Teachers are on strike at John Fisher School today, with the backing of the majority of parents, as well as former governors and even Ofsted, as the row with the school’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese rumbles into a third month.
Governors voted not to cancel author Simon James Green’s visit for World Book Day on March 3, contrary to the Archdiocese of Southwark’s recommendation. Two governors subsequently resigned and the archdiocese sacked the rest, including elected parent and staff governors and the local authority governor, after they refused to take orders from the church.
Green is an author of fiction for teens who happens to include gay characters in his work.
The simmering row has divided opinion among parents, with the priest assigned to the school angering many for some of the emails he has sent to them and the church officials over the matter.
And now Ofsted has intervened after a snap inspection of the school, saying that staff and pupils have been left “feeling angry, confused and frustrated”.
The Archdiocese of Southwark over-ruled the school’s governors saying that the talk by Green would “fall outside the scope of what is permissible in a Catholic school” and was “potentially offensive to parents, past pupils and wider members of the Catholic community”.
Wayne Trakas Lawlor, the former ceremonial Mayor of Croydon, and the first in the borough’s history to be openly gay, is a former pupil at John Fisher. While he has made no direct comment on the situation, the Croydon alderman did endorse a statement from Ruth Dombey, the leader of the council in Sutton, where the school is sited.
Dombey said that her council “believes in inclusion, tolerance and diversity. I am shocked by the treatment of Simon James Green and the cancellation of his visit to John Fisher School”.
The Archdiocese appears to be in significant difficulties with Ofsted now, as the inspectors reported that the church had acted unilaterally and without regard to statutory guidance.
The Ofsted report praised the school’s staff, telling the headteacher, Philip McCullagh: “You and your team are steering the school well through this difficult time.”
The report also praises the school’s efforts to allow pupils to discuss sensitive issues such as racist or intolerant attitudes.
“Relationships and sex education is comprehensive and meets the expectations set out in government guidance. Pupils are taught the importance of respect for all, including those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender,” the report states.
“Staff ensure that pupils feel confident in raising and talking about potentially sensitive topics, for instance those related to pornography, sexting and harmful sexual behaviour.”
But with moves behind the scenes being taken by the Archdiocese to impose a new governing body, Ofsted also called for prompt resolution. “It is essential that all parties take swift and suitable steps to finalise suitable governance arrangements and in turn ensure that the governing body can function fully and effectively,” the Ofsted report states.
“Immediate steps must be taken to restore stability to governance, and in turn ensure that leadership is provided with the support and challenge needed to build further on the school’s strong provision for pupils’ personal development.”
The report says the events “have unnerved and upset many in the school community. Some leaders, staff and pupils have been left feeling angry, confused and frustrated. Others are worried about the impression these events might give of the school’s ethos.”
Around 40 staff joined the picket line outside the school, on Peaks Hill. Some were able to enjoy chocolate brownies, sent to them for the occasion by the author.
The NEU’s national president, Daniel Kebede, said: “Staff and pupils are absolutely gutted about what has happened. Banning a gay author from attending a book talk in the school sends out a really horrific message to the young people in this school and particularly to those who may be gay or lesbian.
“I would like everybody to consider how those particular children feel right now.”
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