GENE BRODIE, our education correspondent, on how Conservative policy has failed staff, parents and – above all – pupils at a Thornton Heath primary
One of the Tory government’s flagship free schools, the Paxton Academy in Thornton Heath, has been handed an “inadequate” rating by Ofsted inspectors in a damning report published this week.
Dubbed the “Portakabin Academy” because it has been based in temporary classrooms on the rugby pitches of Streatham and Croydon RFC since it opened in September 2014, the school’s thrustingly ambitious headteacher, Johnette Barrett, resigned soon after the Ofsted report was published.
The school’s previous Ofsted inspection, in 2017, had rated Paxton as “requires improvement”. That clearly has never happened, and three-form-entry Paxton, which is supposed to have a school roll of 600-plus, currently has just 180 pupils. “Numbers had plummeted even before this Ofsted,” one senior figure in education locally told Inside Croydon.
Former staff are deeply critical of Barrett, with one saying, “She was out of her depth and, although dynamic, was incompetent”.
Barrett had been one of the vanguards for the Conservative government’s free school movement, having announced in 2011 an ambition for an all-through school catering for three-year-olds to A level pupils (there are bigger salaries and budgets available for heads at the biggest free schools), which she wanted to be built on public parkland in Crystal Palace (hence the “Paxton” reference).
When Barrett could not get support for her plans, her attention shifted to Thornton Heath, where the Department for Education claimed that there was a shortage of primary school places at the time, to justify the use of temporary accommodation. The DfE assured the school’s staff and parents that Paxton would be housed in permanent accommodation within two years.
But the rush to establish a school before permanent buildings were available was to prove an insurmountable problem for Paxton. Former teachers at the school believe that the over-crowded and inadequate temporary accommodation will have blighted the early years education of those children who have attended Paxton since 2014.
“It was highly irresponsible to allow a free school to open without premises,” one former teacher told Inside Croydon. “There was a woeful lack of oversight from the government.
“It’s just a crime that there are Year 5 children in that school that have had a terrible education in a terrible environment.”
The teacher complains of having to teach without adequate support in inadequate accommodation. Some of Barrett’s notions on education made what was already a tough job more difficult still. “It was difficult to recruit teachers because the head wanted them to teach from 8am to 4.30pm.
“Why would a teacher want to do that unless they were desperate for a job? It’s hard enough to recruit teachers in London.”
In the latest Ofsted report, inspectors rated Paxton as “inadequate” in four of their five categories: quality of education; behaviour and attitudes; personal development; and early years provision. The fifth category, leadership and management, was given “requires improvement”.
The inspectors state, “… Pupils do not receive a good enough quality of education.
“Pupils study a full range of subjects. However, teachers do not know what pupils need to learn to be successful. Staff expectations of what pupils can achieve are not high enough. Sequences of lessons are not well-planned. As a result, pupils have gaps in their learning. They do not gain the knowledge and skills needed to build on what they already know.
“Staff expectations of pupils’ behaviour are too low. Too many pupils find it difficult to follow instructions and do not listen to adults carefully. When this happens, adults do not routinely remind pupils of the agreed behaviour rules. This means that poor behaviour disrupts learning.”
The signs of problems at the school have been there for some time – the ex-teacher questions why it took Ofsted three years to make a return inspection after their “requires improvement” report in 2017.
In July last year the Department for Education ordered the school to be placed in the hands of a MAT – multi-academy trust – because of serious concerns about the management of the school’s finances.
Delays over planning permission for the conversion of an office block on London Road to accommodate the primary school saw its costs mounting, while too few pupils took up places. The government is clawing back more than £300,000 from the school’s budgets because of pupil shortfall in 2017 and 2018.
But the treatment of the school, and its pupils, has been roundly criticised.
“The idea a child is allowed to have their entire primary education in temporary classrooms without a proper playground in one of the richest cities in the world is beyond belief,” Steve Reed OBE, the MP for Croydon North, said at the time.
When Paxton opened in September 2014, it was given assurances by the DfE that its permanent building would be ready in 18 to 24 months. But no planning application was submitted by the government until 2016. Permission was granted in June 2018, but only after the decision was called in by the government after Croydon Council rejected the plans as unsuitable for a school.
In the meantime, with cramped outdoor space available – despite the Portakabins being adjacent to playing fields – only one Paxton class was allowed outside to play at any one time. Paxton also had to rent classrooms at a nearby primary school for its Year 3 and 4 pupils when it ran out of space.
As a consequence of the inadequate rating, Paxton is now being run by an Interim Academy Board, with the Wandle Learning Trust in charge. It has appointed an interim “executive head”, Karen Simpson, who in the next couple of months is expected to oversee the transfer of the school to its permanent building – a converted office block, where the only outside play space for what is supposed to be a “sport and science academy” is on the roof, overlooking a supermarket car park.
Simpson appears to have a masters qualification in understatement. On its website, she describes Paxton as “a primary school with a difference”.
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