#HandsoffWHX guest blog – It’s their lives you’re wasting

By Spencer Ayres, a Waltham Holy Cross parent and former teacher.

Originally posted on medium.com and reposted here with permission.

I’m a parent of 4 children, a former school teacher and an entrepreneur building an education company, this issue cuts across both my personal and professional life.

“Daddy, I know who invented the Internet” — she said whilst bounding towards me as I entered the door after work, which was followed by immense feelings of joy and pride in us both.

Regardless of political perspective, I’m sure you agree that education is a fundamental right for everyone and that everyone in the world deserves the best education possible. This is exactly what I believe my 6-year-old daughter in Year 1 of Waltham Holy Cross Primary School (WHXPS) has been receiving since she started there two years ago. Her confidence has grown tremendously, she adores school, loves learning and is making progress above and beyond our expectations.

This happens often. She’s so eager to share what she’s learnt with anyone; her mum and me, her brothers and sister and pretty much anyone who will listen for long enough. It’s not boasting, just pure joy at learning something new. The kind of joy of learning that’s all too often cast aside as children move to secondary school.

Unfortunately, it seems like the perils of ‘the system’ might now be forced upon her prematurely.

The school was subject to the scrutiny of Ofsted last December and it didn’t go well. The result suggests that the school is failing the children and needs to go through drastic changes in order to improve. WHXPS was judged to be Inadequate and put into Special Measures.

It is not just myself that believes this to be an unfair, unjustified and unsatisfactory judgement — around 300 school parents joined an open event to hear from the Senior Leadership Team, Governors & Local Authority and to vocalise their own stories. We heard from very angry and confused parents who shared my view of the good that the school is doing. People talked about the recent years of turmoil that have so drastically been turned around — “our children have never been so happy and never made such good progress”. 
This is not just a school, it is a community of passionate, caring and honest people that only want what is best for their children and their community.

Some of those parents, frustrated, angry and anxious about their children’s future, have worked tirelessly to research & unearth what, at worst looks like a series of cover-ups, corruption & conflicts of interest and at best, negligence & incompetence on behalf of Ofsted, the Regional School Commission & the chosen Academy Trust. This story is only just getting out there and it’s only happening thanks to the tenacity, perseverance & passion of some incredible parents.

It’s time to join this small band of superstars to bring this clear injustice to the attention of everyone so that we can stop it from going any further.

Aditya Chakrabortty wrote this fair, honest and heartfelt article for the Guardian on Monday. You should absolutely read it.

For me, there are three distinct elements to this story:

1. The deplorable Ofsted inspection — that in no way represents the true effectiveness of the provision in the school
2. The draconian Academies Act — hastily implemented the midst of the referendum campaign that gives the Government the power to intervene in the running of a school that requires special measures by making an Academy order
3. The dubious (at best) approach taken to decide the Multi Academy Trust (MAT) who will take over the running of the school.

I’ll go into detail on each of these now, however it may be worth noting that there is a chance that these three elements are linked — I hesitate here (as I really don’t want to believe it) but there are many who would argue that the Ofsted judgement was deemed “inadequate” for the purpose of the school being forced into becoming an academy in order to be taken over by a specific MAT. But that sounds way too crazy and far-fetched to happen to our little community school…?

The Deplorable Ofsted Instection

First some context about the recent history of the school. 
The school was recently amalgamated from separate infant and junior schools. The junior school was in special measures and had a Multi Academy Trust called Lilac Sky as a school improvement partner. During this time, the school performance continued to fall, children became unhappy and dreaded going to school and the budget seemed to be spent on purple furniture and fittings, rather than on the education of the children.

The two schools joined together in September 2015 as an LEA Maintained school. In January 2017, Erica Barnet joined the school as Head Teacher with the mission of turning the school around and providing the best education to the children of Waltham Abbey. She had done it several times before, so could certainly do it here.

The first year of Mrs Barnet’s leadership has been exceptional — she has transformed the experiences of children, staff and parents. Children have fun whilst learning, they look forward to going to school & learning and they have a far broader and more rounded education than many. In a world of increasing mental ill health, the school has a fabulous ethos of holistic education, providing such opportunities as looking after animals such as chickens (all paid for from by Mrs Barnet and supporting parents).
Staffing has suffered dramatically over the last few years with all the change and uncertainty, leading to high attrition and poor performance. However, Ms Barnet has gained control of the staffing issues and has built a dedicated team of professionals that are finally stable, consistent and effective. 
In the last year, Mrs Barnet has connected with the wider community and parents putting on numerous events such as Fireworks evenings with incredibly high turn-outs — further reinforcing the position of the school in the community. There is a buzz around the playground amongst parents who only have good things to say about the school and its leadership. The voice of parents was overwhelmingly positive on Parent View but seems not to have been taken into account in the Ofsted report.

Now some context of the immediate events that led up to the inspection:
We all know that the first inspection of all new schools will usually take place within 3 years of opening, however, I believe it is peculiar at best to schedule an inspection just a week before the school was due to break up for Christmas — surely this will not provide a full and proper view of a regular school day in the slightest.
Additionally, the inspection was less than 1 year into the tenure of Mrs Barnet’s and the roll-out of her school improvement programme. I doubt anyone could have done more in such a short period that Mrs Barnet was able to do.

At the time of the Ofsted, all parents and staff are fully understanding that recent Key Stage 2 SATs results, whilst improving, have been disappointing for the last few years. However, the picture across KS1 and Early Years is significantly different — something that does not seem to have been reflected in the grading. Whilst it’s not possible to extrapolate one view to be the full picture — I can personally attest to exceptional teaching, including having very high standards and ensuring the ablest pupils are given differentiated opportunities to deepen their learning whilst providing additional support to children with learning differences. I have heard similar stories from scores of parents — somewhere along the line, one of us has to be wrong.

I don’t think it’s me — The fact that the lead inspector for Ofsted is alleged to have told staff that “based on the previous year’s [SAT] results, our school would be inadequate … judgment had therefore been made from the very first instant”. The bitter irony is that this year’s SATs results show a staggering improvement across all measures, with over 20% increases over the last two years in combines Maths, Reading and Writing.

The section ‘Personal development, behaviour and welfare’ was the area with the highest grading but still only achieved a “requires improvement”. However, this grading is perhaps the most inaccurate I have seen. Mrs Barnet has made vast improvements in this area, choosing to focus on creating a healthy, holistic and happy place of education for all. Behaviour is good, and pupils are happy — in fact, I did hear that an Ofsted inspector commented that pupils seemed “too happy” — what utter nonsense! The impact that Mrs Barnet and the Leadership team has had on pupil personal development, behaviour and welfare is extraordinary and evident every time I step onto the school premises. Pupils are proud of their school and show respect to each other, staff and parents.

There is no way that the Ofsted rating truly reflects the quality of the school or takes into account the significant leaps forward the school has taken in the past couple of years. Again, it’s not just me that feels this way — the parents I speak to, teachers and even members of the Interim Executive Board (IEB) — the new Governing body that has been brought in to get us back on track, all feel the same. At a recent meeting with the IEB, I questioned the Teaching & Learning Specialist on the IEB for her reflections on the quality of teaching & learning that she had witnessed in recent observations she had carried out — her verdict was that the school is accurately judging the quality. The school and the LA have been judging the teaching & learning as consistently Good. Just to be clear — the school leaders, the local authority and the IEB all believe the provision to be Good, yet Ofsted rated it as Inadequate. Again, someone has to be wrong.

The Draconian Academies Act

There is an overwhelming feeling that turning the school into an academy is not in the best interests of the pupils or the school at large. When the former infants and junior schools amalgamated, they took the explicit decision not to turn into an academy. Apparently, they had been asked several times but deemed it not right for this school. Having been a teacher for 9 years, in private schools, LA maintained comprehensives and academies I have seen both the positives and negatives of academisation. One comp that converted to an academy was an incredible success — a secondary school in a very tough catchment area in Coventry, with over 80 different languages spoken as first languages. The change that happened was really due to exceptional leadership but was a resounding success for an academy conversion. A second academy was entirely different — run by a MAT, it had more of a business feel than a school. Learning was secondary to grades & targets and the workload forced upon staff was demoralising. Indeed, this was the catalyst for me leaving the profession.

It is the ethos, values and principles that I’m most concerned about. I passionately believe the way to make progress in anything is to adopt a holist approach. To focus on obliquity rather than a directness. We all want our children to make progress, in compulsory education, this is handled with the rather blunt force of grades and, more recently, added value. However, you do not have to have the goal of high grades to achieve high grades. Instead, you can focus on giving people a rounded education, provide them with intrinsic motivation and a love of learning — do that and grades will follow.

There is little evidence proving that a change to Academy status results directly in school improvement — in fact, there are numerous examples of the opposite being the reality — not least with the MAT chosen to take over WHXPS (but more on that later). I’m not as hard-lined as many on academies — although I hate the idea of privatisation of education, I think there are instances where it makes sense. However, it is certainly not a silver bullet.

What the school needs least right now is another series of changes and uncertainty over its future direction. It seems entirely counter-intuitive to put the school through another bout of drastic & potentially damaging changes, right at the time that such improvements and stability is starting to take place. I believe Mrs Barnet and her Senior Team are best positioned to continue with the school improvements & turn the school around.

The dubious (at best) approach taken to decide the Multi Academy Trust

All evidence gathered by fellow parents through FOI indicates that it was a done deal, even before the Head Teachers Board (HTB) was supposed to have met to make the decision. There is such opaqueness surrounding the processes and sequence of events that it is almost impossible to unpick what has really happened. But we’re getting there. 
There is every chance of conflicts of interest — The Director of Education for Essex county council is also a trustee of a “connected charity” to Net Academies. 
This issue is compounded by the fact that the school staff, parents or pupils have no voice in the decision for which Multi Academy Trust takes over the running of the school, we are reduced to observers, with no power to vocalise, let alone influence this decision.

Net has a dreadful recent record — it is sixth-worst primary school group in England and third-worst MAT in England. It has recently had to drop two schools (out of their pool of seven) after being ranked as “inadequate” by Ofsted. But still, the Trust is ‘winning’ contracts with other schools. I’ve just been through a number of procurement processes to ‘win’ contracts with private and public-sector organisations to run Apprenticeships programmes. The due diligence and detail we had to go through for those contracts were massive, and rightly so. So I cannot fathom how a decision like this can be taken without the same level (or more) scrutiny.

It looks like they just put their hand up and got given the gold star.

And what a gold star — they already know the school is performing better than the grading Ofsted gave it. With NET having to do nothing at all, the school will inevitably be seen to be turned around and the headlines may well suggest that the reason is the academisation, but we all know this will not be the case.

So, I return to my opening statement — this issue cuts across both my personal and professional life — on the personal side, I cannot stand by while my daughter’s education and her future are put at risk. Equally, I cannot stand by and risk other parents, children and communities go through what we’re going through.

Aditya’s article ends “Watch these women, because I think they might win” — the force is growing, it’s now more than just mums. It’s parents/carers, teachers, activists, journalist & solicitors who are fighting this injustice. Now we need policymakers, politicians, leaders of Ofsted, LAs, MATs to take note and a make difference.

This cannot be allowed to go unnoticed, not when it’s our children’s lives that are at risk.

If you can help, want to support or just want to get in touch — please contact me Spencer Ayres on Twitter or the HandsoffWHX campaign.