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‘Our aspirations are higher than those of grammar schools’: Ashton-on-Mersey on cusp of gaining academy status

By Matt Jones

Ashton-on-Mersey School is, after years of sustained effort, on the cusp of attaining academy status.

On April 1 the school, with the aid of the West Trafford Learning Partnership, will commit to a future of financial independence, self-directed syllabuses and, perhaps most significantly, uncertainty.  

Academies have more independence over what they teach than mainstream schools, can choose to award bonuses to their staff and pay headteachers £30,000 more than comprehensive schools, with the belief that an added fiscal incentive will attract the most talented and dedicated educators.

They are not overseen by local authorities, who are negated to a backseat role, having control over little more than transport and the teaching of children with special educational needs.

This will bring the benefits of less red tape bureaucracy and greater financial freedom.

Such freedoms used to be afforded to these institutions by the generosity of their sponsors, who contributed up to £2million towards the first academies, though private investment can stem from a private agenda.

Sir Peter Vardy, a Christian philanthropist and one of the spearheads of Labour’s governmental drive towards the introduction of 400 academies, was accused of requesting the teaching of creationism in science classes.

Such benefits fill the Ashton’s Executive Head Tarun Kapul with confidence. “Simply, it will be a success because we’ve done our research,” he said.

Teachers at transitioning schools have voiced concerns over the transfer of new staff to an academy, though Ashton has vowed there will be no change to the conditions of employment for current staff.

When you couple this with greater freedom in terms of what they can teach, it is no surprise Mr Kapul described the reaction of his teachers to the change as ‘unbelievably positive’.

He pointed out: “As we work together to achieve an improvement of standards it means better jobs for them.”

The change has been endorsed by local MP Graham Brady, who also praised the school’s staff.

He said: “The most important thing for a school to succeed is good leadership. The Head, governors and leadership team at Ashton do a great job. The more control they have over the school, the better.”

Ashton will not be your average academy; the days of a failing school needing the monetary motivation of a sponsor, which seemed so revolutionary a decade ago, are now practically old fashioned.

Last year 91% of the school’s students got five A* to C’s including all subjects, a far cry from the 42% it recorded a decade ago.

This meteoric rise brought the school a prestigious outstanding rating from Ofsted.

This means they will take a leading role in a federation of foundation academies. It will be run by trustees, a small group of governors who take on the legal role of coordination of the educational charitable company set up to run the multi academy trust.

The trustees are responsible for determining the governance of the schools, through a written constitution.

There is seemingly very little risk in Ashton-on-Mersey School’s conversion into an academy; this updated branding of education has garnered cross party support, what with Labour starting the process and the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition making few changes 

Therefore the risk of academies falling out of political favour is low, and the autonomous financial freedom, if managed prudently, could guarantee the school long-term academic success.  

The crux of the matter, though, is whether or not academies are raising standards and getting results.

Figures show the majority of academies are improving at a faster rate than the national average, though a quarter of existing schools that have attained academy status have seen notable falls in GCSE performance, and even more have seen a decline in attendance and behaviour.

Ashton-on-Mersey’s change must be viewed in the context of its location.

The switch could have seemed all the more attractive given the fortunes of Altrincham Grammar School for Boys and Altrincham Grammar School for Girls since their respective changes.

Both schools have seen a consistent rise in GCSE results in the past few years and now have an 100% pass rate, which they have both attributed to their ability to teach what they believe should be taught.

However, Mr Kapul claimed: “We haven’t tried to follow the templates set by either of Altrincham’s grammar schools as we believe our own system is more comprehensive.

“Our aspirations are higher than those of grammar schools, and we’re not likely to get complacent any time soon.”

Fighting talk then, from a man who passionately believes in the sanctity of education, and more importantly for Ashton, believes in academies.

Another man who cares deeply about the state of education is Mr Brady, whose constituency all of the schools discussed in the article fall into. He is a champion of grammar schools, an institution about which he feels so strongly he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet because of Cameron’s opposition to them.

He argued: “Grammar schools in selective areas are exactly the motor that does drive social mobility.”

However, he dismissed the potential clash between the different styles of education by drawing attention to Altrincham envious academic record.

He said: “The grammar schools do a great job for the more academically inclined children. The high schools all have their own specialisms and all achieve excellent results too.

The great thing about Trafford – and Altrincham and Sale in particular – is that our state schools are probably the best in the country, which goes for grammar schools and high schools alike.”

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