council control and demanding an apology from the UK Government for their role in Stantonbury Campus joining The Griffin Schools Trust in 2016 and their slow reactions when it became apparent it wasn’t working. Meanwhile, the Leader of the local Conservative Party has criticised what he views as the “pathetic politics” of Labour’s response and claimed (without evidence) that the UK Government only took action to remove The Griffin Schools Trust “following robust efforts by myself and MK North MP Ben Everitt” and Everitt has also claimed (again without evidence) that he has been “working closely with the Department for Education on this for several months”.
It is clear that none of the things Labour is calling for will happen. Stantonbury will be be handed to another Academy chain as this is an unbreakable ideological principle for the Conservative Party. The best that parents can hope for is that it is a locally-based chain with, as the Minister implied would be the case in her termination notice to The Griffin Schools Trust, “a track record of secondary school improvement”. There will be no apology or accountability for the decision to hand Stantonbury to The Griffin Schools Trust. There will be no review of what went wrong to make sure that it does not happen again. There will be no attempt by our local MP to get some answers for local parents. The Griffin Schools Trust themselves won’t be apologising either – their response to the decision was to write to parents complaining how unfair it was that “the improvements we have worked so hard together to put in place since 2016” were being ignored.
So, what went wrong?
The decision by Stantonbury Campus to become an Academy
Stantonbury Campus voluntarily sought Academy status rather than being forced to by the Department for Education.
A press release issued by The Griffin Schools Trust on 12 May 2016 claimed that “Since last summer, the Campus’ governors and senior leaders have been exploring possible partnerships with education trusts…the governing board chose to be partnered with The Griffin Schools Trust”.
The Chair of the Governing Body, Hilary Denny, is quoted as saying “This is an exciting development for Stantonbury Campus. Joining Griffin Schools Trust will give us an opportunity to nurture our proud traditions and enhance our reputation for giving young people an exciting, varied and creative education that produces confident, fully rounded individuals who are ready to make their mark in the adult world beyond School. We look forward to much fruitful collaboration with other Trust schools”.
Why would the Governing Board have decided seeking Academy status was the best option for the school?
First, they probably decided it was sensible to jump before they were pushed. The UK Government announced on 30 June 2015 that they would legislate to force all “coasting” schools – defined at secondary level as having fewer than 60% of students achieving five good GCSEs including English and maths with children making below average progress between the ages of 11 and 16 for three years in a row – to become academies. This would have included Stantonbury Campus. Becoming an Academy voluntarily would allow greater choice over which Academy Trust would take it over and, in theory, facilitate a better match between the school and its new owners and, for example, prevent one of the national school “brands” from taking it over and removing Stantonbury’s identity by making it just another school in the chain.
Second, Stantonbury Campus had a significant debt to Milton Keynes Council through being permitted to carry forward a £700,000 deficit to help it adjust gradually to falling pupil rolls. Becoming an Academy would free it from having to ever pay this money back and so would obviously benefit the school and the children who attend it, though at the expense of the children attending other maintained schools in Milton Keynes.
Third, it is possible that the Governing Body were persuaded by the UK Government’s arguments that becoming an Academy would help drive faster school improvement. It has to be remembered that Stantonbury Campus had been officially deemed to be underperforming for over 4 years: it was put into special measures in December 2011 and remained in the Requires Improvement Ofsted category since escaping special measures in March 2013, though had received a positive monitoring report from Ofsted in October 2015 which concluded: “Senior leaders and governors are taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement identified at the recent Section 5 inspection in order to become a good school” and that “The local authority has been working much more closely and effectively with the school recently. Its understanding of the school’s needs is good enough to allow it to broker good and useful external support from each of the three teaching schools locally”.
It is not clear how and why the Governing Body chose to partner with The Griffin Schools Trust. Presumably they were introduced to them by the Regional Schools Commissioner.
The Griffin Schools Trust – a suitable sponsor for Stantonbury Campus?
The decision to hand The Griffin Schools Trust control of Stantonbury Campus was taken by the Regional Schools Commissioner for North West London and South Central England at a meeting of its Headteacher Board on 14 April 2016.
The only publicly available document about the rationale for this decision is the six word summary of the discussion contained in the minutes of that meeting: “KS4 results, Ofsted rating, leadership, finances”. There is no evidence that any consideration was given to whether The Griffin Schools Trust were an appropriate sponsor.
This is rather surprising given what was known about The Griffin Schools Trust at the time the decision was made.
First, it was not a local academy chain and operated no schools locally. Its head office was – and is – in Catford in south east London and none of the 12 schools it operated at the time were within 50 miles of Milton Keynes (the other schools were in Gillingham in Kent, Leyton in East London, Bedworth and Nuneaton in Warwickshire, Birmingham and Dudley in the West Midlands and Worcester in Worcestershire).
Second, it had little experience of secondary education – it only operated 1 other secondary school – and could not claim any expertise in secondary school improvement: its only other secondary – Nicholas Chamberlaine in Bedworth – was already doing well when it was taken over by the Griffin Schools Trust in 2013 (though isn’t any more).
Third, it had attracted considerable media attention in October 2015 after The Guardian reported it had paid £800,000 in only two years to four different consulting companies owned by its founders or trustees as well as making payments to the wife of one of the Trustees.
Fourth, The Griffin Schools Trust’s accounts for 2012/13 reveal that in March 2014 independent auditors concluded that the Trust was not following Department for Education financial rules in the 2012/13 financial year with 11 breaches identified, including awarding six contracts without a competitive tender process and breaking the law on the number of trustees who were in receipt of remuneration for providing services to the Trust.
Fifth, at the time the decision was made there were serious concerns about the performance of at least one of the schools operated by The Griffin Schools Trust, Wayfield Primary School, which was rated as a Good school by Ofsted before it was taken out of local authority control in late 2013. These concerns culminated in a damning inspection on 10-11 May 2016 putting the school into special measures which was exceptionally critical of the Trust and resulted in the Trust agreeing to voluntarily relinquish control of the school from September 2016 on the same date it took over Stantonbury Campus. The inspection report – documenting failings that are very familiar from the 2020 report on Stantonbury – concluded specifically on The Griffin Schools Trust that:
- Over the past two years [my note: since The Griffin Schools Trust took it over], the school’s provision has notably worsened. Pupil attainment and progress have fallen catastrophically.
- The Griffin Schools Trust oversees the school unsuccessfully.
- The governance arrangements, organised by the academy trust, are ineffective.
- The Griffin Schools Trust recognises that it has not been successful in gaining the necessary support of parents and the local community.
- The academy trust hopes the school is doing better than it actually is. It particularly highlights any perceived improvements, or ‘green shoots’, even though these are small.
- The legal governance of the school is provided by the multi-academy trust. It has a system of different boards to check on the work of the school. Members of these boards are aware of many of the school’s weaknesses, but underestimate the depth of the problems.
- The trust does not ensure that the school has the leadership it needs. It provides significant levels of support to the school. But this is not usually successful; the school does not have the capacity to receive or use that support effectively. The trust’s support for the school has not made the necessary impact on standards.
- The trust has not developed a suitable working partnership with many parents, which it recognises. It has not been able to respond productively to parents’ understandable concerns.
- Ultimately, the Griffin Schools Trust has failed to ensure that the pupils receive a suitable education or that they are kept safe.
The Department for Education – asleep on the job?
The first four of these issues alone – the distance of any of the schools in the chain from Milton Keynes, the lack of expertise in secondary education & secondary school improvement, the large amount of money trustees were making out of their roles and the failure to follow the Department for Education’s financial rules – should have given the UK Government serious pause for thought about the suitability of The Griffin Schools Trust to operate Stantonbury Campus.
However, the issues identified with how The Griffin Schools Trust were running Wayfield Primary School make it absolutely staggering that the Department for Education allowed them to take over Stantonbury Campus.
While the Regional Schools Commissioner for South East England and South London (Dominic Herrington, who is now the National Schools Commissioner) was taking a school away from The Griffin Schools Trust due to serious concerns about their effectiveness (and the Department for Education is clear that action to do this predates the May 2016 Ofsted inspection), another part of the Department was busy transferring Stantonbury Campus to them.
Do they not talk to each other?
It is hard not to conclude that the ideological drive to convert schools to academies has led to the Department for Education not exercising sufficient quality control over the organisations they let take over our schools and hiding behind the chronic lack of transparency of Regional Schools Commissioner business to evade accountability for this.
Key questions for the Department for Education
There are a number of questions for the Department for Education which, one would hope, our local MP is pressing them to answer:
- Did the Regional Schools Commissioner for South Central England and North West London introduce The Griffin Schools Trust to Stantonbury Campus as a suitable sponsor?
- Did the Regional Schools Commissioner for South Central England and North West London not think to ask their colleagues about how The Griffin Schools Trust were performing elsewhere in the country before handing them the challenge of running the second largest secondary school in England and driving significant school improvement?
- Did no one at the Regional Schools Commissioner for South Central England and North West London spot the damning May 2016 Ofsted conclusions about The Griffin Schools Trust’s performance at Wayfield?
- Did no one at the Regional School Commissioner for South East England and South London think to alert their colleagues to their concerns about the performance of The Griffin Trust, especially following the damning Wayfield inspection?
- Why didn’t the serious concerns of the Regional Schools Commissioner for South East England and South London about the Griffin Trust’s performance and the Ofsted inspection at Wayfield result in the Department for Education banning the Trust from taking on new schools?
- Why didn’t any member of the Headteacher Board for the Regional Schools Commissioner for South Central England and North West London ask any questions about whether The Griffin Schools Trust were appropriate sponsors of Stantonbury? Is this system working effectively to scrutinise the Regional Schools Commissioners’ decisions?
- Were the Ofsted conclusions about Wayfield just ignored as they were too politically embarrassing to do anything about given the Academy Order handing Stantonbury Campus to The Griffin Schools Trust had been issued and the funding agreement had already been signed in April 2016?
- Why wasn’t the decision to hand Stantonbury to The Griffin Schools Trust overturned when the full extent of the Trust’s failings at Wayfield had become apparent and they had Wayfield taken off them?
- What actions did the Regional Schools Commissioner put in place to ensure enhanced monitoring of The Griffin Schools Trust’s performance in running Stantonbury given the clear risks of poor performance implied by the Ofsted report into Wayfield?
- How will the Department for Education be changing their processes to ensure this does not happen again?
- What assurances can the Department for Education provide that the new Academy Trust won’t be another Griffin? Will parents have a say? Will the new Trust be a local one? Will the new Trust have expertise in secondary education? Will the new Trust have a strong secondary school improvement track record?
- Does the Department for Education accept that the lack of transparency of Regional School Commissioner business is contributing to poor decision-making and a lack of accountability?
- Will the Department for Education be apologising for their failures in appointing The Griffin Schools Trust to run Stantonbury Campus?
- Will there be a review of what went wrong here? Will the results of this be made public?
- Will anyone be held to account for the flawed decisions that led to The Griffin Schools Trust being appointed to run Stantonbury Campus?
Note: I am indebted to Peter Read, author of the Kent Independent Education Advice blog, for doing so much work on the failings of The Griffin Schools Trust at Stantonbury and elsewhere in the country which I have drawn on extensively in this piece.
Update – 4 March 2021
The Department for Education has released a few heavily redacted documents relating to this decision in response to my FOI request.
These confirm that:
- It was the Department for Education who first introduced The Griffin Schools Trust to Stantonbury Campus. This was despite officials observing that there had been “some recent negative press reports on the financial issues at the Trust”.
- The Department for Education noted that Stantonbury Campus “is not strictly in scope [for academisation] (but) it’s a school we have pushed the LA on for a number of years”.
- There appears to have been no mention of the issues at Wayfield Primary School, with a report in April 2016 – when the Department were in negotiations to remove Wayfield from Griffin – silent on the matter and claiming that “The Griffin Schools Trust has a good record of school improvement mainly at primary but recently at secondary level”. However, discussions about this may be included in the withheld documents.
- There appears to be no consideration at all of the Ofsted monitoring report about Stantonbury Campus from 22 October 2015 which suggested that the school was already improving thanks to the efforts of the LA and concluded “Senior leaders and governors are taking effective action to tackle the areas requiring improvement identified at the recent section 5 inspection in order to become a good school” and that “The local authority has been working much more closely and effectively with the school recently. Its understanding of the school’s needs is good enough to allow it to broker good and useful support from each of the three teaching schools locally”.
- It was claimed that The Griffin Schools Trust had “expertise at secondary level” despite them only operating one secondary school, which was improving under the same school leadership long before Griffin took them over.
Curiously the Department for Education also states in one of the documents dated 27 October 2015 – when Milton Keynes Council was already run by the current Labour administration – that “Milton Keynes LA has asked us to consider possible sponsors for Stantonbury Campus” and refers to a forthcoming meeting with the LA on 5 November 2015 where they would be discussing Stantonbury. Another document also states that “Ofsted found that governors had good skills and experience and understand the issues facing the school although they took much persuading to engage in the academies process”. There are plenty of questions for Milton Keynes Council to answer about events leading to Stantonbury becoming an Academy – did they push for this to happen contrary to their political rhetoric?
There is much we still do not know. A lot of documents are being withheld by the Department for Education on the grounds that their disclosure would prejudice, or would be likely otherwise to prejudice, the effective conduct of public affairs and that this outweighs the public interest in releasing the documents (Section 36 of the FOI Act). We do not know what these documents refer to and the secrecy means that it is not possible to put those documents which were released into their proper context or definitely conclude that the Department did not consider the Wayfield issue and the lack of secondary experience of the Trust at all (rather than, say, considering it and then ignoring it). An internal review of the decision has been requested to try and at least obtain a list of withheld documents and their subject matter.