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‘Failed’ Clerkenwell academy: how many millions were wasted?

Government spending watchdog set to demand answers as college with just 49 students closes

25 January, 2019 — By Calum Fraser

Tech City College, which opened as STEM 6 college after a five-floor office block in City Road was refurbished in 2013 at taxpayers’ expense

A GOVERNMENT spending watchdog is to probe how many millions of pounds of public money has been wasted on a “failed” academy project, the Tribune can reveal.

MP Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), said last night (Thursday) she would demand answers about the collapse of Tech City College in Clerkenwell.

Aspirations Academies Trust (AAT), the school’s operator, announced last week that, in principle, they had agreed with the Department for Education (DfE) to close the school.

A five-floor office block in City Road was refurbished in 2013 – at taxpayers’ expense – to open what was then known as the STEM 6 college.

The sixth-form – rebranded as Tech City College in 2015 – was meant to provide for hundreds of students, but it now has just 49 enrolled.

Ms Hillier said: “I’ll be working with [Islington South and Finsbury MP] Emily Thornberry to get answers from the government about what happened and how much it [Tech City College] has cost the taxpayer.”

It comes in the week the PAC published a report criticising the DfE’s governance of the academies programme.

MP Meg Hillier and Ken Muller, a spokesman for the Islington branch of the National Education Union

The college was set up as a free school by a group called the Skills and Development Agency, despite opposition from unions and nearby schools.

Teachers went on strike in 2014 after the governing body tried to enforce zero-hours contracts. Schools watchdog Ofsted then judged the school to be inadequate in all categories in 2015.

Ken Muller, a spokesman for the Islington branch of the National Education Union, said: “The first sponsors were a joke, it was a total Mickey Mouse operation. There was little to no structures or procedures in order.

“The government seem to believe that schools are like supermarkets and you can just open and close them at will. The children and the teachers will suffer here. We feel totally vindicated in the concerns we expressed from the outset.”

Free schools – a flagship policy of former Conservative education secretary Michael Gove – can be set up by an organisation or a group of individuals.

They are funded directly by the DfE, like academies, and are not controlled by the council.

AAT, a 14-school multi-academy chain, took control of the college in 2015.

Ofsted bumped its rating up to “requires improvement” in 2017.

Tech City College

An AAT spokesman said they felt the financial position of the college had “become unviable” as they could not attract enough students.

In 2015 there were 327 students enrolled, but by 2017 this had fallen to 237.

The spokesman said one of the reasons they could not fill the school was because there was a “large amount of post-16 provision” in the area.

The DfE has agreed to the closure request and a consultation will now be held with a view to shutting the school in July.

One pupil, who did not want to be named, told the Tribune: “We have all been talking about it. We do not want the school to close. I am in my last year so it doesn’t affect me so much, but there are pupils in the year below me who are really worried.”

Pupils and students will be offered positions at other AAT schools “where possible”, according to the spokesman.

AAT have several schools in west London, with the nearest to Tech City College being Rivers Academy in Feltham.

Islington Council leader Cllr Richard Watts said: “It’s disappointing that, yet again, the government’s ludicrous obsession with the free school and academy model has seen millions of pounds wasted in another failed project, money which could and should have been invested in mainstream education.

“It’s also deeply unfair that the biggest losers are those young people whose education has been treated as an experiment by the government.”

The Tribune contacted the DfE for a comment but they said they could not respond due to an administration error.

The Tribune also contacted representatives of the group who opened STEM 6 as a free school for comment, but they did not respond.

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