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BLOG: Robert Owen was an innovative school ahead of its time

Ahead of Robert Owen Academy's closure, Chris Morgan, Chair of The Robert Owen Academies Trust, reflects on lessons the school has learnt

Posted by Lucinda Reid | March 26, 2018 | School life

As with most controversial innovations in education there is inevitably a back story and often a back story that in the early days becomes crowded out by the education establishment’s push towards protection of the status quo all set within a political context.  So it has been with the Robert Owen Academy which opened its doors to students as a vocational comprehensive school on 1st September 2013. Prior to this in July 2012 the Secretary of State had approved the detailed proposal from the Robert Owen Foundation with some enthusiasm, we are told.

Prior to this period in the summer and autumn terms 2011 the idea was stirring amongst a number of local teachers, and movers and shakers in the Robert Owen Foundation that the lessons of innovative 14-19 vocational projects developed and delivered in the Herefordshire area, such as TVEI Pilot and TVEI Extension, over a 35 year period could be brought together in a co-operative vocational school bid under the Free Schools Initiative. This idea was shaped and hammered out in the places where teachers gathered together and were then taken out on the road to be debated within the Robert Owen Area Members’ Councils.  The discussions were intense and lively and generally supportive as the shape of a proposal began to crystallise. Four central considerations kept coming through:

  • Such a proposal must be innovative and must seek to integrate academic and vocational studies into a seamless robe
  • It must be a truly comprehensive 14-19 school for all abilities
  • We must carry local businesses and employers with us
  • The ownership of the school must genuinely lie with the community. In other words it must be a co-operative school which would offer an alternative model to the local authority owned and academy models.

These four central pillars were carefully built into the proposal which was submitted to the Secretary of State in February 2012. The Local Authority was briefed and the rest is history, as they say. The Robert Owen Foundation Team comprising a secondary school headteacher and lifelong co-operator; a principal of a national firm of accountants; the first shadow Chair of Governors and a business consultant; the Chief Officer of an international management development business and former soldier; together with the Chief Officer of the Robert Owen Foundation were interviewed in the Department in London.  The proposal was given the green light in July 2012.

Within all this tangled web just hang on to the fact that it is only the children and students that matter

Since that time the Trust and the Governing Body have been subjected to the most intense criticism and attack from all sides some of which was anticipated but the intensity over six long years has been beyond belief. Privately civil servants have admitted that it exceeded anything else they had seen anywhere in England. So where did this come from?

  • Local headteachers – despite every headteacher and chair of governors being offered one to one meetings to discuss the proposal
  • The Herefordshire Local Authority – despite meetings with councillors and officers offered on a regular basis
  • The media – two high schools will close screamed the headlines
  • From some mainstream civil servants and those who advise them partly because of the hostile environment and partly because of their lack of understanding of the challenge of delivering vocational education in a society which has never signed up to the parity of esteem concept
  • From some very genuine Ofsted inspectors whose focus was on matters academic to the exclusion of all else. Also the now notorious RI judgment which we thought fair which within 12 working days was over turned by a second full inspection lasting one day into a Special Measures judgment. We remain highly sceptical about this and suspicious of the real political motivation.

So what lessons have we learned as we now prepare for closure on 31st August 2018? Well colleagues considering on embarking on central government innovative pilot projects in the future need to look long and hard at the Free Schools Initiative, learn the lessons and take a long health warning.

  • In cinema parlance you will be hung out to dry from day one with little real support as the other schools and the local authority turns on you
  • Don’t under estimate the depths to which some schools will stoop to block both student and teacher recruitment
  • Beware of the local authority as they assume rump status they are moving  into pure protectionism
  • Don’t assume that others regard  the interests of the child as paramount
  • Make sure that you understand the priorities of your RSC and her/his region. We are into an age of conformity and absence of risk

Within all this tangled web just hang on to the fact that it is only the children and students that matter. Many are not receiving a good deal and we need innovation to offer choice and to allow each individual to develop to their true potential. For us our vision remains undimmed, we just couldn’t find sufficient fellow travellers to support the vision publicly when the flak kept flying in.    

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