After ten years, Whitehaven Academy is to get rebuilding it needs

Janet Downs's picture

Crumbling Cumbrian school will receive ‘substantial capital investment’

At last, after ten years, Whitehaven Academy is getting new buildings.  It will receive ‘substantial capital investment’ following an academy transfer from beleaguered Bright Tribe to Cumbria Education Trust.

Need for new buildings recognised in 2008 but plans had strings attached

In 2008, local MP Jamie Reed proposed that Whitehaven School become an academy.  If it did so, the school would receive £30m for new buildings.   The school rejected this bribe and was punished.  The new building didn’t happen. 

Scrapping Building Future Schools stopped proposed rebuilding

Whitehaven  became one of the schools which should have been renovated under the ‘Building Future Schools (BSF) scheme. This was scrapped in 2010.

Sponsor Bright Tribe pulled out of next rebuilding plan

A plan, partly funded by local stakeholders including Cumbria County Council, was put forward for a £33m building amalgamating two schools.   When Whitehaven School became a Bright Tribe academy in 2014, Bright Tribe pulled out

Sponsor Bright Tribe breached academy financial rules

Whitehaven Academy has not prospered with Bright Tribe, a controversial trust found to have breached Academy Handbook rules after an investigation by the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA).  The inquiry had been triggered by whistleblowing allegations received in July 2015.    These allegations of financial misdoing didn’t prevent the then education secretary Nicky Morgan from giving Bright Tribe part of a £5m fund to improve northern schools.

Buildings continued to deteriorate

The state of the buildings continued to decline.  In November 2017, staff published an open letter saying two-thirds of the academy site was ‘so dilapidated it has had to be closed’.  The remaining third leaked every time it rained.    Staff called for Bright Tribe to be removed.

Shortly afterwards, Bright Tribe said it would give up Whitehaven Academy. 

New sponsor found – funding for rebuild follows

Cumbria Education Trust (CET) has been given the green light  to sponsor the academy  and ESFA will release substantial funds for rebuilding.  It’s hoped the new accommodation will be completed by December 2020.

Policy decisions of successive governments to blame

Policy decisions by successive governments are to blame for the unacceptable delay in rebuilding a crumbling school.  First, Labour attached strings to rebuilding: become an academy or go without.  Second, the Coalition scrapped BSF.  Third, the ballooning number of academy trusts since 2010, didn’t encouraged due diligence:

  • In 2014, the Public Accounts Committee expressed concern about related-party transactions within academy trusts. 
  • Also in 2014, a report to the Education Select Committee said ‘conflicts of interest are common in academy trusts’. 
  • in 2016, the Observer asked, ‘Are England’s academies becoming a cash cow for business?’   It detailed the activities of Bright Tribe. 

This essential rebuilding has been a long time coming.  But it’s taken an academy rebrokerage to galvanise the DfE into releasing necessary funding.  The investment in new buildings won’t appear in published academy transfer costs, however.  Capital costs are not included.  

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Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 15/07/2018 - 08:32

The buildings at Whitehaven Academy have been a national disgrace for years. When I visited the head in the summer of 2106 they were by for the worst I'd ever seen. We discussed the situation here shortly after that visit ( The school looked like it had been derelict for years. This was because Bright Tribe (forced on the school) had stripped out all the maintainance contracts and not actually done the work. It's got much worse since then.

But while a rebuild is more than urgently needed it's important to remember that a rebuild won't solve Whitehaven Academy's problem of having sink school status. Whitehaven contains some of the areas of most substantial deprivation in the UK - estates where nearly every child is on the at risk register. Social services have systemically failed for generations, closing the book again and again on extreme issues (progress is finally being made as we can, at last, train social workers).

I completed my teacher training at Whitehaven School (later Academy) and then taugt at St. Benedicts (the big catholic secondary school over the road) for six years until 2005. During this time both schools struggled together with these issues of social challenge. Local headteachers worked collaboratively to ensure that a sink school did not emerge because It was known how much damage one would cause to the chidren attending it as well as to the wider school community. Three strategies were used.

1. St. Benedict's (a successful school) capped its entry at 6 forms to ensure it didn't poach too many of the best students from the non-catholic schools.
2. The national initiative of Excellence Cluster funding provided extra support for schools like Whitehaven that were in danger of becoming sink schools to prevent this happening. Most importantly they kept top sets small so that they didn't have a wide span of attainment which prevented the most able students being taught to their potential.
3. Great care was taken locally to manage the number of secondarly school places available. Schools were closed so that there weren't too many spare places.

Unfortunately St. Benedict's became a predatory school in 2005 (when many of us left because we hated working in this way), excellence cluster funding was removed, school closures and mergers were stopped and a local UTC was opened. A single school in Whitehaven was a wise and coherent soluation to all of this and the whole community and all funding bodies came behind this project. But Bright Tribe (who sacked the governing body and has a revolving door of headteachers) were able to prevent it because it wasn't in their financial interest. The rebuild has now gone ahead without there being capacity in it for the Whitehaven Academy students.

I think the only solution now is to rebuild Whitehaven Academy as an 11-14 school. This could work to create a stable situation if St. Benedicts contracts it 11-14 capacity to allow it to expand its 14-19 capacity so that students from both schools could go there (effectively splitting St Benedict's into an 11-14 Catholic school taking the children from the Catholic primaries and a 14-19 community school with an opt-in Catholic element.

Many parents will continue to do everything they can to avoid sending their children to Whitehaven Academy if they're going to be trapped their through their GCSE years with a very small cohort which can't be offered targeted setting or the wide range of options that they could get next door at St. Benedicts or at any of the other local schools. But if they knew their children would be able to choose between an integrated senior high school or the UTC at 14 this wouldn't be a problem.

This solution would mean that Whitehaven Academy and St. Benedict's would benef from each other's success. It would also protect the land at Whitehaven Academy that could provide wondeful sports facilities for the cluster of schools. Why not re-develop Copeland athletic stadium on site with an integrated 60m indoor track that could also be a school sports hall? Let's have some astroturf pitches. This land is directly opposite Whitehaven sports center so this all makes sense. And the current Copeland sports stadium is near the hospital which is developing world-leading training and could do with having space to expand. Let's find a way to make secondary eduction in Whitehaven greate for all our kids despite Westminster!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 16/07/2018 - 10:29

Rebecca - thanks for the update.  It's always useful to get the views of anyone on the ground.

I've been looking at the impact assessment for Energy Coast UTC.    It said:

'Despite the adverse impact the UTC could have on some local schools, it is evident from the statutory consultation findings and from the employer support for the project that there is demand for the UTC and that it will enhance parental choice in the area.'

Two of the schools said to be moderately affected by the UTC were St Benedict's and Whitehaven Scool.

Accounts for the UTC for y/e 31 August 2017* said recruitment for Sept 2017 was lower than necessary for the UTC to continue.  However, the UTC was in discussion with ESFA who were being 'extremely supportive'.    The UTC was having to repay funding because student numbers were lower than expected and low recruitment remained a 'significant risk'.

The UTC was judged to require improvement in Feb 2017 although the new head was praised for making significant improvements (too soon to make an impact).

The rocky financial basis of the UTC together with considerable staff turnover before inspectors arrived suggest the UTC shouldn't have been allowed to be set up in the first place.

I fear your solution wouldn't get the go ahead.  St Benedict's is a VA school; Whitehaven Academy is a sponsored academy.   I'm not sure St Benedict's parents, governing body and the Diocese would accept the diluting of Catholic education post 14.  And restricting Whitehaven Academy's intake to Key Stage 3 would mean a loss of income to the school.

As you have local knowledge, could you help with letting me know the state of Whitehaven School buildings in 2008?  I've assumed the buildings were in a poor state because there was an offer to rebuild based on the condition it would become an academy.  But is my assumption correct?   Was the rebuild a carrot to persuade a school to convert when a total rebuild wasn't essential at the time?


*Available from Companies House

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 16/07/2018 - 12:07

Key decision-makers in the local community (from all political levels) say that UTC was forced on them by central government. I know some people in business wanted it.

The UTC would have collapsed if Whitehaven Academy had not been an extreme sink school that children and parents were desperate to escape.

Your concerns about merging schools are unjustified because until recently the plan was to merge the schools with a single rebuild. Bright Tribe who pulled out unilaterally. Catholic schools are merging with non-catholic schools in different ways all over the country now. I know this was inconceivable just a few years ago.

In 2008 the Whitehaven buildings had reached the end of their natural life. They're a collection of buildings which were of different ages and were in different states of repair. It was possible to cope with their deterioration by taking buildings out of use as they became unsafe because numbers were falling.

The poor state of repair local schools was concealed by the much worse situation at Wyndham school nearby in Egremont. This was in a similar condition but was built on mine workings which were collapsing and was fundamentally unsafe. The buildings were shaking and the school was having to close at times - especially after heavy rain. Everyone had been focusing on getting a rebuild for Wyndham which had been impossible under Labour. You could only qualify for a rebuild if your school became a Labour academy but Wyndham couldn't do that because it didn't have a poor enough catchment.

Eventually they managed to get a rebuild by closing Ehenside school (where I was head of maths) and merging it into Wyndham. Ehenside had the right catchment to trigger the money for a rebuild and West Lakes academy was born. But geographically the merger was nonsense - most or all of Ehenside's students should have gone to Whitehaven School. And of course that would have helped their numbers.

So with all this going on the building problems at schools like Whitehaven didn't seem so bad but of course they were. Scotland is very near us and the comparison with what was going on their with their school rebuilding program was stark.

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