A HEADTEACHER and her team at a Swindon academy feel they have been penalised for improving the school’s performance and its budgeting.

When Sherryl Bareham took over the top job at The Dorcan Academy in 2015, the school had been placed in serious weaknesses by Ofsted.

It was therefore required to join a multi-academy trust – a body which runs a number of academy schools and provides both back office support and help in educational performance.

But that comes at a cost. Mrs Bareham said: “You have to pay an annual fee to join, and it would mean that we may have to lay off the very staff who made the improvements, which is the last thing you want to do.”

The academy looked at trusts and decided its best fit was with Excalibur Academies Trust, which runs 11 schools and is based in Wiltshire.

Excalibur agreed to take Dorcan on as long as additional funding was secured to improve its buildings and was promised a grant of £2.8 million along with a school improvement grant of £230,000.

Mrs Bareham said: “We were told that we wouldn’t have to make any redundancies in the first year, so the governors agreed to join the trust, by a narrow margin.”

Due to the long delay in joining, Ofsted revisited the school and judged it to have improved significantly and the academy was no longer obliged to join.

The Dorcan Academy trustees still felt it was the best long-term option but then at the final hurdle the Department for Education said the £230,000 grant must be offset against any reserves the school had built up.

Ms Broderstad, the chief finance officer, said: “At this time we’d built up reserves of about £300,000 after having a deficit a few years earlier of nearly £500,000. So we weren’t going to get any of the grant, and would have had to pay all the legal and marketing costs of joining the trust.”

The loss of the £230,000 meant that Dorcan Academy wouldn’t be able to join Excalibur without redundancies, and so the trustees - the school’s governors – changed their minds and decided not to join.

Mrs Bareham said: “If I had £180,000 to spend, instead of spending it on a management fee, I could spend it on staff on the ground who can make a difference to school improvement.”

“There’s not a great amount of evidence that joining a trust has any impact on outcomes for children.”

Ms Broderstad added: “If we hadn’t made really significant cuts and built up the reserves, if we’d still been running a deficit, we’d have had that improvement grant and could have joined the trust.”

Having decided not to join Excalibur, Mrs Bareham was dismayed that the £2.8m for much-needed building repairs would be lost.

She said: “We need it for rewiring electrics, new roofs, replacing the old fire alarm system. The building’s not falling down, but it’s getting old.

“It feels like we’ve been penalised for making improvements in performance and budgets. More importantly it feels like the children here are being penalised, they should have better buildings and facilities. They’re the important ones here.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Dorcan Academy made the decision to withdraw from the transfer to Excalibur Academies Trust.

“When this decision was made, the academy leadership team were aware that this meant the school would no longer benefit from the transfer package offered to Excalibur by DfE to support educational and capital improvements at the school.

“However, we have been clear that Dorcan Academy remains eligible to apply for further capital funding.”

The Dorcan Academy disputes this, saying it has received a letter which states it may be prevented from receiving further capital funding unless it joins a multi-academy trust.

Swindon Borough Council’s cabinet member for school’s attainment, Mary Martin, said: “The DfE are promoting the benefits of multi academy trusts rather than single trusts and that may be influencing this decision on funding. It is disappointing that the school is missing out on some capital funding. I will take the opportunity to congratulate the school on its improved performance, that is great news for all pupils.”

The council’s Labour group spokesman for education, Carol Shelley, said: “For the government to treat a Swindon school this way is disgraceful. It seems the government has resorted to bullying tactics to force schools in to joining multi-academy trusts regardless of whether it’s in the best interest of school children.

“From what has been reported you can only say that the school was held to ransom by the Department for Education, dangling £2.8m worth of school building improvements as a carrot to joining a Multi-Academy Trust only to be withdrawn when the school did not think it was in their best interest.

“What we need is an education department that is focussed on doing what is in the best interests of the students. Not a government department driven by ideological dogma with little thought on where our taxpayers money would be best spent.”