Single Sex Education Set To End In Hastings

Ark is an education charity that, according to its mission statement, “exists to make sure that all children, regardless of their background, have access to a great education and real choices in life”.

One choice that it seems that Ark will no longer give children in Hastings from next September is to be educated in a single sex school. Of the four secondary schools in Hastings and St Leonards, two – Hastings Academy (formerly Hillcrest) and St Leonards Academy (formerly The Grove) are already co-educational from Year 7. Ark are proposing that Helenswood and William Parker, the two secondary schools which they run in Hastings that have hitherto – and for their entire previous existence over many decades – been single sex for girls and boys respectively, will merge and also become co-educational throughout.

Ark have not sought to make a virtue of this. But nor does it seem from their press release issued earlier this month that they have even noticed that it might be an issue. Their rationale is overtly financial. They say their merger proposal has been made because both schools ‘have too few students and require significant investment in their buildings, which are currently spread across three sites.’

The press statement goes on to express Ark’s belief that “our plans will build upon the traditions and expertise of both schools and ensure that we are able to use these strong foundations to create a high-performing school for the community which is sustainable into the future”.

There may be differing political views as to whether the traditions and expertise of Helenswood and William Parker were creatively built upon by the local education authority in turning them three decades ago from selective grammar schools, which they were previously, into comprehensives. There will now be further questioning of whether such traditions and expertise as now remain will be enhanced by co-education – Ark have set up a  ‘consultation’ process that commenced earlier this week  and will run until the end of October for parents and others affected to have their say. What is plain, however, is that the background to the proposed merger is one of falling admissions to both schools, reflecting the majority choices made by local parents. They have been voting with their preference forms to choose what is on offer for their children at Hastings Academy or St Leonards rather than at either Ark school.

It could be that the popular majority do indeed favour co-education, and that the merger will lead to a revival of favour for the new Ark entity. However, that would still undeniably entail a loss of choice for those who don’t.

Edwina Fuller is a former parent and teaching assistant at Helenswood with a role in behaviour management, as an administrative assistant to heads of year, as a form tutor and as cover supervisor giving particular support to vulnerable students. She was also a member of the PTA, then governor for two decades up to the Ark takeover in 2011.  She says that “the whole ethos of both schools was the advantage to both girls and boys of receiving single sex education. It is both known and accepted in educational circles that both do better in single sex classes during the teenage years. This is especially true for girls: they are intimidated by the presence of boys in class, particularly in the STEM subjects [science, technology, engineering and maths].”  Mrs Fuller also believes that the more vulnerable and weaker girls “lose protection”, and wonders how pupils from a Muslim background will cope.

The real reason, in her view, why the schools have suffered such a fall in admissions is because of “the recent leadership styles, the poor results ‘despite all the hard work of the staff’, and the loss of the previous excellent reputations of the two schools. Helenswood in particular had the best pastoral care reputation within the area and many vulnerable students were taken in there, having failed to achieve, or having been removed from the other two co-educational schools in Hastings. There was a real sense of community among the staff”. That, she says, has been lost during Ark’s tenure.

No failing students
She goes on to report that, when Ark took over in 2011, she, like all the other governors of the school remaining from the previous regime, was interviewed by a manager for purposes of re-appointment. As a former teaching assistant, she asked what the policy of the new management was in relation to weaker pupils  – “How do you support the most vulnerable?’  She was told: “We don’t have failing students in an Ark academy”. And she was not re-appointed.

Over subsequent years she has watched from the sidelines as most of her professional colleagues at Helenswood have left or been shown the door. Of nearly 50 teaching staff who were working there then, she can count only 14 who are still on the payroll.

Some of this turnover was rendered inevitable by the drop in pupil numbers – from around 1,400 when her daughter was being taught there to less than 730 now. But another more recently departed teacher, who doesn’t want to be named, says that around 35 members of staff were made redundant two years ago, some replaced by teachers who were either not professionally qualified or, even if they were, not in the subjects they were asked to teach. Many of those that remained were being required to travel between classes in up to three different venues (the lower and upper sites of Helenswood plus the William Parker site over a mile away) several times a day in what should have been break time.

‘Requiring improvement’
OFSTED, for what it is worth, rated Ark Helenswood as ‘good’ following its inspection in April this year, ‘requiring improvement’ only in the area of personal development, behaviour and welfare, with some criticisms of exclusion levels and low attendances by disadvantaged pupils and those with special needs.

Ark William Parker, on the other hand, last inspected in October 2017, was assessed as ‘requiring improvement’ in every aspect of performance. The quality of teaching came in for particular negative findings. As for discipline, ‘some pupils do not routinely behave in an acceptable manner in lessons and around the school site. A few pupils, especially in the younger years, behave in a disrespectful way. Teachers do not manage poor behaviour consistently well.’

Perhaps the mixing in with the girls of Helenswood will raise behavioural standards. Or not. Time will no doubt tell.

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