Stacey James is an example that even the best policies may not always work out. As a student at East Brighton College of Media Arts (Comart), which was established six years ago with the "Fresh Start" policy, she was among the last pupils to take exams there before it closed down. The government’s promise to scrap failing schools and create something better was aimed at helping pupils like her. However, Comart’s closure last week proved otherwise.
Sandra James, Stacey’s mother, is disappointed that Comart had to shut down. It had educated three out of four of her children under different names and management, such as Marina High and Stanley Deason Comprehensive. Despite being impressed with what the school offered during Stacey’s enrolment, Sandra felt Comart was poorly run as it failed to deliver proper drama education without a drama teacher. The school’s fantastic new drama hall was unused, and extra-curricular activities like the school orchestra and competitive teams were no longer available.
Stacey, who has just completed her GCSEs, remains unaware of the ongoing debate about city academies, an initiative hailed as Fresh Start’s successor. The introduction of 200 more city academies over the next five years is part of the government’s promise to turn around poorly performing schools. While academies require a £2m investment from private sponsors and government funding, like Fresh Start, a new school name and teachers under the academies’ principle aim to save failing schools.
Fresh Start was proven to be unsuccessful as it failed to prevent middle-class flight, causing the school to close down. The Whitehawk estate, where Comart was situated, falls within the most deprived 5% of England’s neighbourhoods with high poverty and disaffection. The school’s student population, of which 43% had a free school meal, was almost four times higher than the national average.
Nick Davies’s feature in The Guardian, "Schools in Crisis," highlights the struggling school on the brink of special measures. However, the few middle-class students who continued on to study at prestigious universities disappeared after Stanley Deason landed in special measures with GCSE A*-C percentage standing at only 13%. Even with the rebranding of the school as Marina High School, which came with a new headteacher and management, the school fell back into special measures. As a bid to attract more middle-class students, Brighton and Hove LEA settled on Fresh Start. However, the school’s "superhead," Tony Garwood, quit soon after the school opened, along with 18 of its 58 teachers and the chair of governors. It fell back into special measures before another head, Jill Clough, saved it before taking early retirement. The school once again fell under caretaker management, and its roll kept declining. Its exam results failed to exceed the 2002 peak when 17% of pupils achieved five A*-Cs at GCSE.
Brighton and Hove Council leader, Ken Bodfish, refused to blame either Fresh Start or the council for the school’s downfall. The school’s failure to gain its local community’s confidence was the primary factor that led to its closure. Bodfish says, "when schools fall out of favour, the real problem with parental choice is that popular schools get even more popular, leaving schools like Comart empty."
The council is facing a costly burden in the aftermath of their failed PFI contract. They are now obliged to pay at least £4.5 million to withdraw themselves from this 22-year agreement. The severity of the situation is exacerbated by the council’s financial situation, rendering necessary funds to be borrowed for payment. Keith Taylor, a Green councillor, underscores that there is no set amount as of yet, and it is unclear when a final number will be determined.
The closure of Comart has had a domino effect on the education system, resulting in several other schools being adversely impacted. In total, 23 primary schools and 21 secondary schools have undergone a "makeover". One primary school and three secondary schools have since closed, one school has merged, and two other schools have been flagged for additional oversight. The situation has caused an uproar, especially among individuals such as Andy Schofield, who used to be a management consultant for the school and now heads the successful secondary school, Varndean. He blames the council for not offering a "proper survival plan." Mr. Schofield believes the council’s disastrous Fresh Start initiative has resulted in the closure of a school that had competent staff members.
The council did try to rescue the situation by looking for a sponsor to establish an academy at the Comart site. Unfortunately, their plan fell through, and there will be no school of any sort next term. Hawker, a spokesperson from the council, contends that the government has learned from the mistakes made during the Fresh Start period and believes that City academies will be more prosperous. With better funding and advanced preparation, they are more likely to succeed than Fresh Start initiatives. Therefore, the council’s effort to establish an academy should not be viewed as a failure, but rather a learning opportunity for future education initiatives.
Helene Mulholland, who is the proud parent of two former pupils of Marina High and Stanley Deason, shared her views on the matter.