Government reluctant to act over ‘disappearing’ Harris pupils

Education correspondent GENE BRODIE reports on how a government agency fobbed off Croydon Council’s legitimate concerns over dozens of academy pupils who “vanished” just before they were due to sit their GCSEs

Well done Sylvia McNamara, Croydon Council’s erstwhile director for learning, school improvement and inclusion – for once a lengthy council job title in which the latter two elements prove to be most significant. You’ll discover why as you read on.

Harris blazer badgeThe Guardian newspaper has reported this week how, when she was working at the council, McNamara had the temerity to take on the Harris Federation, the academy operators founded by a Peckham carpet salesman who receive millions of pounds from the tax-payer each year to operate state schools but who, in certain cases in Croydon, somehow manage to misplace large numbers of pupils just before they are about to take their life-shaping GCSE exams.

The Guardian broke the story two years ago of Harris’s disappearing pupils, including at its flagship Crystal Palace “academy” where according to Department for Education statistics, 1 in 5 vanished into thin air.

Many educationalists, including the Anti-Academies Alliance, suspect that Harris is deliberately excluding pupils whom it fears may not deliver the GCSE grades that its schools need to maintain or improve their position in the exam league tables. What happens to the under-qualified and unqualified “discarded” teenagers becomes someone else’s (ie. the local education authority’s) problem.

At least, that’s when the local education authority knows about the disappearing pupils: in the case of Harris’s South Norwood academy, 26 pupils dropped off its school roll between January 2012 and May 2013, of which 24 had their subsequent education destination registered as “unknown” by the council.

McNamara, to her credit, followed-up on the worrying newspaper reports by writing to the chief executive of the EFA (another quango, the Education Funding Agency, which doles out our cash to Harris), to ask what he was doing about the troubling disappearance of so many pupils from its schools.

She also sought the advice of Peter Lauener on what action Croydon Council, as the LEA, ought to be taking.

You can read McNamara’s initial letter here.

Lauener’s response was along the lines of “move along quietly now, nothing to see here…”

His reply, in March 2014, hardly fills one with confidence, as he managed to misspell the addressee’s name: “Slyvia”. At least, we hope was only a typo.

You can read Lauener’s reply here.

It drips complacency. Or cover-up.

“The pupil number data submitted to the Department via the school census over a three year [sic] period for Harris Federation academies in Croydon show a level of pupil turnover consistent with the LA as a whole,” he claimed.

Sylvia McNamara: asking questions on behalf of Croydon pupils

Sylvia McNamara: asking questions on behalf of dozens of disappearing Croydon pupils

“Having reviewed and compared data from the Alternative Provision Census and Harris Federation, we can find no evidence to suggest that any decrease in cohort size is from anything other than natural in-year movement.”

Croydon’s McNamara saw through this for the bullshit that it is/was.

She wrote straight back, and provided more detailed data from the borough showing four sponsored academies, two of them run by Harris, with the largest number of pupils disappearing before the age of 16.

“I am concerned about this for two reasons,” McNamara wrote, “firstly it appears there is substance to the figures published in the Guardian and second, there are potential safeguarding issues for learners whose destination is unknown.”

And now the council director dropped the bomb: the Harris Federation had failed to fulfill its legal requirements of advising the LEA of pupils leaving their schools in advance of their moves.

“You point out in your letter that all schools must follow clear regulations when removing a pupil from their roll … our school admissions team have confirmed to me that the Harris Federation do not inform us of pupils who are deleted from their register … we are subsequently unable to track them,” McNamara wrote.

“I would be grateful, therefore, if this could be followed up and investigated and if the academy could be instructed to conform with this requirement.”

You can read the whole of McNamara’s second letter, with its detailed figures and tables, here.

Harris says that it had reported pupils leaving it schools, but to Croydon’s behaviour welfare service, rather than to the local authority’s admissions team. According to Lauener’s response to McNamara, Harris  “…are very keen to discuss and resolve any issues”. And according to the Department for Education, “A follow-up conversation took place between the EFA and Harris Federation to remind them of their obligations.”

Those cosy chats only appear to have made a fractional difference. Harris’s 2013 GCSE year group was 12 per cent smaller than they were in Year 8 by the time they were about to sit their public exams. This week, The Guardian reported that, “The 2015 Harris GCSE cohort was 8 per cent smaller than when the same pupils were in Year 7.”

McNamara no longer works for Croydon Council. Last year she moved on – well, over the road, actually – to take on the role of chief executive of the Octavo Partnership, which is part-owned by the Croydon Headteachers’ Association and the council, and provides “support services” to schools. Some might see Octavo as another example of the outsourcing and privatisation of our public education service.

McNamara says she was not approached by The Guardian before it published its report, with her letters, this week. “I would imagine that Warwick Mansell…” meaning the journalist who wrote the piece, “… did his homework on what was available re Harris. He did not contact me in advance,” McNamara told Inside Croydon today.

Rug salesman on £400,000 a year: Harris's Sir Daniel Moynihan

Rug salesman on £400,000 a year: Harris’s Sir Daniel Moynihan

But what her two-year-old correspondence with the EFA over Harris demonstrates is how difficult it is for the local authority to exercise any diligence or influence, in the interests of residents and their children, when dealing with those bodies running our state schools, such as Harris, who supposedly are answerable to civil servants in Whitehall.

Lord Harris, the academy operators’ founder, it is worth reminding ourselves, is a donor to the Conservative Party and a Tory peer.

Still, everyone must delight in further news in The Guardian: that the Harris Federation’s Croydon-based chief executive, Sir Daniel Moynihan, enjoyed a 5 per cent pay rise last year, so that he is now being paid more than £395,000, plus employer pension contributions of £40,000-£45,000. That must make him the best-paid employee based in Croydon. And to think that  much of Sir Daniel’s “package” will come from the money the Harris Federation receives from the Government.

Not bad for someone who works for a rug salesman, eh?

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
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4 Responses to Government reluctant to act over ‘disappearing’ Harris pupils

  1. I have been advised that Public Schools sometimes refuse to let students sit “A” Levels through the school if their predicted grades are low. They then have to sit privately. I believe that exam league tables (as with workplace key indicators) are responsible for many of these observed behaviours to the detriment of careers and efficient and effective use of resources.

  2. A very worrying development,over the weekend…Valentine’s day.Proposal to bring in the American head of New York State Schools as future head of OFSTED:

    Apparently involved in the New York State education system….from a country bottom of the OECD league (or is that us?).He is likely to pursue a divisive,anti-union,pro-charter school set of reforms.

    The digitisation, privatisation and de-unionisation of English Schools. Opening the floodgates to tablets and software,”schools –in- a- box”.We and the US are already at the bottom of the OECD league of numeracy and literacy…perhaps we could get a Korean or a German to do it!.

    some charter school group operators, including Success Academy Charter Schools, KIPP, Public Prep, and Uncommon Schools, “see charter schools as a weapon in a political fight against teachers unions to reform the larger school system and believe that the fight requires robust, hands-on organizing and lobbying efforts”,[18] and, in 2011, led a rally with 2,500 people.[18]
    Its first charter was approved in 2005. The renewal in 2010 was proposed to be limited to 3 years instead of the normal 5, because the school had “an ambiguous or mixed record of educational achievement”,[29] with only 34 percent of students being proficient in math when tested and 28 percent of students doing so in English.[29]

    Draining of resources from public schools
    Arguments include that innovations in the charter schools should be provided in the noncharter public schools, smaller class sizes require more financing and public noncharters need that finance, and benefits should be provided to the many students in noncharter public schools rather than to just the few attending charters, especially since students who are rejected by charters must be accepted by the public schools, so more support should go to public noncharter schools.[32]

    However, charter schools receive less per-pupil funding from the State government than do public noncharter schools,[33] one legislative leader saying that charter schools have been claiming that being nonunion allows cost-saving.[34]

    There has been criticism that charter schools are often given space in public noncharter schools,[37] constraining the latter.[38

    From 2008 to 2010, “charter schools have generally experienced relatively high teacher turnover”,[56] with attrition averaging 25% state-wide

    In August 2011, Brill published Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools. It described the success of charter schools, using the Success Academy Charter Schools (then known as Harlem Success Academy) as an example, and profiled teacher Jessica Reid as a model of what could be done without union restrictions. He claimed that unions, particularly the United Federation of Teachers and UFT president Randi Weingarten in New York City, protected incompetent teachers, and were opposed to pay-for-performance, and obstructed necessary reforms,[15] a claim he had previously made in The New Yorker.[16] By the time Brill came to the end of the book, Reid had quit. The long hours and stress of her job, with nightly calls to parents, and constant prodding of students, were affecting her marriage.[15] Brill reversed his position on charter schools and unions. He said that after two years of researching school reform, he had a slightly better understanding of the complexities. He reversed his view of Weingarten, and proposed that New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg appoint her chancellor of the school system.[15]

    Supervision failures with disciplinary violence
    At one school, New York City’s Special Commissioner of Investigation for the New York City School District (SCI) found the school failed to adequately document incidents involving student violence and staff responses that included violence called Therapeutic Crisis Intervention (TCI).[61] “‘If everybody knows about a restraint and nobody reports it,’ he [Commissioner Richard Condon] said, ‘then it’s not unfair to conclude they were covering it up.'”[62] “The school serves some of the city’s lowest-performing and troubled students who can be tough to handle.”
    17 Charter Schools Approved for New York City, Expanding a Polarizing Network
    The State of New York’s Failing Schools
    2015 Report
    In his first term Governor Cuomo implemented a series of policies to increase
    access to early education, equip schools with 21st century learning technology and
    internet connectivity, and recognize and reward our best teachers. Although these
    steps have been important, our public education system requires further reform.;_ylt=A9mSs3cnLMBWgoYAbzpLBQx.;_ylu=X3oDMTFjYWY3Zm9lBGNvbG8DaXIyBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDVklQVUszNF8xBHNlYwNwYWdpbmF0aW9u?p=new+york+state+charter+schools&ei=UTF-8&type=C111GB739D20141112&fr=mcafee&fr2=12642&b=11&pz=10&pstart=3
    According to the most recent scores available, in 2014, only 35.8 percent of
    students were proficient in math and 31.4 percent were proficient in ELA.5 Thus
    approximately two-thirds of students are NOT proficient in these two subjects.
    Nationally, New York is ranked 32nd in both 4th and 8th grade math scores; and
    20th and 32nd in 4th and 8th grade ELA scores, respectively.6
    For high school students, statewide achievement is measured by graduation
    rates and measures of college readiness. For the 2010 cohort, 76.4 percent of
    students graduated from high school in four years. Using the most recent
    available national data (from the 2012-2013 school year), New York’s graduation
    rate ranked the state 33rd in the country.7 Students in the largest school districts
    graduate at much lower rates than the statewide average.
    College readiness is measured by students graduating with at least a score of 75
    on the English Regents and 80 on the Math Regents, which correlates with
    success in first-year college courses without the need for remediation.8 In 2014,
    38 percent of our high school graduates were deemed college ready.
    The system rates teachers in one of four categories: Ineffective, Developing,
    Effective and Highly Effective, across three different system components that
    yield one summative score for every teacher.
    In its first year, the 2012-2013 school year, the teacher evaluation system
    resulted in the following ratings:
    94.5 percent of teachers were rated Highly Effective and Effective
    4.5 percent of teachers were rated Developing
    1.0 percent of teachers were rated Ineffective
    In the 2013-2014 school year, the teacher evaluation system resulted in the
    following ratings:
    95.6 percent of teachers were rated Highly Effective and Effective
    3.7 percent of teachers were rated Developing
    0.7 percent of teachers were rated Ineffective
    It is incongruous that 99% of teachers were rated effective10, while only 35.8
    percent of our students are proficient in math and 31.4 percent in English
    language arts. How can so many of our teachers be succeeding when so many
    of our students are struggling?

    The statistics and facts contained in this report and its Appendix expose a public
    education system badly in need of change. Our levels of achievement must
    increase if we want to ensure bright futures for all New Yorkers.
    This is why Governor Cuomo has proposed an ambitious education reform
    agenda in his 2015-2016 Executive Budget that addresses key areas including
    teacher preparation, certification, evaluation and tenure and the transformation of
    our failing schools. Our students deserve nothing less.
    Charter school advocates get brief show of support from New York education head MaryEllen Elia, angering teachers union

    Elia’s brief appearance was enough to spark an angry response from the state’s teachers union, which opposes the spread of charter schools.
    “The commissioner’s appearance today at a political rally sends the wrong message entirely,” said New York State United Teachers President Karen Magee.
    “Traditional public schools that serve the state’s neediest students have been devastated by budget cuts, Magee continued. “The commissioner should be rallying instead for the billions in state aid that our schools are owed.”
    The truth about charter schools
    Supporters and opponents alike need to be more candid about these independently run, publicly funded hybrids

    We are about to import the head of a failing school system,keen on privatisation,profoundly anti-union,who will create yet another war within the public service arena (remember the NHS).Tories stand for permanent paradoxical revolution…..favour the rich and squash the poor!


  3. derekthrower says:

    Gaming data returns has long been part of the practice of Academies. A blind eye has been shown by all administrations since Blair. The problem with such practice is that credibility is eroded and it is becoming increasingly clear that the academy/free school model is not delivering the supposed gains in academic performance. These gains are increasingly being shown as a result of the social engineering of the intake of such schools rather than performance per se. What happens when the truth is revealed as the illusions of public relations practice fail. Intense cynicism and increasingly desperate actions rather than sensible policy decisions.

  4. veeanne2015 says:

    The reason for the ‘disappearing’ pupils at Harris South Norwood in 2013 given by Harris and accepted by EFA that London was a ‘turbulent area’ and consistent with the LA as a whole, is strange, firstly because all the other schools and academy in the NORTH of the borough had full or nearly full in-take numbers at the end of KS4, and secondly because Harris Purley also had a large reduction in their KS4 number.
    According to D of E. verified Performance (League) Tables for Summer 2015, not only did South Norwood and Purley have considerably lower numbers at the end of KS4 (22 and 30 respectively) – despite the Harris Federation continually claiming how they had multiple applications for every place at their Croydon Academies – but Purley also had the biggest REDUCTIONS from last year not only of 5 A-Cs including English/Maths (less 20%), but also English Baccalaureate (less 12%), the latter being the second lowest in the borough.
    Also their position in Croydon schools for 5 A-Cs was lower than the predecessor (Haling Manor)’s position in 2008 !
    What excuse, I wonder, does the Harris federation have for that ?

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