Fear and loathing in Upper Norwood as an inspector calls

Lord Harris: carpet salesman turned educational carpet bagger

Lord Harris: would you want your school to be run by a carpet salesman?

Education correspondent GENE BRODIE on a gathering storm of controversy over a disputed Ofsted inspection at one of the secondary academies in the north of the borough

The Anti Academies Alliance, an organisation of teachers, parents and educationalists who oppose the privatisation of the state school system, has published the account, apparently from a member of staff at the Harris Academy Upper Norwood, which makes a series of shocking allegations, including that specialist staff were shipped in for an Ofsted visit a fortnight ago, that 1-in-10 of pupils were told to stay at home during the inspection, and that as many as 40 staff are quitting the school at the end of term.

“The tone of the letter suggests both fear and loathing,” the Alliance says.

The school had previously been the Westwood High School, run under the control of Croydon Council until an Ofsted inspection in 2012 put it under special measures and forced the governors to throw themselves at the mercy of an academy sponsor. Within a year of academisation, in September last year, the school was amalgamated with Harris Academy South Norwood.

The Alliance received the whistleblower’s letter on June 26, on the day of the Ofsted inspection. “Whoever sent it does not like Harris, for sure. We believe it is a cry for help from a whistleblower who fears that they cannot raise professional concerns,” the Anti Academies Alliance reports.

  • In the letter, the whistleblower claimed, “Virtually all the normal teaching staff have been sent home for two days to be replaced by a specialist team of Harris teaching staff from outside the school with pre-prepared lessons.”
  • They added: “10 per cent of the students who might be thought of as challenging have been removed for the duration of the inspection. Not really in the spirit of the inspection process is it?”
  • The whistleblower added that removing pupils from classes “… is common practice amongst Harris Schools and just the tip of the ‘dirty tricks’ they use to boost examinations and con inspectors.”
  • And they concluded their startlingly allegations by stating: “Staff at the school are treated appallingly and 40 are leaving this year. The Harris model of education is a virus.”

The Harris Federation responded to the Anti Academies Alliance, dismissing all the substantive points as untrue, and accusing the Alliance as “having an agenda”.

Harris blazer badgeThey said that they take whistleblowing very seriously (well they would say that, wouldn’t they?), and that they have raised the matter with Ofsted and the Department for Education. Given the long-held suspicions about how closely the DfE works with Harris, that will reassure no one.

The Harris Federation wrote: “Harris Academy Upper Norwood did receive an Ofsted inspection last week… The school days during the visit were exactly as should be expected at this time of the school year including controlled assessments taking place in languages for Yr10 and the new timetable underway to begin GCSE work now that current Year11s and Year13s have departed… These changes were routine and the Ofsted inspectors were fully informed.

“No members of staff were sent home for the inspection. “No lessons were taught by brought in Federation staff. There were no pre-prepared lessons.

“As we are sure you will know, inspection now very much focuses on what is in students’ books. This means it is not possible to ‘hide’ the work of students. All lessons had books available to the inspectors.

“Students were not kept at home. All lessons had seating plans available to the inspectors who could track any absence and ask the school to account fully for any student not present. To have an absence rate of 10 per cent would have rightly been raised by Ofsted had that been the case.

“It is untrue that 40 of its staff are leaving the school this summer. When it was a stand-alone academy, it didn’t even have 40 teaching staff. Since being amalgamated with our South Norwood academy in September, the school has one staff across both sites. There are not 40 staff leaving the combined staff either this summer.”

The Anti Academies Alliance appears to have published the whistleblower’s account without confirming the person’s identity, nor seeking to verify the claims made, but did so in good faith out of concern for those at the school. Properly, they informed the DfE, Ofsted and Harris.

And Harris’s rebuttal failed to convince some of the Alliance’s readers. One teacher posted a comment to support the allegation of Harris parachuting in a team of teachers especially for the inspection. “It happens and is more possible in the closed world of an academy chain,” they said.

The allegations come just as the Tory government is laying the groundwork to make it even easier to transfer schools to favoured academy sponsors.

The Conservatives’ Education and Adoption Bill is going through parliament at the moment. As the Anti Academies people state, “Central to the thinking behind this Bill is the government’s belief that sponsored academies are best way to improve ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ schools. The plan is to allow chains like the Harris Federation to take over more schools, more easily. Nicky Morgan seems to believe they have better leaders and better methods.”

Conflicting reports about what went on when the Ofsted inspectors visited this Croydon school last month

There are conflicting reports about what went on when the Ofsted inspectors visited this Croydon school last month

This is despite Ofsted’s own figures showing that sponsored academies are less effective at school improvement than local authority schools. The Local Schools’ Network describes the government policy “as an experiment based on dogma not data”.

The Anti Academies Alliance highlights a key reason for the DfE’s keenness to push state schools into the arms of an organisation set-up by a carpet salesman: only four sponsored academy chains are performing above average in terms of school improvement, and Harris is one of them. “Its record is crucial to sustaining the government’s view that sponsored academies are better at school improvement.”

They also question how Harris academies are achieving those results – Morgan and the Tory government have been accused of relying on the “voodoo of academisation”.

Inside Croydon has reported before how as many as 1-in-5 pupils at the Harris Academy South Norwood – before the recent amalgamation – managed to “disappear”  before it was time for them to sit their public exams – a strategy adopted, many suspect, to help bolster the schools’ percentages in the exam tables, by taking the weaker pupils out of GCSE calculations. Even with 22 per cent of its pupils “evaporating” between the age of 11 and their GCSEs, the South Norwood Academy delivered results that were no better than “adequate”.

Carpet rites: Nicky Morgan, an education secretary who many are beginning to worry is even more dogmatic than the much-loathed Michael Gove

Carpet rights? Nicky Morgan, an education secretary who many are beginning to worry is even more dogmatic than the much-loathed Michael Gove

And we’ve analysed before how some Croydon schools – and not just the sponsored academies – use smoke and mirrors in other ways to disguise the true nature of their pupils’ GCSE performances.

According to The Guardian newspaper, six Harris academies featured in the list of the 50 schools with the largest drop in pupil numbers for the 2013 GCSE year group, with all shrinking in size by at least 10 per cent. It almost appears like a sort of “company policy”; does that make it more plausible that it is a strategy used when the Ofsted inspectors are visiting, too?

The Harris academies take their name from Lord Harris, the owner of the Carpetright chain and a Tory party donor. The Harris Federation’s chief executive is Sir Dan Moynihan, who received his knighthood under the Conservative-led coalition in 2012.

As the Anti Academies Alliance says, “If the new Education Bill is passed, the Secretary of State will have even greater powers to hand schools over to sponsors. She will choose the sponsor and nobody will be able to question her decision. The system for selecting academy sponsors is already opaque. The criteria for selecting appropriate sponsors are secret. Under the new rules, could it be possible that certain business people might be able to influence the Secretary of State in the matter of which school they would like to take over?”

 

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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6 Responses to Fear and loathing in Upper Norwood as an inspector calls

  1. To coin a cliche: If it sounds too bad to be true it probably isn’t true. There are pretty lurid allegations and you’d have to be a pretty imperceptive OFSTED Inspector to be taken in by them and a pretty stupid school administrator to think you could get away with such blatant deception. I’m no fan of Academies and am a strong fan of the dying Local Authorities but these allegations reek of an anti-Academy and Anti-Harris agenda that is just too manifest and obvious. A little subtlety might have helped.

    • Whenever dealing with whistleblowers, we would always seek to check their story. Likewise, with official sources.

      The only seemingly exaggerated claim in this school staff member’s claims is the 40 colleagues leaving.

      If Upper Norwood was a state school, we would be able to verify this, at last resort using a Freedom of Information request. But academies are not subject to FoI…

  2. whitgiftavenue says:

    Although the Anti Academies Alliance may have over egged their cake with this report, it is still difficult to justify the relentless advance of Harris Academies across South London, when their performance increasingly appears pedestrian at best.
    I also think it is fair to raise questions about the ethos of these Academies. Some years ago we attended an open night for prospective new pupils and parents at a local Harris Academy. We were shown a year 7 classroom at the back of which magazines had been arranged on a table in a reading area. There was just one magazine available for the new intake of 11 year olds, ‘Bloomberg Businessweek’. We were told later on in the evening that succesesful applicants would be expected to undertake a summer project which needed to be handed in when at the start of term. This years project theme was ‘The Importance of Enterprise’ and before any fellow Trekkies get excited, they were not talking about the Starship.
    If we question the inappropriate promotion of social, political or religious agendas in other schools or challenge their stunted definitions of what constitutes an education, then Harris Academies should also not be immune from scrutiny and criticism.

  3. It is simply bizarre that Academies and, specially, Chains of Academies are so exempt from real scrutiny. Whistleblower claims: being wrong about 40 teachers parachuting in to save Harris Upper Norwood is not a minor porkie. Its a jolly big one, and a silly one, which brings all other claims into dispute.

    • But that’s not what the whistleblower said, Arno. You’re conflating two separate claims: one, that 40 members of staff are leaving at the end of the academic year, which is denied by Harris (who possibly tellingly fail to offer an alternative number for how many staff are leaving the amalgamated schools); and a second, that Harris parachuted-in a set of HQ staff for the Ofsted inspection, which Harris also denied, but which is a practice which another Harris teacher confirms has happened elsewhere.

  4. veeanne2015 says:

    I don’t know what is true or not in the article, but in 2011 the DfE’s verified GCSE performance Tables showed for the first time a sub-division of the 5 A-Cs including English/Maths into GCSE and GCSE/Equivalent.

    Most of the Harris Academies had the highest or high percentage of ‘Equivalents’ instead of ‘good’ GCSEs (up to nearly one third), with League Tables misleading parents with the former percentage results published.
    This sub-division which showed academies, and particularly Harris Academies, in a bad light, was no longer shown in the 2014 Performance Tables !

    Regarding the ‘disappeared’ pupils, strangely all the other schools in the north of the borough had full or nearly full in-takes at exam time, suggesting that South Norwood is the only ‘turbulent area’. Or was it that the other schools took in pupils who moved into the area, replacing those who left which Harris did not because it would affect their League Table results ?

    On 1st August 2014, Peter Sargeant on behalf of Nicky Morgan responded with
    “We believe that schools should ultimately be accountable to parents and the wider community for their pupils’ achievement and their use of taxpayers’ money. Parents will have some say in the process of becoming an academy, but ultimately the decision rests with the governing body.”

    Of course if the Governors object, then they are sacked and replaced !
    So much for democracy !

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