Academy in merger negotiations

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Tim Hulme, chief executive officer, Rye Academy Trust

A critical government inspectors’ report (noted elsewhere in this edition) on Rye’s Primary School has brought a response from the trust which runs Rye’s schools.
That report refers to financial problems at Rye’s schools and the need for the trust to merge with another larger academy – which is now progressing rapidly.
In an interview with Rye News on Wednesday March 14, Tim Hulme, Chief Executive of the trust, accompanied by Andrew Ferguson, Director of Finance, were invited to review recent developments since Mr Hulme’s appointment in 2016 and the future direction of travel for Rye Academy Trust as a whole.

The Studio School

The first priority had been to turn round the financial management and stem losses running at some £750,000 per annum. A break-even budget for 2017/18 had been set and was on course to be achieved. This had necessitated some hard decisions, including staff redundancies and the closure of the Studio School in July at the end of this current academic year.
Tim Hulme had recognised last year that Rye Academy Trust could not be viable as a £6 million turnover business and would need to merge with another academy. The DfE advocates that the optimum size for academies is ownership of 12 colleges of education. The recent Ofsted report on the primary school reinforced this message and drew attention to the September 2018 deadline for a merger.
The search for suitable partners has been ongoing for the last six months, as reported in Rye News in October 2017, and the Aquinas Academy Trust based in Bromley, Kent has been identified as the best fit. Aquinas comprises eight primary schools and one secondary school (all in the Bromley area) and is looking to expand. The concept of community schools fits well with its own vision, and it has already provided much-needed support for Rye, with the secondment of Barry Blakelock, Head of Rye College, and Lynda Doel, another specialist teacher.
Head teacher Bary Blakelock

Negotiations have reached the ‘due diligence’ phase and are proceeding smoothly towards ‘re-brokerage’, the current jargon word for amalgamation. This would provide larger-scale benefits with over-arching trustee responsibilities, with specialist staff managing compliance issues such as Health and Safety, and central services for human resources, estate management etc. There would be joint management but allowing each college its independence, its own culture and ethos.
Last year the Department for Education (DfE) provided new phased grant aid to fund the introduction of a new core curriculum, and this is now being introduced. Working closely with DfE has also brought the offer of funding for a major refurbishment of the college buildings at a cost of between £4-5 million. This is expected to be confirmed in May this year, with work starting in September, in a project planned to take two years to complete. One section of the buildings would be closed at a time, with the newly vacant Studio School providing temporary accommodation to allow the teaching to continue. The refurbishment project will bring the facilities into the 21st century, comprising electrical and mechanical work, roof repairs and redecoration throughout.
Prior to and following the Ofsted report, various staff changes have taken place. Jane Howard has resigned as Head of the Primary School, being replaced by her deputy Kelly Martin, assisted by Vicki Isted, Val Bradshaw, a very experienced SEND co-ordinator ( for special education needs and disadvantaged children) has been appointed, and two further teachers have joined the staff, on secondment from the Beacon Academy at Crowborough. The College now has two leadership teams, responding to Barry Blacklock. A review of the core curriculum has been instituted to ensure that this is properly resourced and stress-resilient, to ensure high quality of teaching. The student roll has remained steady at 1200 pupils and forecast numbers for the next year are up.
Finally, we turned to the forging of links with the local community. There are various initiatives, some well-established, some new. The theme of creative design as developed by the Studio School students has existed as an important component of  earlier years in the college. A new apprenticeship scheme offering in total some 10-12 places, is planned to be launched shortly for the hospitality industry, sponsored by the George Hotel, the Mermaid Inn and by other leading local restaurateurs.
As Tim Hulme nears the end of his assignment – he leaves at the end of April to take up a post at the new East Sussex College, comprising Sussex Downs College, Brighton and the South Coast College, Hastings – he can look back on some important changes during his short assignment, but in his words: “we are on a journey and there is still a long way to go.”

Photos: Kenneth Bird

6 COMMENTS

  1. Not everyone agrees with ‘Christian Values’ being instilled in pupils by the Aquinas Trust . Let’s be blunt. The reason the Studio School closed, the Primary School has poor results and Rye College is struggling financially, is that the Conservative Government has decided to cut funding to all State schools to an impossible level.

  2. We need to know more detail about what is proposed. Changing the religious character of a school is a big decision. It’s much too important to go through as a minor detail as part of a takeover, however beneficial that may be educationally. The parents and students of Rye’s schools and wider community absolutely need to be consulted about this. As far as I know Thomas Peacocke/Rye College has been non-denominational for a long time. That cannot simply be changed overnight without due democratic process and debate.

  3. My 12 year old daughter spends nearly four hours a day travelling to and from Battle to Rye. When she started at Rye Academy in September, we truly believed it was the best place for her. A big part of choosing Rye was because it was seemingly unbiased where religion was concerned. We’d even started looking for a new home closer to the school. This merger with The Aquinas Trust is making us reconsider all aspects of our life. I believe the parents should have been consulted before the decision was made to elect a faith-based trust. It would be a blow if I have to remove my daughter because of this decision.

  4. I attended Rye College many years ago and now it is the turn of my grandchildren to be educated there. I care passionately about the health and well-being of the place. When I left school I became a teacher and I worked for many years in state schools with both religious and secular foundations. My experience in all of these institutions led me to trust and respect the professionalism of staff and governors alike. Consequently, I have confidence that Barry Blakelock and his team care about Rye College as I do and that they will exercise due diligence and take the appropriate course of action to ensure a healthy future for our school for the good of students, staff and the wider community. Whatever decision the professionals take, I cannot imagine that the 13 th century catholic theology of Thomas Aquinas will be on the curriculum or that students will be exposed to harmful indoctrination or narrow-minded prejudice. Our education system and the governance of our schools is carefully regulated and there are many checks and balances in place to ensure that our children (and our grandchildren) get the balanced education they need and deserve.

  5. I am struggling to see how Aquinas Academy Trust represents the ‘best fit’ for Rye Academy Trust’s schools.
    Firstly, as you have noted, Aquinas’s eight primary schools and just one secondary school are based in Bromley. This is 65 miles away from Rye! It is a distant (and wealthy) London Borough with little or no connection to the economic, social and geographical factors that are particular to Rye in a corner of rural East Sussex.
    Secondly, it is an avowed religious trust which is somewhat different from our schools that are secular.
    Thirdly, Aquinas Academy Trust has five Members – or shareholders – who, while they don’t run the trust on a day to day basis, can appoint and fire the Trustees.
    The Members of Aquinas Academy Trust are: the Bishop of Rochester; the Archdeaceaon of Bromley & Bexley in the diocese of Rochester; Area Dean of Bromley in the diocese of Rochester; the chairman of the Board of Trustees at Aquinas Academy Trust; and the Rochester Diocesan Board of Education itself.
    The Trust is thus owned and controlled by the Diocese of Rochester. All very well for schools in Bromley. But as we know Rye is proudly in the Diocese of Chichester. Has there been any consultation with Chichester at all before this deep advance into another neighbouring diocese?
    Would Chichester be happy for Rochester to own and run a youth club in Rye? Probably not.
    So why is Chichester Diocesan Education Department happy to hand not just control but ownership of schools in its patch to another somewhat distant diocese?
    In this light, one has to wonder what made other Multi-Academy Trusts (MATs) deserve rejection as possible take-over ‘partners’ of Rye Academy Trust. Could the Chair of Trustees of Rye Academy Trust make this list of other MATs available to the Rye public?

  6. This is shocking- here’s an an email i’ve just sent to the school (I’m a parent)
    ‘My wife and I have been profoundly disturbed to hear that so far five of our daughter’s lessons (history and geography) have been replaced by work/ discussions on ‘rejection, forgiveness and fear’ and visits to the ‘Gsus’ bus.
    We now read in the press ( http://www.ryenews.org.uk/news/academy-merger-negotiations) that Rye College is considering a merger with the Aquinas Trust – a CofE Academy chain – in which every school places ‘ Christian values, scholarship and excellence at its heart, our academies strive to ensure every learner succeeds and fulfils their god-given potential’ according to its website.
    We struggle to say just how appalled we are at the apparent Christianification of our daughter’s education without her, or our, consent. The Gsus bus, in particular seems a very much an example of faith-based propaganda introduced by stealth. Unless of course you are also planning an Buddha Bus, Mohammed Mobile, and undoubtedly a Moses Moped.
    We also wonder if this explains the equally very disturbing downgrading of the Creative Arts at Rye – the strong provision of which was one of our primary reason for choosing the school in the first place. We can’t help but suspect that Rye Studio has been rather cynically closed to make way for the Aquinas Trust.
    Is there likely to be a proper consultation of this? And why have we, as parents, so far been excluded from this process?
    We look forward to a full and prompt response,’

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