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Are academy schools to blame for falling numbers as Hewett School faces up to £430,000 deficit?

PUBLISHED: 08:26 05 February 2014 | UPDATED: 08:26 05 February 2014

The Hewett School in Norwich.

The Hewett School in Norwich.

Archant

The news that the Hewett School in Norwich is coping with a £430,000 deficit blamed on falling pupil numbers has sparked renewed debate about the impact of the academy and free school programme on existing secondary schools.

Parents near Hewett School have mixed views

Lisa Tedstill, of Robin Hood Road, whose daughter Tee-Gan Collier went to the Hewett, said: “In my opinion it’s brilliant. It’s really good. They were really excellent. She is now 21 and she is at Lincoln University and still in contact with the school.”

Sarah Pearson, of Tuckswood Lane, went to open evenings at the Hewett for two of her children, but decided to send them elsewhere.

She said: “What put me off was that we got into the classrooms and the teachers did not make you feel welcome. I thought ‘They are meant to be encouraging children to go there, but they did not even look as if they wanted to be there themselves’.”

One mother, who asked not to be named, said: “The Hewett is a good school and [associate headteacher] Mr Anthony is a great person and dedicated to his pupils. My daughter wants to go their sixth form and it is a great shame that they are so much in debt.

“All schools have problems... sometimes at The Hewett it seems the left hand does not know what the right is doing but it is a big school and in my opinion my daughter has made the right choice to continue her education there as the teachers she will be having are as dedicated as Mr Anthony.”

A complex mix of factors explains where the Hewett finds itself, including changing demographics, a period where its reputation suffered from being in special measures, and the attraction of newly-built academy schools in Costessey and Heartease.

For the Hewett, the figures are stark. Its pupil population has halved in the past decade, falling from 1,500 to 734, and the school has had to leave vacancies unfilled and plan changes to its leadership and management structure to reduce the deficit.

Part of the Hewett’s problem is explained by the numbers of children in the system.

Alison Cunningham, an adviser for school organisation at Norfolk County Council, said pupil numbers have been falling for the last six years, and the current year 11 has 8,700 pupils, with about 100 fewer children in the current year seven.

Environmental feature at the new Open Academy, Heartsease, Norwich.Environmental feature at the new Open Academy, Heartsease, Norwich.

She said: “The current year seven cohort is the smallest in the last six years but we think we have now reached a turning point – years six to reception year are all bigger in size than the current year seven.”

She added that recent pressure has been on primary places, and the numbers in the secondary sector will increase as children move through the system.

What about the impact of academies?

They were originally a Labour innovation to turn around schools in deprived areas with a legacy of underachievement, and new state-of-the-art buildings were a signal to parents about schools making a fresh start.

The Open Academy, which replaced Heartsease High, was Norfolk’s first, and since it opened more local parents have sent their children there, rather than travel to schools further away, like the Hewett.

Concerns academies would affect the rest of the system were voiced ahead of the Open Academy’s opening, and at a special scrutiny panel meeting in July 2007, Norwich City councillors were “very concerned at the possible adverse affect on nearby schools”.

For Ian Gibson, who opposed the creation of the Open Academy when he was Norwich North MP, the academy system has seen a tradition of cooperation between Norfolk schools replaced with one of competition.

He said: “The structures are destroying those schools which were previous top class. They have changed them because they are not getting the pupils in. There’s no doubt about it.”

Academy proponents say increased choice harnesses market forces to reward success and encourage other schools to up their game. Academy opponents say that for competition to work, there have to be losers as well as winners, and so some schools suffer falling numbers.

While the current secondary academies have replaced existing schools, two brand new players will enter the market in Norwich in September: the Jane Austen College, a secondary free school, and the county’s first university technical college, for students aged 14-19.

Alison Cunningham, from the council, said: “We expect the arrival of these two new schools to have a limited impact on individual schools in Norwich. Their specialist offering to students and parents means they are likely to attract pupils from a number of schools, rather than one school in particular, which is why we don’t think there will be a dramatic impact on a single secondary school.”

What impact have academy schools had on schools that did not convert? Email newsdesk@archant.co.uk

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