School academy conversion ‘in interest of pupils’

Dr Paul Jones, head teacher of Orchards Middle School SUS-150505-160025001
Dr Paul Jones, head teacher of Orchards Middle School SUS-150505-160025001

A SCHOOL’s potential conversion to an academy has been put forward with pupils’ interests as a ‘number one priority’, a head teacher has assured critics.

Orchards Middle School, in Nelson Road, Maybridge, is consulting on the conversion, which would see it move away from local authority control.

Head teacher Dr Paul Jones said the move would allow the school to control admissions, finances and eliminate post-election uncertainty, which could see it forced into the move in the future.

He said: “Our number one priority is whether it is for the benefit of the children so every question we ask has to be affirmative on that and if it isn’t then we don’t do it.

“We have weighed up the pros and cons and at the end of the day we believe this is the best thing for the children of the school.”

The school has considered becoming an academy for the past five years but had not previously felt it beneficial to do so.

But the feeling has altered in the past 12-18 months, with changes to the age of transfer system seeing the school set to accept fewer pupils than capacity.

With all pupils set to move to secondary school in year seven, as opposed to year eight, the school will accept 120 fewer pupils than capacity – a move which Dr Jones could not see the logic in.

By becoming an academy, the school could control its own admissions policy and finances, allowing it to retain the current level of staff.

Additionally, the uncertainty of the election and any future Government’s plans for academies prompted the school to act now, while its future was in its own hands.

The Government granted an academy order shortly before the Easter break, allowing it to consult on the plans.

If all goes to plan, the school could convert on October 1.

Dr Jones said: “Parent feeling has been pretty positive so far.

“The key message is there is a lot of confidence in the leadership of the school and if we think it is the right thing, they have confidence in our research and capabilities.

“We want to be transparent and will always be outside the school gates to talk to anyone with concerns.”

The idea has, however, drawn concern from county-wide campaign group West Sussex Academy Watch, which opposes academies.

A spokesman for the group said: “The West Sussex school landscape is already fractured, with a complex mix of academies, free schools and maintained schools, all with varying degrees of success and failure.

“The county council is further weakened when schools opt out of its oversight and, more importantly, it can’t intervene and assist when those schools fail.

“We feel strongly that the Orchards’ proposal isn’t a risk worth taking for their children now and in the future, or for children in West Sussex. We advocate the maintained system and believe that it needs protection and investment.”

Dr Jones confirmed the group had contacted the school to register its objections.

He said he respected its opinion but felt the view was ‘philosophical’ and did not take into account the needs of individual schools.

He stressed governors had spent months meticulously researching the idea and would now fully consult with the public.