Trust calls out council for causing 'uncertainty and chaos' by disrupting two-tier conversion

Samuel Whitbread Academy, Clifton

Samuel Whitbread Academy in Clifton is just one of the schools impacted by the pause in progress of the Schools for the Future programme by Central Bedfordshire Council - Credit: BEST

A multi-academy trust has raised concerns over Central Bedfordshire Council's progress in converting its schools to the two-tier system.

Schools for the Future is a long-term programme managed by CBC to ensure the area has the right schools in the right places, delivering the best education.

At the scheme’s core is converting all schools in the area from a three-tier system - consisting of lower, middle and upper schools - to the primary and secondary model used by the majority of the country.

Schools have been organised into eight different cluster areas to work with CBC on the changes, with Shefford and Stotfold the first to convert.

A phased approach was adopted and the first phase, which involved Henlow CofE Academy becoming a secondary and its five feeder schools becoming primaries, was completed in September this year.

The second phase, which is due to go ahead at the start of the 2023/24 school year, was paused by CBC in the summer for a review.

The lack of progress or communication from the council in recent months has worried the Bedfordshire Schools Trust (BEST), which runs 10 academies in our area including Samuel Whitbread in Clifton, Robert Bloomfield in Shefford and Etonbury in Arlesey.

Robert Bloomfield Academy, Shefford

Robert Bloomfield Academy, Shefford - Credit: BEST

Most Read

In conversation with the Comet, Dr Alan Lee, BEST's chief executive officer, explained that plans for cohorts of students due to move to their next schools in the coming years are hanging in the balance.

"We had an agreed plan, which was signed off by the executive of CBC in 2020," he said.

"We assumed that everything was going full steam ahead with that plan.

"Throughout this time, we did raise concerns on pupil numbers and some schools going before others, because we felt that it would be much clearer for parents in particular if all schools moved at the same time, rather than in a staggered way."

"We get to November time this year, and we don't feel there's a lot of movement," Dr Lee continued. "We're not seeing any construction plans. We're getting a little bit nervous at that point."

On November 4, BEST’s Board of Trustees penned an open letter to executive members of the council, expressing their concerns on the progress of the Schools for the Future programme, and what that means for BEST staff, pupils and parents.

With the unforeseen delays causing uncertainty and worry, the letter called on CBC to agree and finalise plans for Shefford and Stotfold, commit to the two-tier transition taking place in September 2023 - or agree an alternative timeline for all schools involved, and reconfirm its commitment to the five pledges agreed in August 2020.

These pledges include five-form primary provision as part of the new 0-18 all-through school that would bring together Robert Bloomfield and Samuel Whitbread academies, provision for pupils from Robert Bloomfield Academy’s traditional feeder schools to gain entry to the secondary part of the all-through school and additional sixth form provision on the Samuel Whitbread, Etonbury and Pix Brook sites.

In response to the letter, CBC leader Cllr Richard Wenham, who is also an Arlesey ward councillor, said that "improving educational attainment is, and will remain, one of the council's top priorities."

He added: "We remain focused on working with schools to develop a plan that is deliverable and will continue to explore the best solutions for all students in the Shefford and Stotfold cluster and we have brought in additional expertise to rework our delivery strategy.

"With regard to the five pledges, as things stand... we cannot commit to an all-through school that is both physically and financially undeliverable; this needs to be rethought as it would not currently meet a test of best value against which we would be measured."

Feeling like they're left in “limbo”, Dr Lee added: "Nobody wants to work with uncertainty.

"Parents are not clear on the pathway from lower school to upper school. Staff are not sure on what it means for them in individual schools.

"Everywhere you look, there's uncertainty and chaos. People are very, very worried.

"The main point is, we spent the last three years getting to a plan and promises were made. CBC officers agreed the plan, that went to the overview and scrutiny committee of the CBC. It went past them, and then on August 4, 2020, the executive signed it off. It went through three CBC processes.

"So you'd think that they'd have carried out due diligence and looked at the land rights and the finance. Why would you publicly agree all that and then say a short time later that they're not sure about it anymore?"

He added: "This is a call for CBC to make good on their promises, and to deliver what they promised.

"I would suggest by delivering on these promises, it builds in choice for parents, it builds in competition between the schools, and it builds certainty for everybody.

"If they can't deliver on their promises, then why make them in the first place?"

When approached by the Comet for a response to this conversation with Dr Lee and BEST, CBC and the leader of the council declined to comment.