Bristol University 'proud' of work with controversial Merchant Venturers' schools

Merchants Academy in Withywood with, inset, Evelyn Welch, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bristol, the co-sponsor of the Venturers Trust, which runs the school
-Credit: (Image: Bristol Live)

Bosses at Bristol University said they ‘remain proud’ of their work as part of the Venturers Trust, even though the multi-academy trust’s two biggest schools have both been rated as ‘inadequate’ in damning Ofsted reports.

The university has defended its role as a co-sponsor of the Venturers Trust, which it set up alongside the Society of Merchant Venturers to take on the SMVs’ nine schools in Bristol back in 2017.

The multi-academy trust bosses have now agreed to effectively hand over their schools to a national academy chain, E-ACT, a decision that the University of Bristol said it supported. The University and the Society of Merchant Venturers have been criticised by local politicians, including South Bristol’s MP, for ‘letting down’ a generation of young people in communities like Hartcliffe and Withywood.

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The University of Bristol said it was ‘disappointed’ with the Ofsted report for Merchant’s Academy - it was the second time in the last three reports where Ofsted inspectors said the school was ‘inadequate’.

“We are disappointed with the results of the Ofsted report for Merchant’s Academy and acknowledge how difficult this has been for parents, students and staff at the school,” a spokesperson for the university said.

“As co-sponsors of the Venturers Trust, we support the handover to E-ACT, which was announced last year. We believe being part of a much larger national multi-academy trust will provide all the schools with a positive future and help to ensure the very best outcomes for their pupils,” he added.

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The University of Bristol’s role as co-sponsor of the Venturers Trust was intended to bring more academic support to the schools already run by the Society of Merchant Venturers, who went into state-funded education back in the late 2000s by taking on council-run schools like Withywood Comprehensive, and turning them into academies.

But many of the schools have struggled, and the continued involvement of the Society of Merchant Venturers in running state-funded schools in Bristol has been controversial. One senior figure at the SMVs lost a libel case to education campaigner Christine Townsend - who is now in charge of the education brief at Bristol City Council - while the former headteacher of the Venturers Trust’s flagship school told Bristol Live he thought the SMVs were ‘not fit to run schools’ in the city.

In March 2022, that school, now called Montpelier High, received a shock inadequate rating from Ofsted, with strong criticism of the leadership of the school. Two more monitoring visit inspections were also critical of the school’s leadership, so in autumn last year, the decision was taken to merge the schools with E-ACT.

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Since the second inadequate rating for Merchants Academy in Withywood this month, local councillor Kerry Bailes said the children of South Bristol had been let down by the Venturers Trust, while South Bristol MP Karin Smyth said the Society of Merchant Venturers should not be involved with education - something that would appear to be about to become a reality this summer with the E-ACT takeover.

There has also been long-term criticism of the accessibility to the University of Bristol, particularly from South Bristol. In 2018, the university’s own researchers found just 8.2 per cent of 18-year-olds left school and went to university, compared to 100 per cent of school-leavers who live in Clifton, while Karin Smyth’s South Bristol parliamentary constituency has consistently seen among the lowest percentage of school-leavers going to higher education.

Work to increase the opportunities for young people in Hartcliffe and Withywood to go on to university suffered something of a blow last September when Merchants Academy controversially scrapped every single one of its academic A-Levels at its sixth form, leaving just vocational post-16 courses.

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But the University of Bristol said it was ‘proud’ of its efforts on that and other work with the Venturers Trust.

“Despite challenges, there have been many positive elements of our work with the Venturers Trust which we remain proud of, including the development of bespoke outreach schemes and creating guaranteed offers for pupils from the schools,” a university spokesperson said.

“Our staff and students have supported as governors by providing professional development for teachers and working as mentors and learning support assistants.

“We look forward to working with E-ACT, along with other organisations in the city, to deliver on ongoing commitments to improve educational outcomes for learners in our local communities,” he added.