Education correspondent GENE BRODIE on the sudden resignations of headteachers at two primaries which were recently academised
The head of a local academy trust issued firm instructions to staff last week ordering them to answer no questions about the abrupt departure of the headteacher from a Croydon primary school.
Paul Thomas resigned as head of St Peter’s Primary in South Croydon last Tuesday, announcing his departure in a letter to parents just as the school was breaking up for Easter. Members of the school community have confirmed that there had been no indication given previously that Thomas had intended to leave the post he had held since September 2011.
St Peter’s is now part of the Folio Education Trust, a relatively new academy group, funded directly from Whitehall, and run from Wallington County Grammar School in Sutton.
Around the same time that Thomas was resigning at St Peters, Cathy Daniels, the head of Park Hill Junior, another Folio Trust-run primary in Croydon, was also leaving her job. Daniels was the science teacher of the year in 2012, but has been struggling with ill-health lately and had been on long-term sick leave.
Daniels is the sixth member of teaching staff, plus a school secretary, to leave or plan to leave Park Hill Juniors since last July. Other teachers are known to be applying for other jobs.
At St Peter’s, on Normanton Road, staff were issued with a terse memo following headteacher Thomas handing in his resignation.
Inside Croydon has obtained a copy of that memo.
Sent from Jonathan Wilden, the executive headteacher of the Folio Education Trust, it told staff that Paul Thomas’s sudden departure , “… may well attract enquiries to the main office via telephone or email looking for further information.
“Please do not attempt to answer or be drawn into any questions regarding this issue.”
The emphasis had been added, in italics, in Wilden’s own letter.
Wilden then offered his staff a tightly scripted form of words to use as a response for anyone making enquiries, while naming Caroline Barriball and Samantha Sandle as acting co-heads. It is suggested that Barriball and Sandle have been told they will have no say in who is appointed eventually as the new head.
At Park Hill Junior, Ann Pratt has been announced as the replacement head teacher, the “unanimous” choice of the Folio selection panel.
Both St Peter’s and Park Hill had been rated as “Good” schools according to their most recent Ofsted inspections, St Peter’s having risen from a previous “Satisfactory” (although its latest inspection was in January 2013, and another is expected soon).
St Peter’s results for Early Years Foundation Stage and Key Stage 1 were above the national average last academic year.
But weak KS2 results last year drew Folio’s closer attention to the school.
The 2017 KS2 results showed 71 per cent of pupils at Park Hill Junior reached the required standard, ranking it 34th among Croydon’s primaries, while at St Peter’s, 50 per cent of pupils attained the standard, placing the school 64th of the borough’s 71 primaries.
It is the Folio Education Trust which recently obtained planning permission for a £30million build of a school with what Folio calls “a grammar school ethos” at Coombe Wood, near Lloyd Park. It will be Croydon’s first selective secondary in 40 years.
Wilden has spoken publicly about his ambition of opening a grammar “annex” in Croydon by 2019. This back-door move towards selection is enthusiastically supported by the Tory MP for Croydon South, Chris Philp.
Meanwhile, parents and staff at St Peter’s are still coming to terms with the shock when they received the formal notification of Thomas’s departure. No reasons were given for the sudden move, either by the school, the trust or by Thomas himself.
Thomas opted not to speak to the school, writing in a letter to parents, “I am sorry that I am not there to say goodbye in person but you know that I cry easily and just would not have been able to cope with that.”
Thomas made the announcement by writing, “Sometimes in life, you have to make incredibly difficult decisions. Sometimes those decisions will upset other people even if they are the right ones to make. In the last week or so, I have had to make such a decision and the hardest part for me is telling you. However, here goes.
“I have decided to step down as headteacher of St Peter’s with immediate effect. I feel that I have done as much as I can to make the school a great place to learn…
“… I will miss you all very much. I feel incredibly proud and privileged to have had the opportunity to be your headteacher.”
Staff and parents say that they were angered at the news, and the manner in which it was smuggled out, just before the Easter holidays.
“We were told that the headteacher made the decision and chose to resign,” one told Inside Croydon. “We feel that there is a lot of information being withheld from the school community. We believe they may have done this to take full advantage of a two-week break hoping that parents’ outrage would die down.”
The school became a part of Folio trust in April 2017, though parents and staff suggest that they had been cool to the idea of academisation. “Parents were given the very minimum information about this,” a parent said.
Another said, “Staff and parents are increasingly worried and concerned about further actions of the executive head, Jonathan Wilden.” Staff have confided that they are concerned about the security of their jobs and the impending changes to leadership.
St Peter’s has undergone a series of “reviews” from Folio since December, when the KS2 results were published. Staff have been told that the current state of our school is “unacceptable”.
During one such review, Wilden apparently questioned why the school spent so much time practising for the Christmas production, which was performed for parents by children aged five to seven years old. It is also alleged that Wilden asked why the school accepted so many children who had English as their second language.
St Peter’s pupils, as at many schools in Croydon, come from diverse backgrounds, and include at least one Syrian refugee.
It is suggested that Wilden took a view that teaching assistants were spending too much time supporting students who were learning English.
It has also been suggested that the school’s curriculum budget has been halved, with £6,000-worth of cuts, impacting the school’s science programme.
Funds from the PTA have been used to make good the lost budget.
The concerned source said, “We have been given no information about where this money will be directed and how the academy is supposed to use it to improve KS2 results.”
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