It is one of the best-known academy chains in England. It has a super-high-profile leader and reportedly one of the highest numbers of applications per place in London. But now even West London Free School Academy Trust (WLFSAT) is feeling the chill from icy financial winds buffeting schools, its recent governing body minutes reveal.
The minutes, shown to Education Guardian, record that Toby Young, WLFSAT’s chief executive, was asked by a trustee earlier this year to phone other schools to ask whether they would like to join the trust as it sought economies of scale.
The minutes also reveal that, as of 2015, 60% of parents at the secondary school were paying £35 a month towards extracurricular activities. This helped generate a £100,000 school fund, which helped meet a £44,000 deficit on a hockey trip to South Africa.
The four-school trust (three primaries and a secondary) also considered but backed away from a merger with another high-profile chain: Future Academies, chaired by the academies minister, Lord Nash.
Minutes of a trust meeting last December say WLFSAT needs nine schools to be “sustainable in the long term”. In the March minutes, Hywel Jones, the secondary school’s head warns of “12% cuts in funding (in real terms) going forward”, partly owing to the end of the five-year “startup” funding the secondary school had received under the free schools programme, which stopped in August.
Jones suggested the trust approach schools in the east of England that Ofsted had rated as “requires improvement” to join WLFSAT. “The geography is not ideal but the schools would give us financial stability,” he said.
In July, Young reported having approached 16 schools “with two replies received so far”, and with a “pitch” being made to another institution with close links to the government: Greenwich free school.
Businessman Justin Tooth, a trustee, then suggested Young phone the “top five schools on the list” and follow up in writing.
Minutes for the latest trust meeting, in July, state that its three primaries were likely to report a deficit budget for 2015-16, with the secondary predicting a small surplus of £4,831. In response Young, who highlights the schools’ good academic records, tells Education Guardian that final accounts for the year will actually report a surplus of £217,897, meaning the trust has reserves of £865,311.
He says: “The trust is certainly looking at ways to grow. However, that’s because we want to make the trust sustainable over the long term, not because we are in any financial difficulty. It’s no secret that schools are facing some budget cuts in the coming years and we’ve been looking at different ways to cope with that. As for ‘sponsorship’ … we’re certainly not intending to become the Kentucky Fried Chicken free school any time soon.”
Young says he tried to phone the five schools but did not get through.
He is still WLFSAT’s chief executive, but works only one day a week, combining the job with being “director designate” at the national free schools support group, the New Schools Network. A new WLFSAT chief executive will start in the new year.
Pupils and staff square up to academy trust
Staff at Whitehaven academy in Cumbria calling for an academy trust to go have been joined by students. More than 120 pupils, including most of the sixth form, have signed a petition backing staff who plan to strike if the Bright Tribe trust, which runs the school, does not leave by Tuesday, the Whitehaven News reports.
Unions are balloting on strike action over the state of the buildings.
Last week, Bright Tribe pulled out of plans to take over two schools in Durham over reported financial issues, including difficulties with private finance initiative arrangements. It told us long-running plans to take on three more schools in the north-east of England are on track but offered no further comment.