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Monday, 14 December 2020 17:12

'The Secret Headteacher': Second Media Article Denigrating White Working Class Parents

Written by

Updated here, 2nd Feb 21.

I have written a number of times previously about the dreadful period when Ebbsfleet Academy was led by Alison Colwell. The previous occasion was back in April, about a book she has written, to be published under the title ‘The Secret Headteacher’ early next year, although there was little secret as her name was given openly in a Publisher’s blurb at the time.

My article demonstrated clearly that most of the claims made about the book are completely false, but this did not stop The Sunday Times repeating these two weeks ago, in its second plug for the book. This begins: ‘It has the makings of a Hollywood block­buster - a story about a failing school where the unsupervised children of angry parents roam the corridors, only for a new head teacher to take the place by the scruff of its neck and mould it into a model academy’. Absolute rubbish!

Just before she left Ebbsfleet, Ms Colwell chose to make an astonishing attack on the parents of a school where she had, according to the advertising blurb, ‘spent seven wonderful years’, which I examined in another article entitled ‘Ebbsfleet Academy: Parents rubbished by departing Principal’ demolishing yet more claims. She has now moved on to run the small private Baleares International College, Sa Porrassa, on the island of Mallorca. I look at all these issues, including how she is getting on in her new school, below.

The ST article continues its introduction: ‘A new book describing the harsh reali­ties of under-performing schools in Brit­ain presents what its author summed up in a pitch as "the challenges and sadness of looking after children, the astonishing troubles they experience... tales of poor (and great) parenting... drugs, violence, addiction, alcohol, crime ... astonishing and inspiring teachers".  So little left out there, although not one of the multiple incidents reported in the article indicates any element of this scale of devastation, unknown in the District. Indeed the large majority of incidents feature parents unable to cope with Ms Colwell’s uncompromising and confrontational style in verbal exchanges. Is ‘Hauled up in front of the head to tackle their child's bad behaviour and swearing, another parent tells his daughter to "shut the f*** up" really worth quoting in the ST. Apparently, it is all down to: ‘Colwell, familiar with acro­nyms such as ADHD and ADD, has come up with a different acronym to describe some of the family reactions she has wit­nessed - "PPP, or p*ss-poor parenting"’. It doesn’t take much more of this sort of thing in the many chosen quotations to see the contempt in which 'white and working class’ parents are held, underlined by the frightful: 'Families were fined for taking children out of school if their parents wanted a cheap package holiday', quoted as another demonstration of her tough discipline. Elsewhere in the county families deliberately flout the rules and pay the fine to take their children to Disneyland! I once tried to tell a mother she was a bad parent. I got shouted at and sworn at even more. It was not a strategy I tried again"  Just the once – wow! The good news is that under a new headteacher, with good experience, the school has settled down and is reported to be a much happier place, with not a single complaint coming my way over the past 15 months, and families no longer trying to move their children out to other schools or opting for Home Education.

Baleares International College
The school has capacity for 600 children, some 50% of these being English or from German-speaking countries living on the island, ranging from pre-school through to a Sixth Form of some 20 students, and sounding an idyllic situation. Ms Colwell certainly got a great build-up before her arrival: ‘In that time, she has turned around a failing school into one of the most improved in the country’, although, as I have demonstrated, neither part of the statement is true. She is reported to have boasted to parents that she secured the post of headteacher with none of the required criteria, from over 100 applicants. Quite a remarkable achievement.

Since Ms Colwell joined the school in September 2019, over a third of the secondary staff have left in just over a year, including four months when the school was closed during lockdown. These included the Heads of the Secondary section, of the Sixth Form and of English. Other teachers are reported to be looking for new posts elsewhere. Coincidentally, a third of the Ebbsfleet Academy staff left the school during her final year there. Staff describe her style as rule by announcement, together with divide and conquer strategy, reminiscent of the approach at Ebbsfleet.

A number of parents have withdrawn their children from the school, some reportedly to set up a Home Education Group (shades of Ebbsfleet), although new pupils are being accepted into Years 10 and 11 to fill vacancies. She has imported the ‘tough love’ principles that created such problems at Ebbsfleet into what could be called a ‘cosy’ small private school, where they are seen as highly inappropriate. She is fond of quoting as a model the style of a friend who runs Michaela Academy, a new Free School in Brent, with a reputation as ‘Britain’s Strictest School’, although the catchments of the two are of entirely different natures. One of a number of standing jokes in the school is the newly painted line down the middle of a secondary section corridor requiring pupils in a one-way system to keep to their own side; this in a small school which has very little disciplinary need. The need for constant change includes regular timetable rewrites, as Ms Colwell seeks to change the culture.

Deptford Green School
This article also looks back to before Ms Colwell's time at Ebbsfleet, to the five difficult years she spent as Deputy Head at Deptford Green School in South East London, where she also met and become close to a young teacher, Seamus Murphy, now CEO of Turner Schools. One problem with writing this series is the number of Ms Colwell's ex-colleagues at the three latest schools she has been in, who are keen to express their views. However, it would be inappropriate to share most of these with a wider audience. It is reported that she did leave Deptford Green suddenly during sports day in the summer of 2012, which left her free to be appointed by the Brook Learning Trust to an unspecified post at Swanscombe School (subsequently Ebbsfleet Academy) in September 2012, the story continuing here.  
 
The Teaching Profession
Bizarrely, Colwell hopes her book will motivate others to become teachers; she says teacher recruitment and retention were among her biggest headaches’. However, in the previous ST article She claimed the flood of UK teachers leaving state education for private schools abroad would surge unless foul-mouthed parents are tackled’. There are certainly teachers who choose to go abroad for a more comfortable life, but I have seen no evidence that this is a flood. With 11 out of the 33 full-time staff leaving Ebbsfleet Academy during Ms Colwell's last year in charge, I cannot believe this book will motivate anyone else to become a teacher as she claims. If it does attract any publicity, or even incredibly become a Hollywood Blockbuster (!) it will only damage further a profession that is working its heart out at present to deliver through the coronavirus pandemic, but which too often gets the blame for government failures. In one sense, today has been typical for me. I was told yet again of teachers, this time in both Medway and Swale, who are going the extra mile to cover for large numbers of other staff absent through Covid or imposed self-isolation, as heads struggle to keep their schools open.  I wonder how many of them are now thinking of swapping for a comfortable niche in Mallorca! Beware of what you wish for.
 
Postscript
Ms Colwell appears to have time on her hands as she has replied to an invitation on Linkedin from the founder of the Pathway Careers Training and Mentoring organisation: I'm on the lookout for any reputable trainers out there who I can speak to about a one day (online) management training course for a few people' as follows - 'I'll do it'.
 
Read 493 times Last modified on Tuesday, 02 February 2021 20:01

4 comments

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 16 December 2020 13:44 posted by Secret Headteacher

    The proper Secret Headteacher just gets on with the job, working in sometimes testing conditions, to make their schools happy and successful places for their pupils and staff.
    They support their school from the bottom upwards rather than dictating from the top.
    They neither seek or often receive recognition for what they achieve but get a good salary and lots of personal pleasure from the lives they are able to transform over time.
    However, I guess this would not make much of a book would it?

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 16 December 2020 09:57 posted by Janet Downs

    Another inexcusable aspect of the Colwell affair was the denigration of the previous head who, according to Colwell, presided over a culture that was too touch-feely. Colwell boasted in the Times glossy magazine that one of her first actions was to sack the school counsellor. Pupils should leave their problems at the school gate, she said. Presumably, these problems include such inconveniences as bereavement, family breakdown and caring responsibilities. Thankfully, only a few heads are so unfeeling.

  • Comment Link Monday, 14 December 2020 23:30 posted by Ex Staff member

    Don't let anyone tell you that Ms Colwell improved Ebbsfleet Academy. She was part of a conspiracy to force out her predecessor, standards went down not up, and by the time she left the school was averagely performing on Progress 8, the government key measure. To get there, she drove out staff who disagreed with her methods, children with a spark of independence in them and lowered the reputation of the school to rock bottom. Yes, she was a good talker and fooled Ofsted, but make no mistake there was rejoicing in the staff room when she left, apart from her cronies who realised the game was up.

  • Comment Link Monday, 14 December 2020 19:11 posted by Ebbsfleet Cynic

    Surely Sian Griffiths, Education Editor of The Sunday Times is a friend of Alison Colwell. As such should she be writing such a biased article? PETER: I have also heard this, but have no evidence to prove it.

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