Wellspring – an Academy Trust with a difference

The adoption of the Academies Act in 2010 marked the start of a new era; it made it possible for all publicly funded schools in England to become academies, still publicly funded and accountable to the Department for Education (DfE) but with much greater autonomy.

Having greater independence and no ‘top-slicing’ of funding by local authorities had widespread appeal. Since then around 4,800 funding agreements have been entered into between the DfE and Academies/Trusts.  Around 30% of all state schools are now academies.

Academy Trusts vary dramatically in size – from those with just one academy to those with 50 plus. Some operate in specific geographic areas, while others operate far and wide.  The Government clearly believes that all schools should be part of multi-academy trusts (and that ‘big is beautiful’), though their attempt to force the issue met significant opposition.

Each is a company limited by guarantee but also has charitable status.  They are, in effect, charitable companies, though they are exempt from being registered with the Charities Commission on the grounds that they are accountable to the DfE.

Managing thousands of funding agreements must clearly be a massive challenge for the DfE.  It is hardly surprising that there have been some significant failures and some scandals in the Academy Sector.  Some Trusts are extremely large and diverse operations.  Smaller ones have the challenge of maintaining financial sustainability in the longer term.  All are impacted by new funding models and the Government’s aim of making significant savings to its education budget.  Though all Academy Trusts are defined as having charitable aims (ie, to educate children and young people), their modus operandi varies significantly.

One ‘Trust with a difference’ is Wellspring Academy Trust.  The Trust joined the Chamber late last year, being keen to draw on the Chamber’s support and networking opportunities.  Wellspring’s support centre is in Barnsley and its schools are mainly in Leeds, Barnsley and Lincolnshire.  The Trust’s 15th school (its first secondary school) will join in September.  The others are a mix of primary schools, special schools and ‘alternative provision’ schools (commonly known as pupil referral units).  The Trust was formed in 2012, with the highly acclaimed Barnsley College as its sponsor.

Values

From the outset, the Trust’s values were of paramount importance; ‘making a difference’ may sound like rhetoric, though this was its over-riding aim and still is.  None of the schools joining the Trust have been ‘quick wins’; each brought its own challenges.  The first primary school to join the Trust was in a challenging area of Barnsley and is described as the CEO, Mark Wilson, as having been ‘broken’.  Mark led the school for an interim period when he first joined Wellspring, prior to being appointed CEO of the Trust in 2014. The school was the 32nd worst performing primary school in the country in 2013 and is now amongst the top 5% performing primary schools nationally.

Mark is a straight-talking Yorkshireman who is intent on challenging injustice and poor practice.  Joining Wellspring was a perfect fit for his values, though leading such substantial growth and some challenging situations in his three years in the role hasn’t been easy.  However, that’s not the way he (fully supported by Wellspring’s Trust Board) would want it.

The Trust’s last strategic plan included the aim of having 25 academies across Yorkshire & the Humber.  The plan for the next three years is currently under development, though will no doubt reflect the changing world in which Academy Trusts operate and the challenges and opportunities that Wellspring will face.

Unlike the start-up period, when the Trust had to actively seek out opportunities for expansion, approaches are now made to Mark on an ongoing basis, both from individual schools, small Trusts and the Regional Schools Commissioners, whose role it is to find suitable ‘homes’ for schools which are performing poorly.

Our values mean that we try our best to find solutions.  After all, if a school is performing badly the main casualties are the children and young people whose lives are affected …. we don’t  reject approaches simply because they’re challenging and may not quite fit the mould’ said Mark.

The Trust has become widely acknowledged for its achievements in Special and Alternative provision.  ‘Running these schools isn’t an easy option, but it is crucial that it’s done well.  We have a fabulous team at the Trust, for whom doing our very best for those in our care is our absolute priority’.

A source of pride to Wellspring is its success in securing Government funding for five ‘free schools’ – four in Lincolnshire and one in Leeds, which is a new primary school that will be known as Elements Primary Academy.

Off the radar

For far too long some children and young people have been ‘poor relations’, often accommodated in sub-standard buildings and without the support and facilities they so desperately need’ added Mark.  ‘Also, they’re often transported significant distances to and from the schools which can accommodate them – this being a strain on the child and a drain on public finances’.

Undoubtedly, the provision of excellent standards of teaching and learning in all the academies within the Trust is our priority, though we don’t believe that it stops there.   So many children and young people find themselves ‘off the radar’.  More than ever before there’s a desperate need to provide greater care and support to the most vulnerable within the education system.  Too often we’re hearing about growing mental health issues amongst the young, major increases in the level of permanent exclusions from school, young people being groomed .…. and so it goes on.  It’s no surprise that many of the young people caught up in the scandals we hear about have been excluded from school and/or have mental health issues.  In many cases they simply slip through the system ….’

We at Wellspring take many of these children into our Alternative Academies – the ones that many other schools and academies are keen to ‘get off their books’ said Mark.  ‘The various services which exist to provide support need to work much more closely together and we intend to do our very best to achieve it’.

Wellspring operates across five local authority areas and Mark is intent on influencing each as much as possible, in addition to contributing to shaping education policy more broadly.

Broadening Wellspring’s focus

It’s clear that there are lots of exciting initiatives in Wellspring’s pipeline, all aiming to provide broader support to children and young people and to provide joined-up thinking and approaches where these are needed.

Such initiatives include:

  • the creation of a Community Investment Company (CIC), which will engage in a range of activities, including the creation of opportunities for young people to engage in social enterprises
  • increased focus on working with colleges and businesses, to identify next steps for young people
  • the creation of ‘Mindspace’, which is a service to offer early intervention and preventative support, whilst promoting children and young people’s resilience towards positive mental health.

Leading the way in Leeds

Achieving Wellspring’s ambitions requires collaboration with others, not least the local authorities in which the Trust’s schools operate.  An outstanding example of this is the development of Springwell Leeds, including three new ‘special’ schools in Leeds, in association with Leeds City Council.

The Academy will provide education for children and young people with Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) needs. The Academy is currently based on six temporary sites across Leeds which collectively have over 170 students aged 5-16.

It will ultimately comprise four sites, including a refurbished site for younger children.  The first of the new developments will be operational from January 2018.  By September 2018 the schools will collectively have c340 students.

Springwell Leeds is the outcome of a first of its kind partnership between a forward-thinking Local Authority and an Academy Trust which has substantial experience in SEMH and is entirely values-driven’ said Mark.  Leeds City Council has committed £45m to the project, in order to provide three state of the Art Special Schools for students with diagnosed SEMH which will be managed and run by Wellspring.

The buildings were designed by Wellspring, based on the design of Springwell Learning Community in Barnsley, which is a provision renowned nationally for the high quality care and education it provides to young people with SEMH statements of special need.

Said Scott Jacques, Executive Principal of Springwell Leeds Academy ‘Our vision is to provide the best possible care and education for children and young people who have SEMH needs. Unconditional Positive Regard is at the centre of what we do and we are creating an academy that is welcoming, caring and safe.  We believe that all its pupils can be supported and empowered to succeed.  We are creating individual and personalised pathways for each student, built around their varied needs and helping them achieve positive outcomes and preparing them for their onward destinations into continuing education, work or training.’

‘In order to achieve this we have developed a curriculum which is engaging, creative and innovative, providing opportunities for academic progression as well as vocational learning. Working with local agencies, we are building a strong therapeutic offer that draws from a range of disciplines and will further support the development and progression of our children and young people.’

Said Mark Wilson, ‘This partnership is already transforming the life chances of young people in Leeds.  The opening of the new academies will mark a further escalation of the locally held ambition to secure brighter futures for young people who have SEMH needs but deserve the best possible education and support that it is possible to provide.’

It’s clear that Wellspring will continue to push the boundaries in the interests of the children and young people in its schools, ‘making the difference’ that the Trust was created to do.

If any Chamber members are interested in learning more about ways of potentially engaging with the Trust – in terms of involvement in its governance, providing employment opportunities or in other ways, please contact Karen Froggatt, Company Secretary on 01226 720742 or k.froggatt@wellspringacademies.org.uk

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