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Fears five struggling North East schools 'left in limbo' after government intervention

Bright Tribe trust walked away from taking over two schools in County Durham and delayed taking over three in Sunderland and Northumberland. Photo: ITV News Tyne Tees

There are fears that five struggling schools in the North East have been left in limbo, and unable to improve, after the government intervened in how they are run.

Parents, teachers' representatives and a local MP have told us of their concerns because the charitable trust that was brought in has now pulled out of taking over two schools, and delayed taking control of three others.

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What's the government's policy?

The government has pledged to step in and act when schools are underperforming, while pursuing its policy of encouraging academies.

In November 2015, then Education Secretary Nicky Morgan said: "I am unapologetic and uncompromising in intervening swiftly to tackle educational failure."

The Department for Education uses academy orders to take struggling schools away from local authority control, or where existing academies are found to be failing, it pushes them to become part of successful multi-academy trusts.

Bright Tribe was named by Nicky Morgan in November 2015 as one of five "outstanding" trusts to receive government funding to set up academy hubs.

Who are Bright Tribe?

Bright Tribe is a not-for-profit trust, that currently runs seven schools in other parts of the country, that have been taken out of local authority control.

It was named as the preferred sponsor for five underperforming schools, from Northumberland to Sunderland and County Durham.

An investigation by the Education Funding Agency reported in November 2016 that Bright Tribe had breached rules in making payments to too many of its trustees.

The trust pointed out that the EFA did not see the need to issue a Financial Notice to Improve, and "a number of action points were instead issued which the trust has been happy to implement."

The closest of Bright Tribe's existing schools is Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria. It was rated as inadequate by Ofsted in December, and teachers have taken strike action over working conditions.

Bright Tribe pointed out that strike action has currently been suspended, but teaching union representatives told members' concerns around the trust are shared in the North East.

The five struggling schools

The five schools across the North East were all judged by Ofsted to be underperforming when they were either under local authority control, or standalone academies.

Together they have more than 2,500 pupils.

Bright Tribe has yet to take over any of them, and none have yet been judged by inspectors to be providing a good standard of education for pupils.

Grindon Hall Christian School

This Sunderland free school, with pupils aged 4 to 18, was placed in special measures by inspectors in January 2015, and remains there.

Bright Tribe was due to take over by September 2016, but has still not done so.

Parents there told us they feel like they have been "left in limbo. You're thinking - am I going to have to pull them out of the school, am I going to have to look for somewhere else?"

Bright Tribe said the delay "centred on the pension provider and the transfer of the pension liability at the point of conversion" and it is working to negotiate a solution, "hopeful that this will be concluded within the first quarter of 2017."

Haltwhistle Community Campus

The Department for Education awarded Bright Tribe £995,000 to set up a northern academies hub in Northumberland.

The first of the two schools involved is Haltwhistle Community Campus, which is already an academy.

Its upper school was put in special measures in July 2015, and remains there.

Inspectors gave the lower school a 'requires improvement' rating in March 2016.

On a return visit in September, they found that there were positives, but overall inspectors said that leaders were "not taking effective action" to improve.

Bright Tribe told us Haltwhistle "is essentially ready to convert", but has been delayed waiting for the conversion of Haydon Bridge High School, so "both schools come across as a cluster."

While Haltwhistle waits, an executive principal is helping support the leadership team.

Haydon Bridge High School

Haydon Bridge is the second of the two northern academies hub schools.

It was placed into special measures in February 2015, and remains there.

The reason for the delayed takeover is "unresolved issues" issues relating to the school's boarding wing - Ridley Hall.

Parents have been informed that it is now up for sale, as it is unlikely the school's lease on the privately-owned building will be renewed.

One parent, Claire Austin, who lives 35 miles away in Otterburn, told us: "For all we've known, Bright Tribe didn't want to take on Ridley Hall. We've had no notification or discussion, or consultation, into what the proposed alternatives would be for our children."

Bright Tribe told us it "understands that a multi-academy trust would not be permitted to take on the fully repairing and insuring lease" at Ridley Hall, but that it "remains committed" to the sponsorship of the school.

Durham Community Business College and Fyndoune Community College

These schools are in a partnership called the Durham Federation, and were previously under local council control.

Durham Community Business College has been in special measures since November 2014.

Fyndoune was placed in special measures in November 2014, and judged by inspectors in May 2016 to still 'require improvement.'

Bright Tribe has walked away from taking control of both schools, after "extensive due diligence" found "the level of financial support required to subsidise the operation of these two schools, with low pupil numbers, across a split site is not viable."

What happens next?

Parents at Haydon Bridge are still unsure if their children will have boarding places at Ridley Hall in future.

The government told us it will not give a running commentary on the future of the Durham Federation schools.

City of Durham MP Roberta Blackman-Woods told us that ministers' whole policy in favour of intervening in struggling schools and getting them to become part of multi-academy trusts was "now being called into question - because we cannot have children and their education being disrupted like this."

The Department for Education insisted: “We are determined to secure strong sponsors for all five of these schools and ensure they make rapid improvements in order to give pupils the best possible education."