Prince William School became an academy in 2015, and as with any change, excitement was mixed with uncertainty. One year after the change, the Oundle Chronicle interviewed Duncan Mills to discuss the direction of the school, the new leadership, last year’s Education Funding Agency report and certain concerns raised by parents.
Duncan Mills, the managing director of the EMLC academy trust, is originally from Northamptonshire, and has had a long career in education as a teacher, as an education advisor and working with the local authorities on strategic planning. As the managing director of EMLC, he is involved with Prince William School and other academies in Northamptonshire.
EMLC is a charitable trust that works with school leadership and improvement. The EMLC academy trust was incorporated in 2012 and runs schools in Milton Keynes and Northamptonshire including Prince William School.
Mr Mills addressed one of the concerns people have with regard to Academy trusts, namely whether or not they are actually more cost effective than local authority schools.
‘We would say so. But more important is the difference that we think we are making to the schools. We would argue that we are delivering the outcomes and we would evidence that in the fact that two of our schools have already moved to an Ofsted level ‘Good’ school. And we would argue that that in the 12 months we have been at PWS, improvements have been made there. In spite of the fact that this is a year in which there was change with the transition from 3 tier to 2 tier, many people were saying this would disrupt education. We can say that the trajectory of improvement has continued.’
One of the things the trust did in the review at the end of the year was to see where they were, what the outcomes were and to identify where there is still further ground to be made. In the new progress measure, where progress is measured by comparing performance from the year when they come in to performance in year 11, there have been improvements according to Mr Mills.
‘Our aspiration is that PWS becomes a school of choice for anyone in this area and anyone outside it. In terms of Northamptonshire, we wish to see the school at least in the top six.’
A lot of schools and trusts identify ‘progress’ as a key target. The Oundle Chronicle asked Mr Mills how progress could be achieved at a school like Prince William, and in turn how he would define ‘progress’.
‘Progress is about quality of teaching, quality of learning, and the environment. It’s about the aspirations and expectations that you set for young people.’
Mr Mills says progress is achieved by looking at things subject by subject, which he feels is one of the key values the trust brings to the school. ‘Individual subjects need to be looked at and progress that needs to be made needs to be identified.
‘It’s one thing to identify progress, it is another to think about how you bring about change. That is one of the things that Third Wave does for us. They work with the school, carry out audits and identify areas for improvement. We then have people who come in and deliver the training that will bring about that change.’
The discussion moved on to Mark Taitt, and when the development plans for the new science centre, theatre and sixth form centre that he had announced last year would be carried out.
The development plans for improving facilities will be delivered in two phases. The first phase will be the new science block, for which work will start in January 2017, as the first phase of changes can be conducted without interrupting the everyday operations of the school.
Changes to the sixth form centre have already begun, but there is currently no time frame with regards to the second phase.
‘Because the plans were made prior to the school converting to an academy, the funding was promised by the county council and was part of the legal development agreement. The local authority have given us their assurance that they will carry out those works.’
Mr Mills elaborated on the availability of this funding. ‘Whether the funding is in place, is for the county council to confirm. In principle we have agreed to a phasing of the works. We are anxious for the first phase to be completed, but in terms of the second phase, the council will be coming back to us to confirm that soon.’
Prince William’s high staff turnover was a concern addressed during the discussion.
‘Clearly any school wants to retain its good teachers and there is a difficulty for everyone, not just in Northamptonshire, recruiting good teachers in certain subjects is a challenge. But society is more mobile, people do travel greater distances to travel to go to work. When I first started teaching you could throw a net over where the teachers came from because most of them were local. Now people travel distance to get to work and they make choices about where they are going to work. We always try to get good teachers and we always try to ensure that we are providing development for our teachers. A lot of staff at PWS have gone through teacher development courses that Third Wave have organised because we want to hang on to good people. But it’s a fact of life that you will get a turnover of staff as people look for promotions and different opportunities.’
Mr Mills detailed the key aspirations the trust had for the school in next few years. Central to the trust’s strategic goals for the school is achieving a ‘good’ OFSTED rating in five terms and an outstanding one by 2018.
‘PWS is in the ‘requires improvement’ category, and we have set ourselves a goal of getting that school to a position where the school can be ‘good’ within five terms. That’s quite a pacey change. It’s not over a three year period. It’s about turning a school around and not being complacent.’
The relationship of the academy with the local community was spoken about as much as the OFSTED ratings. Academy trusts have been criticised for not engaging with their local communities, but the Chronicle was assured that the trust sought to have a balance between key professional experts and a local governing body.
‘We have brought in some key professional experts to assist us in what we’re doing, but we have also established a local governing body, that at present includes three parents, and one member of staff. We are not a trust that believes that we know best for what’s here. Those representatives from the local community, those parents, have got a real voice.’
In addition to the trust’s OFSTED ratings targets, they aim to have financial security and a balanced budget.
‘When we took PWS on it was a school that was running on a deficit budget. The EFA won’t allow that. It may have been something in the past that local authorities could do, because there might have been funding to prop that up. But when you become an academy, you can’t do that. We are in our second year of the school being part of the trust and we will deliver a budget that is not a deficit budget, but is one that has financial stability. Part of the support that the central team offers is a financial team that supports the school because that is an important part of running a good school.’
Mr Mills was clear that the trust wanted the school to be successful in the recruitment and retention of pupils.
‘I can remember a time when people from Corby would bring their children here. In recent years it has lost its way a little bit and the other schools have improved. For us, one of the markers of being an improved school will be when parents who have choice will decide that PWS is a school that they want to take their children to.’
‘This year, for pupils entering Year 7, we’ve had interest from parents living in and around Corby, so that word that the school is improving and continuing to improve, and we hope that will increase.’
Nevertheless, Mr Mills insisted that Prince William School has never been bad in terms of its outcomes, but he said he wants to see the school achieve outcomes the parents expect and the children deserve; he believes that both the change to an academy and the two to three tier change, which he believes has gone well, will help achieve those outcomes.
‘I’ve always had the notion that PWS should be in the top six schools in Northamptonshire. It’s been some way off that, but that is where we intend to put it.’