Page last updated at 13:02 GMT, Thursday, 6 November 2008

Academy status? Too good to refuse

By Hannah Richardson
BBC News education reporter

Yusuf looks at sulphur in science class
Shene pupils can take biology, chemistry and physics

In many ways Shene School in Richmond, south-west London has been a school under siege for some time.

Under siege from the fall-out of poor GCSE results, from inspectors and ministers who saw it as a struggling school and from local parents who have turned their backs on it.

Although still under an Ofsted notice to improve, and in the government's national programme for schools facing challenging circumstances, the school has made "significant improvements".

However, one of the difficulies it faces is that only one in five of its pupils actually live in the leafy south London borough synonymous with affluence and nice houses.

Over the past five years, local parents have opted out of Shene and the share of pupils who live locally has dropped from 50% to 20%.

Diminishing budgets

Last year just 40 pupils moved up to Shene from its four closest Richmond primary schools.

Now most of its students trek across London on several buses every morning from Hammersmith, Fulham and Wandsworth, rather than taking a short walk through the tree-lined streets nearby.

It is hardly surprising that the school has had to work hard on tackling lateness.

"For long term staff, the intake change was difficult to manage because it has moved from being a suburban school with an edge to an inner city school," says head teacher Lesley Kirby.

Now Shene's students have deprivation levels, two and a half times the national average, but the school survives on per pupil funding levels that are the lowest in London and the eighth lowest in England.

And falling roll numbers mean budgets have been diminishing too.

Lesley Kirby
Head teacher Lesley Kirby works a 13-hour day

To add to this, Shene has been grappling with what Ofsted described as a "sustained legacy of under-achievement", and has had five different head teachers in five years.

Despite these obvious disadvantages, the latest head teacher Ms Kirby - appointed in April 2007 - has started to turn things around.

The school has boosted its GCSE results from 24% getting five good grades including English and maths in 2007 to 36% this year.

"The buzz among the staff this year is incredible - seeing this significant improvement," says Ms Kirby.

The school has earned these improvements with a huge amount of extra work and targeting support at pupils likely to get good GCSE results.

"We didn't just run a summer school, we ran a February school, a half-term school, a March school and a Saturday school as well as holding extra lessons after school," says Ms Kirby.

Despite the progress Shene has made, it now faces the prospect of being turned into an Academy, along with two other schools in the borough.

There is no other way, in the current political climate, that it will get all that extra money
Lesley Kirby on Academy status

And if that happens there is no guarantee that any member of staff would be kept in the same post they are in now.

Nonetheless, Ms Kirby believes the offer of Academy status for a school in Shene's position is one to good to refuse - partly because of all the extra money involved.

"By law, the sponsor has to advertise for a new principal - so I could lose my job and I would be very sorry about that," says Ms Kirby.

"But I still support the proposal because it is the best thing for the school. There is no other way, in the current political climate, that it will get all that extra money."

Ministers always deny that Academies benefit from higher funding levels, but Ms Kirby has calculated that the extra funds that would accompany that status would be substantial.

Not only would a Shene Academy get 15m in capital funds for rebuilding, it would also get a substantial increase in cash for day-to day-expenses.

School sign
Shene teachers are trying to raise pupils' aspiration

It is understood that Richmond top slices about half a million pounds from the school's annual budget.

Edutrust, the potential sponsor, has suggested it would take 50% less than Richmond - boosting the school's annual budget of 4m by approximately 250,000.

Another significant benefit is that in early years Academies are funded as if they are full.

A rapidly reducing budget is one of the key problems for a school with falling pupil numbers - as the head count reduces - so does the cash.

So for a school like Shene, which is currently three-quarters full, funding at full capacity would make a substantial difference.

The Department for Children, Schools and Families says Academies are funded in this way because it is anticipated that they will fill their places very quickly.

But before this can happen, Shene - as an Academy or otherwise - will have to win back the support of the local community, many of whom have opted for private schooling.

And it looks like that battle will be a hard fought one.

'The trust has gone'

Shene is currently the target of a very vocal parents' campaign for a new school.

An online petition signed by nearly 2,000 people calls for what most parents would want for their children - "the best quality of learning available".

But it continues: "There are deep-rooted misgivings about the standards of behaviour of some pupils attending the local secondary school.

"Promises have been made in the past to parents about changes to the school but they have been seriously let down. The trust has gone."

The organisers of the petition, parents of children at nearby Barnes Primary School, may have the best interests of their children at heart.

A pupil's artwork
Three Shene students were among the top 10 in their art GCSEs

But their online petition has become a forum for the dissatisfied to vent their anger and make unsubstantiated claims which damage the school's reputation still further.

Many of those quoted have not even visited the school, met its teachers or parents, despite invitations to do so, says Ms Kirby.

A school can only become a local school if local parents send their children there, but until Shene can show it is able to serve them, that is unlikely to happen.

The BBC News Website will be following Shene School and on its journey to potential Academy status.

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