Our education correspondent, GENE BRODIE, reports on how recent confrontations between ‘woke’ staff and pupils at an inner London academy may have had their beginnings in south London
Daniel Smith, the controversial head of Pimlico Academy who has attracted national headlines for his hard-line policies that prompted pupil protests and a staff vote of no-confidence, cut his teeth on his robust, no-nonsense approach early in his career when a senior teacher in Croydon.
Smith was an assistant principal at Quest Academy, in South Croydon. It was the Oxford graduate high-flyer’s second teaching job, and he began working there soon after the school was granted academy status.
Quest was originally formed from a merger of Monks Hill Comprehensive and Selsdon High, the school where Roy Hodgson, the former England football manager now in charge at Crystal Palace, taught in the 1970s.
The academisation of England’s schools over the past 20 years is regarded with widespread distrust by many teachers and the teaching unions, who see it as a privatisation of state education. Academies get millions of pounds of public funding to operate their chains, but their schools – and their headteachers – are pretty much autonomous, outside of any control from councils or local education authorities, while the business is managed by organisations set up by carpet salesmen and evangelical churches.
Smith worked at Quest in its first three years as an academy, from September 2010 until the end of the 2013 summer term.
He would leave Croydon to join Swan Valley School in Kent, which was soon to become Ebbsfleet Academy.
Yet while Smith was still on the staff at the Quest Academy, he was sending threatening emails to parents in Kent over the terms and conditions surrounding whether their children could attend Swan Valley.
Smith was at pains to emphasise that parents must comply and sign a code of conduct. The Swan Valley agreement at the time appeared to be based on that of the Quest Academy in Croydon.
One Smith email to a Swan Valley parent said that,
“… expectations closely mirror the Academy’s Code of Conduct to which all students must subscribe and reflect the various legal obligations which are placed on parents by statute (for example, in relation to ensuring the children behave at school and attend regularly).
“Of course, in cases where parents do not support their children in meeting our expectations, the academy may ask parents to sign a parenting contract or may apply for a court-imposed parenting order”.
Since Swan Valley did not have academy status at the time, it could not have had a code of conduct, as Smith – who had managed to gain a law diploma in his spare time when working at Quest – really ought to have known.
According to teachers in the county, during Smith’s time there, “Ebbsfleet became the most unpopular school in Kent… through its uncompromising and confrontational approach to difficulties”.
Fast-forward eight years, now a headteacher for the first time, and Smith’s stern letters to pupils and parents alike have got him into even more trouble.
At Pimlico on March 31, hundreds of pupils staged a sit-in at the Westminster school against policies brought in by their new head. Smith, who had taken up his post in September 2020, is facing a mass exodus of staff, with 32 already deciding to quit at the end of this school year: last term, 98 per cent of Pimlico staff voted that they had no confidence in the headteacher.
On the lengthy list of complaints from pupils are:
- Black History Month being removed from the curriculum
- A ban on hairstyles that “blocked views”, which resulted in children with Afros being disciplined if they didn’t have their hair cut
- Headscarves, or hijabs, having to fully cover pupils’ hair
- Claims that complaints of sexual abuse between pupils were ignored
- The Union flag being raised above the school’s entrance
- Sixth form pupils having to buy suits instead of the previous uniform policy that allowed chinos and collared shirts
During the course of the protest, the flag was torn down and burned, while graffiti appeared outside the school accusing Smith of racism and stating “There ain’t no black in the Union Jack”.
Smith initially apologised and promised to spend the Easter break to reflect on his changes.
Yet during the Easter holiday, the Pimlico head issued further letters to parents, warning that pupils would be excluded from the school permanently if they dared to organise any further protests. Smith insisted that sixth-formers attend a disciplinary meeting on the first day of term. Last week, dozens of MPs, including Jeremy Corbyn and Dawn Butler, wrote to the school to express their concern about action against children who had taken part in the protest.
The warning signs were there even before Smith took up the job.
Before he bothered to witness the school in operation, Smith issued a missive last July which read more like a speech from a mid-20th Century tin-pot demagogue than an introductory note from an educationalist.
“Under my leadership, the academy will be characterised by the highest expectations of conduct and achievement for all. It will be a happy and caring community, but one in which academic achievement remains an unrelenting focus.
“Students will make excellent academic progress and achieve impressive exam results as a direct result of the excellent teaching that they receive. Through both the formal and informal curriculum, students will accumulate cultural capital and develop good character.
“They will become thoughtful and polite young people, interested in the world around them, in the arts, in culture, in travel and in politics. They will relish their time at the academy and, when the time comes, they will leave ready and eager to lead their lives as effective, well-rounded and responsible citizens.”
The exclusions of pupils soon began when term started in September.
Pimlico has had academy status since 2008. It is regarded as the flagship school of the Future Trust, a “charity” established by Caroline Nash and her husband, Lord John Nash. Yes, the same Lord Nash who is a former Conservative minister for academies.
A previously failing school, placed into special measures by Ofsted inspectors, in 2010 Pimlico was rated as “Outstanding”. The Ofsted inspectors have not been back to Pimlico since, though Sir Michael Wilshaw, the former head of Ofsted, has been appointed as mentor to Smith.
The Nashes, and Sir Michael, would be right to be concerned by the contents of an open letter, backed by dozens of parents.
“We have not been blind as to what has been going on at school since September,” the letter states. “Teachers are leaving in droves and there has been a vote of no-confidence in the headmaster. How will the school recruit decent teachers now to a school known as a ‘Racist Academy’?”
But what of Quest Academy since Smith left? Can Smith’s uncompromising, confrontational influence still be sensed, stalking along the corridor to the head’s office?
It certainly seems that way.
It was in 2016 that Quest headteacher Andy Crofts blamed the school’s poor GCSE results on “weak pupils”.
“They were exceptionally weak,” Crofts said.
“They were very, very, very weak and I would challenge anyone – be it in Croydon or beyond – to do any better with them.”
Crofts remains the head at Quest Academy today, presumably until he gets made a better offer.
Perhaps from somewhere like the Future Trust?
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