“Two years ago, Rose Hill primary on the outskirts of Oxford was branded a failing school. Ranked “inadequate” by the schools watchdog Ofsted, it was placed in special measures and staff and parents were told an academy trust would be brought in to turn around the school’s fortunes.
Two years on – and two education secretaries later – the school is still waiting.
When the Guardian visited in January 2016, morale was at rock bottom. The Ofsted report had been so devastatingly negative that the headteacher, Sue Vermes, and her team said they felt “criminalised” by the experience. A compulsory academy order was made and Vermes and her colleagues waited for their new masters to move in. Then – nothing.
Rose Hill, which serves a disadvantaged community far from Oxford’s dreaming spires, has become what is known as an “orphan” school. It is yet to be adopted by a sponsor. Though a local academy trust has shown an interest, a deal is yet to be secured. As the new education secretary, Damian Hinds, gets to grips with his brief, this small school is a reminder of the challenges the government’s academies programme faces.
“You feel unwanted,” says Vermes, sitting in her drab office. “With the day-to-day running of the school, it doesn’t have much impact. But long term, where are we going? I’ve given up trying to explain it to parents.”
Rose Hill is not alone. Estimates suggest there are around 60 orphan schools in England waiting to be taken over by a sponsor.
The government claims its academies policy – which takes schools out of local authority control and puts them in the hands of an academy trust, making them directly accountable to the Department for Education (DfE) – enables it to intervene swiftly when a school is in trouble. However, Rose Hill and others like it show this is not always a straightforward process.
And it has an impact on the children, too. After Rose Hill’s inadequate rating, one pupil asked Vermes: “If this is an inadequate school, does that mean I’m an inadequate child?” The longer the uncertainty continues, the less appealing the school looks to future pupils and their families, hence numbers drop and so does income.
The school building, which was crying out for repairs when we last visited, is just as bleak two years on. There is mould on the ceiling, the toilets smell, the paintwork is chipped, the classrooms are overheated and stuffy and the shabby corridors are chilly and unwelcoming.
It was due to be demolished and rebuilt under the last Labour government – the plans were drawn up and published in the local newspaper. When the coalition government took over in 2010, the funding disappeared overnight and Rose Hill has been struggling to keep up appearances ever since.
Since the Guardian’s last visit, the local authority has spent £200,000 on patching up the roof and replacing some windows; the DfE has set aside £1.4m for a new sponsor to spend on further repairs. But Vermes thinks a total rebuild is needed, which would cost £9m. “This is not a building that says to the children and their families that their education is crucial. It’s just saying to them, you are not worth the investment,” she says.
The building will be an ongoing issue for any sponsor. In addition, staffing costs are high: 35 different languages are spoken at the school, a third of the children have special educational needs and around half of them live in poverty. Vermes says the pressures on vulnerable families have increased as austerity continues to bite. There are two local food banks, which are well used, but some children are not getting enough to eat.
The children’s centre at the school has closed like all Oxfordshire’s children’s centres – so problems are not being picked up at an early stage. Pupils who need to attend a special school cannot always find one because of a shortage of places, so Rose Hill keeps them on roll with additional support staff.
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After the academy order was made, Vermes was asked to quit – but she refused. “It’s the wrong culture. It’s like football managers,” she says. She has worked as a teacher in Oxfordshire since 1985 and has taken just three days of sick leave in that time.
Last October, Ofsted returned to Rose Hill and found it much improved. The school was taken out of special measures and rated “requires improvement”, but in three categories was ranked “good”. Yet still the school is stranded without a sponsor.
More than half of all secondary schools in England are now run as academies, along with a fifth of primaries. On 17 January, MPs on parliament’s education committee called on the government to overhaul the oversight of academy chains after a string of high-profile failures.
Vermes is optimistic there will be a positive outcome for Rose Hill, hoping that the local academy chain she favours will take the school on, but the journey to this point has been long and bruising. It is, she says, a good example of the chaos of government policy surrounding academisation.
“I also think we are a symbol of the current punitive attitude towards children and families in poverty: ‘You’re poor, so your education is less important, and you can certainly put up with a substandard building,’” she says.
The Department for Education was unable to say how many “orphan” schools there currently are in England. A DfE spokesman said: “We have been working hard to achieve a positive solution for Rose Hill Primary school and to address the most urgent needs which will make the building fit for purpose.
“We are still in negotiations with River Learning Trust, which is supporting the school, and continue to work with the local authority, which remains responsible for maintaining the buildings and site at Rose Hill.”