A SPECIALIST council team is tackling high absence rates at two city secondary schools, despite them being academies.
Oxfordshire County Council has confirmed it is sending in a school improvement officer to St Gregory the Great Catholic School, in Cricket Road, and Oxford Academy, in Sandy Lane West, Littlemore.
Both are academies and fall under the control of their sponsors – the Dominic Barberi Multi Academy Company and the Diocese of Oxford, respectively.
But Melinda Tilley, pictured, the county council’s member for education, said the council-paid officers were intervening to establish why the absence rates were so poor even though the academies could ignore their advice.
She said: “We are in a bit of a difficult position because academies don’t have to take our help or listen to us.
“We do often find they do want our advice, as they want to find out what the problem is too, but they are under no obligation now they are academies.”
Department for Education (DfE) statistics show St Gregory the Great had an absence rate of 7.1 per cent for the autumn term, making it the second worst Catholic secondary school in the country according to John Howson, the county council’s Liberal Democrat spokesman for education.
The average in the county for long-term absence – missing at least 22 sessions (half a day) of school a term – was 6.7 per cent, compared to a national picture of 5.9 per cent.
Oxford Academy, which is in special measures, had absence rates of 7.9 per cent, which Mr Howson said puts it in the bottom 150 in the country. A council officer has been helping at the school for several months.
A DfE spokesman said local authorities do retain an interest in schools and children’s welfare, but it was up to the individual academies to allow local authority visits.
He added: “Academies are held more rigorously to account than council-run schools. We have consistently demonstrated quick and decisive action if children are being denied the education they deserve – no matter what type of school they attend.”
Both schools said they are actively tackling absenteesim.
John Hussey, executive headteacher at St Gregory the Great and a director of sponsor Dominic Barberi Multi Academy Company, said he was surprised by the council’s intervention given it had been given an award by it for reducing persistent absenteeism this year.
He said the winter had higher absences due to illness – which accounted for 3.77 per cent of absences during that period.
Mr Hussey said: “We are on the case. We are going to have to give more resources into getting out there and getting them into school, but we have our budget and that has to go towards things like employing teachers.”
Niall McWilliams, principal of Oxford Academy, said: “It is improving but we know it is still not good enough. We are very conscious of it and there are strategies in place to drive absences down.”
Anne Davey, director of education for the Oxford Academy sponsor the Diocese of Oxford said: “We take attendance issues very seriously. The Governing body of the academy monitors attendance on a monthly basis and is working with the senior leadership team to address this. Next year we will have mentors working with families and students to help them understand the importance of going to school.
“Despite being an academy and therefore not maintained by the local authority, we are fortunate to have a really good working relationship and benefit from county council support in a number of areas of the school’s development.”
Mr Howson was concerned about the council stepping in with an academy, where responsibility lies with the DfE.
He said: “For a multi-academy trust to be employing an expensive executive headteacher it should really have been on top of the problem. I have asked whether Ofsted and the new Regional Schools Commissioner should intervene.
“The county council is short of money and it raises the question about who runs the schools now that they are academies. If it is the DfE then they should be spending the cash to sort it out and the county council saving its money for other things.”
AT A GLANCE
The average for long-term absence – missing at least 22 sessions
(half a day) of school a term
- The Oxford Academy 7.9%
- St Gregory the Great 7.1%
- North Oxfordshire Academy 6.8%
- Oxfordshire 6.7%
- Nationally 5.9%
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