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Sunday, 05 April 2020 11:43

The Secret Headteacher

Written by
You will find an important new article here, written in December 2020. 
This is the first of two articles about the Brook Learning Trust, looking at a new book entitled ‘The Secret Headteacher’, to be published in August about one of its schools.  The original advertising puff claims it to be
The true story of how a no-nonsense headteacher turned around one of the country's worst schools. The Secret Headteacher has spent the last 27 years in teaching, before which she spent 4 years in the police. This is the first memoir from a UK teacher to be published. Under the leadership of TSH, the school she led had a well-reported journey in turning around its reputation as one of the country's worst-performing schools, resulting in an Ofsted report judging the school "good".

There were just a few problems with this: (1) There is no secret; it’s about Alison Colwell, until last summer head of Ebbsfleet Academy, according to an advertisement for the book, reproduced below, although other advertising claims it is by ‘Anon’; (2) It was certainly not one of the worst performing schools in Kent before she took it over, let alone in the country - it was without any form of bad reputation at the time, and was in any case improving strongly before she was parachuted in as head; (3) Ofsted missed key indicators of decline during her leadership, including large numbers of families removing their children from the school, large numbers of families annually placed in the school who never applied for it, and high staff turnover - this is when the bad reputation set in; (4) ‘The first memoir of a UK headteacher’ – unbelievable; (5) ‘well reported’ refers to two puff articles in The Times and Sunday Times, the second being what, in my opinion, was a disgracefully unprofessional performance by the headteacher;  (6) I received more complaints about this school from families, than any other school in Kent during much of this time; (7) ‘confrontational’ is a better word than ‘no-nonsense’.

 Ebbsfleet Secret Headteacher

Update June 6th: I despair. The advertising puff has now got more desperate:

The Secret Headteacher charts an extraordinary principal's journey in diary form from the moment they took over at a failing secondary school in a deprived area of the country, where less than a quarter of children attained 5 or more A*-C GCSEs, and how they set about the gruelling task of transforming its reputation using their zero-tolerance, tough-love approach.
Armed with only a wicked sense of humour and fearless energy, the head put in place a stringent set of rules including a strict uniform policy and a complete ban on mobile phones, provoking resistance and hostility from parents, the wider community and on social media.
This is the darkly funny, moving story of how together, teachers and their - often wayward - pupils rebuilt a school and community, with an inspirational head at the helm.

For reference Ebbsfleet Academy is, as its title suggests, on the edge of the the massive new Ebbsfleet Garden City. This provides a growing sector of its intake, the other part certainly being deprived, but not even amongst the most deprived in Kent. It had a growing reputation before Ms Colwell took over, as explained below, but which suffered under her leadership, as explained above. The last 5 A-C Grade performance was 35%, well above the 'less than a quarter' claimed, which only happened under her leadership (see below). It wasn't the strict uniform policy and a complete ban on mobile phones that provoked resistance and hostility from parents, it was the ruthlessness that drove children and families away from the school (see below). A deputy head who was a lawyer, and a threatening culture from the school did not help the atmosphere. Certainly there was no sense of humour felt as the reputation of the school slumped, with staff at the time still very angry at her eight years on. Any sense of fun certainly had to be very dark not to be noticed by those trying to support the children, as explained in multiple articles on this site. In Ms Colwell's final year at Ebbsfleet, of the 197 children offered places at the school, 87, getting on for half the total, did not even apply for it, being Local Authority Allocations.  The school was not rebuilt in reputation until the current school year, under a new headteacher who is working hard to repair the damage.  

To continue:
Ms Colwell ran the school as one of Kent’s three tough love academiesWith  large numbers of pupils choosing to leave or being driven with the effect of improving performance, it became one of the least popular schools in Kent, as confirmed by the statistics. She publicly condemned the parents of the children at her school in the second ‘Sunday Times’ profile last summer, as she left to run a private school in Mallorca. The letter from Baleares International College, Sa Porrassa announcing her appointment has unfortunately got its facts wrong, as it falsely claimsshe has turned around a failing school into one of the most improved in the country’. Neither of these claims is true. Ebbsfleet Academy was certainly not failing when she arrived, as demonstrated below. At the time of her departure. Last summer, Ebbsfleet Academy  was middling in terms of performance for non-selective schools in Kent (32nd out of 68 schools in 2019, 44th in 2018 by the government's preferred measure of Progress 8, with other Kent schools having improved and surpassed it.

Ms Colwell was no doubt encouraged to write the book by two profile items in The Times and Sunday Times. The first was in 2015, which I considered in an article written shortly afterwards, demonstrating the falsehood of many of the claims made. This is one of several articles I have written tracking the many problems in the school during Ms Colwell’s leadership, beginning here. Even her arrival was controversial, having been appointed to a post at Swan Valley (the then name of the school) working for headteacher Nigel Jones, possibly with an eye to what was soon to come. Mr Jones, her predecessor, had brought the school up by its bootstraps and been highly praised by Ofsted in doing so. Then followed a clandestine meeting at a hotel in Maidstone when she was offered his job before he knew he was going the following week. This was hosted by Simon Webb, the unlamented local KCC Area Officer,who went on to oversee the removal of multiple headteachers across the county. As a KCC school at the time, this broke regulations about appointing headteachers, and I am not aware of any grounds given for removing him. Mr Jones went on to show what he is capable of, currently running a nearby twice Ofsted Outstanding Special School (far more complex then Ebbsfleet Academy).

Interestingly, the author of The Times article interviewed me for the first article and, although clearly uninterested in any criticisms, managed to misquote me by totally reversing the meaning of my comment about the ‘anywhere but Ebbsfleet’ syndrome which developed under her leadership.

In spite of Mr Jones’ achievement in raising standards, the fact remains that these declined after Ms Colwell arrived, although she has became confused and wrongly claimed that the new lower standards were achieved before her time as head. To clarify: 

The Ofsted Report of January 2011 recorded that "Students’ attainment has risen significantly at Swan Valley over the last few years as a result of improvements in the quality of teaching and learning and careful tracking and intervention, particularly in Key Stage 4. Challenging targets have been set and exceeded. The proportion of students achieving 5A* to C grades at GCSE last year was the school’s best ever result at 63%. When mathematics and English are included, the number gaining 5A* to C grades was 34% in 2010, also a record for Swan Valley ". For 2011 GCSE performance, this figure rose further to 35%. For 2012 and 2013, now under Ms Colwell's leadership, GCSE performance had slumped to second worst in the county in both years, at 24% (with by far the worst progress level in the county) and 28% respectively, for whatever reason. By 2014, it had crept back up to 36% including maths and English, fractionally above where it was before she took over.

According to Ms Colwell's second ST article: 'Her regime transformed the lives of some children. She urged pupils to be in bed by 9.30pm, ready to rise at 6am. [...] The proportion of pupils getting five good GCSEs rose from 24% to 60%'. Apart from the strange and I believe intrusive imperative to rise before many of the children's families would be astir, the GCSE claim is misleading as the 24% figure comes under her leadership, and not before, and is a sharp fall from those previous years under Mr Jones. Yes, the proportion of 5 GCSE's new grades 4-9 did rise to 60% in 2017. which has been quoted for the next two years. More importantly, the more recent outcome for 2018 published way before her interview with the ST but not mentioned, and before she will have applied for the post in Mallorca, saw it fall back sharply to 47%. Progress 8 is the Government's preferred measure of performance and for 2018, Ebbsfleet reflected this decline, down to -0.39 (Below Average) placing it 44th out of 66 non-selective schools in Kent.  It did rise to -0.33 for 2019,  32nd out of 68 n/s schools, but still hardy 'one of the most improved in the country'.

Final Claim from the school Website August 2019:
In the final news item before Ms Colwell left the school, she wrote:
Congratulations to all our Year 11 pupils who have achieved the best ever results in the history of the academy, with a 72% success rate in maths and 80% in English. Well done to all!! We are so proud and happy to celebrate with you. 
As I leave the school after 7 wonderful years, I just want to reiterate how incredibly proud I am of these results and indeed of the school we have built. Success comes down to leadership

Sadly, both appear false. In the first, she has as usual been selective. In the four years of the new GCSE grading system, for the 2019 results in Progress 8, the government's preferred measure, Ebbsfleet achieved a lower result than in 2016 and 2017. In the perhaps more relevant % Level 5 in English and Maths, 2017 was a better year with 37% against the 2019 32%. See here. The second quote about the seven wonderful years simply takes one's breath away, in its direct contradiction to her claims in Ebbsfleet Academy: Parents rubbished by departing Principal, and below when she talks about the flood of UK teachers leaving state education for private schools abroad would surge unless foul-mouthed parents are tackled. 7 Wonderful Years?

White and Working Class
The false assertion that ‘When she arrived at the then Swan Valley Community School it was “failing on every measure”,’ according to the second ST profile, is simply ridiculous and has been clearly disproved here. The same article quotes various parents verbally abusing her, but she then dismisses her own argument by recording that they are 'a tiny minority'. In any case there is no doubt that her confrontational style was inevitably going to antagonise many more than this tiny minority, especially if they came from the less articulate ‘white and working class’ she appears so clearly to despise. Even this doesn’t explain some of the earlier confrontations I have recorded, such as trying to use the home-school agreement to unlawfully force out pupils who didn’t fit the norms. 
Leaving the Country
In the second article, Ms Colwell claims that: the flood of UK teachers leaving state education for private schools abroad would surge unless foul-mouthed parents are tackled. I have searched for cannot find any evidence of this so-called flood, but am aware of some teachers being lured away for highly paid posts in pleasant parts of the world, often headteachers towards the end of their career. What there is copious evidence for, is the high number of teachers leaving the profession because of heavy workload which is very different and which we both agreed on at a conference two years ago. But perhaps the claim is made on the evidence that a third of all the teachers at Ebbsfleet Academy left the school in the year 2018-19, a very high rate of turnover that should worry anyone. Alternatively, the claim may simply be be just a self-justification of Ms Colwell's decision to leave these shores for a post in a holiday island.
I could go on, but my various articles already dismantle too many erroneous claims in the Times and Sunday Times articles and in the advertisement for ‘The Secret Headteacher’. One can only wonder why a reputable publishing company is going ahead with such a book.  
Last modified on Thursday, 11 March 2021 19:41


  • Comment Link Saturday, 12 December 2020 23:13 posted by Peter

    From PETER: My apologies but I accidentally pressed the delete button and cancelled all comments relating to all articles between 27th November and 7th December. If this applies to you, please feel free to comment again.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 14 April 2020 08:21 posted by Mary Brown

    Its always been about her not about the kids and this is clear by all the PR he has tried to generate for herself. A despicable woman who even when she was off to pastures new couldn't leave gracefully but had to stick the knife in as she left. There is nothing graceful about Alison Colwell. The new head is the complete opposite. Graceful, kind, driven and tough but has the children at the centre of everything. I feel for her as Colwell left behind a school full of teachers who were spoilt and often behaved worse than the kids if they dont get their way. It's going to take a while to undo this culture and start again.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 11 April 2020 07:06 posted by Rachael

    Those unfortunate children in the sunny Mediterranean. Or will Ms Colwell change her approach to suck up to poor little rich girls. If she doesn't she won't last long.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 11 April 2020 07:03 posted by Ex-Ebbsfleet Mum

    We are one of the many families driven out of Ebbsfleet by Colwell, because she couldn't stand us daring to complain about her fierce discipline. Our bright enthusiastic daughter was singled out because she dared to ask the wrong questions, and started to be come depressed and hate school. We were lucky enough to get her into Dartford STC where she has recovered her mojo. Yes, we did have a stand up with Colwell because she refused even to listen to our concerns.No we didn't abuse her, but were almost tempted to, to break through that glass exterior. You need to have met her to understand how she could inspire such animosity.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 09 April 2020 09:40 posted by Janet Downs

    The original puff piece praising Colwell in the Times glossy magazine was a sorry piece of journalism. The only critical point, expressed very mildly indeed, was that Colwell's appointment appeared not to have followed guidelines.

    Colwell's assertion that the regime at Swann Valley was well-meaning but rather wishy-washy and liberal was false - the previous head had been praised for his leadership.

    One of her first tasks, deemed laudable by the Times, was to sack the school counsellor who had 'pandered' to the students. Pupils must leave their problems at the door, she said. This hard-hearted policy was inhumane. Telling children who've been bereaved or are suffering abuse to forget about it shows lack of feeling.

    She boasted about parachuting in Teach First teachers. The Times said they were all leaving after their short time to pursue more lucrative careers in the City and the like. This, the Times implied was a good thing.

    As you say, no reputable publisher would consider publishing Colwell's self-aggrandising memoir.

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