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”.
They 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.”
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”.
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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