Chair of Trust – July 2017

Some background:

As we approach the end of our current academic year and tidy up and finalise our plans for academic year 2017-18 it is probably appropriate to set out for you all where we are and where we are going in the future. I have to tell you that I have never felt so positive about the future of the Robert Owen Academy. The longer we are in business, and remember we are just about to complete our first four years, the more the long term need for our school becomes clear.

When we wrote the proposal for our Robert Owen Academy in late autumn 2012 for submission to the Department of Education in February 2013 we, the pioneers, knew that it would be a hard slog to open the Academy and to help it to elbow its way into accepted provision within the Marches Sub Region. Indeed we shared this with the civil servants in the Department when our team went to London for the intensive selection interview. To our credit we anticipated virtually all the challenges that have come our way on the rock strewn road to establishing our Academy. However, it must be said that the concept of this 14-19 vocational and technical school was taken around the Robert Owen Group Regional Members’ Councils for a full airing and discussion in summer and autumn 2012 before any pen was put to paper. We received not one jot of opposition indeed quite the reverse.

We have had to live with the misinformation fed into the local media, including social media, that our funding would take funding away from other local schools. Well after nearly five years it is now accepted that we are bringing new money into Herefordshire and the Marches Sub region which would otherwise not be there. We would close two high schools trumpeted the local press. Well so far our slow growth strategy has led to zero closures. In fact more children are now in the 14-19 system as the result of our presence. We would not be open beyond October 2013 some headteachers told interested parents we are advised. We have lived with this constant closure misinformation now for nearly four years. Indeed the hostility of local opposition has been exceptional and beyond that seen in other parts of England but we expected it because introducing change into the education system has always been a painful and emotional business. We live with the daily challenges and misinformation because the children, our students, are worth every body blow that we take. They are fantastic people. We are here for them and we will remain here for them as long as we have breath in our bodies.

Where we are now:

There are many issues to celebrate and our Executive Principal, Paul Cordey, set them out in his recent report to the Annual General Meeting of the Trust which included the Annual Meeting of Parents.  Our Academy is a 14-19 all ability comprehensive school and the Academy founders created it this way by intent. By the very nature of the unique vocational and technical provision within the Robert Owen Academy we rightly expected that we would attract young people who are looking for a change and want a more work and life focused education at the end of Key Stage 3. This has certainly been the case and we have been surprised with the number of students searching for such a change of direction. With hindsight the Government push for high academic standards linked to the competition between schools for students have meant that there is less room for those students who are unsure where they fit in at Key Stage 4 and beyond. The life changing outcomes that our excellent staff have brought to the lives of so many of our students constantly makes me more proud than many people may realise. We are transforming the lives  of individuals, giving them new purpose, re connecting them with study through hands on training and showing them that their young lives can be once again back on the success trajectory. So far we have achieved this with some 150 students so just think of the impact we will have after a further five plus years of growth, innovation and challenging provision.

Opening a new school, particularly in a challenging environment is always going to be difficult. We have been on several sites and it is only relatively recently that we have been able to enjoy the full benefits of our completed Blackfriars site.  Recruiting staff in the early stages was always going to present a further challenge but I can now say with certainty that the Robert Owen Academy has high quality, highly committed and extremely professional competent staff and senior leadership that most other schools would willingly employ. They all, without exception, go the extra mile for our students and they are leaders in their own fields. In terms of governance we have a Governing Body, a Board of Trustees, a Stakeholder Board and a group of Vice Presidents of rare expertise, experience and talent who are all committed to the present and future success of our Robert Owen Academy beyond the call of duty. I thank all and each one of them. Few schools can have brought together such a fantastic group of people. We are indeed fortunate.

Our work is far from finished:

To fully appreciate the nature of many of the challenges that we face it is necessary to understand the true nature of the Free Schools initiative which was introduced by the then Secretary of State, Michael Gove. The Free Schools initiative was designed to provide parents with greater choice, to drive up standards and to encourage innovation in education provision. In drawing upon over thirty three years of innovation in Herefordshire in 14-19 vocational and technical education the authors of the Robert Owen Academy proposal had a clear understanding of the need for the school. However, we now appreciate that it was a need not readily understood or accepted by some members of a new generation of headteachers, college principals and local authority officers. We knew that it would be seen as a threat by some but that has changed greatly and continues to change by the day. The support from some schools, our employers and businesses base, our community groups and our Vice Presidents has been exceptional. However, we mustn’t become complacent and we must continue to work at this.

What we didn’t see coming in its full force was the lack of preparedness in the Department of Education to nurture and support this precious and innovative new creation. This has led to some civil servants and Ofsted inspectors not always understanding the mission and purpose of the Academy and being, in some cases, seemingly at times too easily influenced by the hostile and negative views aired from elsewhere. All of these challenges remain but they are our battles to fight for the sake of our students. We need to encourage our people to go out into our various communities and spread the word about the positive influence of the Robert Owen Academy so that we recruit students and continue to change lives and thus contribute to the economic and social re-generation of the Marches sub region.

What we need from our communities:

We need you, our people, to engage with the Academy. Drop in for a coffee at any time and we will show you around. We are open all through the summer vacation. We recruit throughout the year because we are more like a college of further education than a school. We need folk to volunteer to serve on our Governing Body, to join our Stakeholder Council and to encourage students to come and join us. If you are a member of a community group why not come and hold your meetings in the Academy and enjoy refreshments from our commercial styled refectory. We regularly support local charities so come and engage with our fund raising activities. In short come and see the life changing work undertaken by our exceptional staff with our wonderful students.

If you are interested drop in, email or telephone.

We are very much in business and actively recruiting for September 2017.

Chris Morgan – Chair of the Robert Owen Academies Trust.