Six key questions as the fight for the Hewett School moves to a climax

Lord Nash and Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust. Picture: Denise Bradley

Lord Nash and Rachel de Souza, chief executive of the Inspiration Trust. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Archant 2013

The battle over the future of the Norwich's most prominent high schools could be heading to the High Court. Ahead of tomorrow's public meeting about the Hewett, MARTIN GEORGE analyses six key questions.

Hewett School sign and entrance on Hall Road. Picture: Denise Bradley

Hewett School sign and entrance on Hall Road. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: copyright: Archant 2014

Will the Hewett actually become an academy?

The government expects schools in special measures to become academies - something Norfolk County Council has not fought in the past. This time, it has threatened a legal challenge.

In 2014, a community campaign's High Court challenge to Cavell Primary becoming an academy was quickly thrown out, and there is no guarantee the same would not happen to the council's action.

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However, this time there is a new factor working in the campaigner's favour: time.

Pre-election rules bar the government from taking controversial decisions during the 'purdah period', which starts on March 30.

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The government seems keen to push academisation through quickly, and for the first time in Norfolk it said the school should become an academy at the same time it appointed interim governors, rather than letting them decide what is best for the school.

However, campaigners hope that, even if the legal bid fails, it will at least delay any decision on academisation until after the election.

Would becoming an academy guarantee the Hewett's future?

The Hewett has faced a perfect storm of poor exam results, hundreds of empty places, increased competition from new schools, and a deficit. It recently also saw a bid for government funding to refurbish its aging buildings rejected.

Privately, some local education figures have questioned whether it is financially viable, and late last year the council held discussions with other city high schools about taking on Hewett pupils if the school shut.

However, closure was deemed politically unpalatable.

Joining an academy trust would not in itself solve all its, but it would put it under the umbrella of a larger organisation with wider resources.

The Inspiration Trust has a record of improving exam results and Ofsted scores, but its schools already include some with financial problems of their own.

The Hewett has huge grounds. What will happen to the land?

Hewett campaigners have raised fears of a 'land grab', worrying about a new sponsor selling off valuable Hewett land to housing developers.

The school is currently a foundation school, with its land owned by the Central Norwich Foundation Trust, which includes members of the school's governing body, Norwich University of the Arts, Aviva, and City College Norwich.

Government guidance says the transfer of land to an academy sponsor should be agreed locally 'in the vast majority of cases', but if the parties cannot reach an agreement, or the government believes there are 'unacceptable delays to the process', the education secretary can make the transfer of land compulsory.

Will other Inspiration Trust schools move onto the Hewett Site?

The Inspiration Trust currently runs two Norwich free schools, with ministers expected to announce a decision about an application for a third imminently.

The Sir Isaac Newton Sixth Form is based in the former Bethel Street Fire Station, with £6m spent on construction costs but fewer students than planned, and the Jane Austen College in a former shoe factory in Colegate, with building and improvement costs of more than £8m. Neither has playing fields.

Does Inspiration hope to move either school to the Hewett site, or use the Hewett site as a location for its proposed Charles Darwin Primary, or combine other schools with the Hewett to address pupil shortfalls?

Is Inspiration Trust committed to the learning village concept?

Norfolk County Council's preferred alternative to academisation was to create a learning village on the Hewett site, including enhanced early years activity, a new free school for children with autism, and a family and community support centre.

Although the government wants the Hewett to become an academy, this week's letter from education minister Lord Nash said he had asked officials 'to work closely with council officers to explore any and all possibilities to facilitate the learning village proposals as much as they can'.

The questions is whether the Inspiration Trust, if it did sponsor the Hewett, would pursue the learning village idea.

What happens next?

The government this week said it intends to issue an academy order 'with a view to the school becoming an academy' with the Inspiration Trust. In letters to the Central Norwich Foundation Trust, it asked for comments by March 16.

According to the Academies Act, a school's governing body 'must consult such persons as they think appropriate' about whether it should become an academy. This can happen before or after an academy order has been made, but the law does not set any timescale.

A school's conversion to an academy does not become legally irreversible until a funding agreement has been signed. The time between an academy order being made and a funding agreement being signed is usually measured in weeks or months.

But given the competing dynamics of a government thought to be in a rush, and opponents desperate to delay, the usual timescales may not apply.

The We're Backing Hewett campaign will hold the meeting at 7pm on Sunday, March 8, at St Alban's Church Hall in Grove Walk.

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