By Maria Cooke

I had been a member of staff at William Parker School for 11 years when Ark took over, but stayed only six months under the incoming regime. We were dictated to, bullied and treated disrespectfully. Many teachers left and senior management went to New York and Canada to recruit staff. They didn’t have enough to cover lessons and I know of at least one occasion when a teacher trying to cover two lessons led to an altercation between two unsupervised students.

Ark disbanded the The Combined Cadet Force (CCF), which was run from the school and enjoyed by many students. They closed the Design Technology department. They no longer offer drama. Parents had to purchase school uniforms from London, which led to a local company losing business. They introduced ‘Maths Mastery’ for Year 7 students – an Ark product which, I was told, cost the school £10,000, but was considered ineffective by most staff. The 2017 Ofsted report states that: “the wonderful sports facilities are not being used as much or as well as they could be.”

The intake for both Ark schools has decreased considerably. Parker has capacity for 1,300 students: there are now 604. Helenswood has capacity for 1,280: there are now 734.

My lack of faith in Ark was further vindicated when I attended both public consultation meetings, one on 25th September and one on 25th October. Yvonne Powell, Chief Executive, led both meetings, but her very demeanour smacked of insincerity: enthusiastic handshakes, continuous smiling, enthusing about how excited the teachers were, ‘they can’t wait’ and how wonderful it was all going to be. The other ARK staff present echoed this behaviour throughout. I know that Helenswood staff are not happy and I suspect that the same is true of Parker.

Ark admitted to a number of mistakes, including failing to work with the local community and other organisations like the rugby club and  gymnastics club, and asked what they could do for ‘our school’. They say they are improving the community involvement, but when questioned about their performance so far, they repeatedly talked about focusing on the future: looking forward, not backwards.

The message was unequivocal: “Continuing to operate two under-roll schools is not an option”.  Both had run financial deficits for many years. When asking why there was such a low intake, we were told at the first meeting: “because people aren’t applying”. Apparently, parents were enticed by the other schools’ ‘shiny new buildings and facilities’ (something the students ‘deserve’ we were told in the later meeting). Oh, and that a certain amount of confidence had been lost. I wonder why.

At the first meeting we were told that we live in a ‘co-ed world’ which young people should get used to, yet on the Ark website the fact that Helenswood and Parker were the only single sex schools in the area was used as a selling point to attract trainee teachers. Ark appears to change their argument depending on what they are trying to achieve.

They state that they will spend £6m on the school – creating a new sixth form space (which already exists), new toilets and changing facilities (which wouldn’t be required if the schools remained as they are), new reception areas (why?). Would these changes really cost £6m? Where is the money coming from? Would they enhance the education of our young people?

I came away from each meeting feeling very frustrated. The second one in particular had been unstructured, fragmented, unproductive and more like a general chat than a question and answer opportunity. I subsequently had a one-to-one meeting with Ms Powell, but nothing she said in it caused me to change my opinion.

I’ve researched single-sex schools vs co-ed and it would seem that there are pros and cons for both; but with Ark at the helm I fear that the cons will far outweigh the pros. Merging our schools would mean the history of both schools would be lost. There would be less choice for students and parents, no choice of single sex schools, those who have already opted for single sex school would have their choice taken away from them. Helenswood would technically close and students would have to reapply for places, either at the new co-ed or other schools. Staff would lose jobs – and, worst of all, we would still have Ark at the helm, basically trying to rectify previous mistakes.

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