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Sunday, 04 April 2021 16:58

The Battle for Pimlico Academy, and its Kent Connections

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Daniel Smith, the controversial new 'tough-love' Headteacher of Pimlico Academy appointed in September and now engaged in a battle attracting national media coverage,  was previously employed at the notorious Ebbsfleet Academy in North Kent for four years from September 2013, ending as Associate Principal. This was also a tough-love school, under its Principal Alison Colwell, who made the school’s approach crystal clear when she left the school in 2019, publicly blaming white working-class parents for her difficulties.

By coincidence, I also wrote about Mr Smith back in 2013 when he was an Assistant Principal at The Quest Academy in Croydon, on the occasion when he sent an email to a parent at Swan Valley School (subsequently Ebbsfleet Academy). The parent was politely questioning Swan Valley about the principle of a very restrictive home school agreement insisted on by the school, the email  (excerpt reproduced below) unlawfully threatening her with the possibility of applying for a court-imposed parenting order under the Academy’s Code of Conduct if she would not sign it. The school was not even an academy at that time so could not have had such a Code of Conduct. 

Mr Smith subsequently took up a post at Swan Valley, which continued the policy of threatening legal action for ‘difficult’ parents as it developed its tough-love policies. The unfortunate consequences of these are outlined in various articles, typically here, which also demonstrate that the many claims about its success were false and that confrontational leadership does not work, as is also apparent in the current drama at Pimlico. If Mr Smith is forced out, as seems increasingly likely, it will not be the fault of the students, but of those who mistakenly appointed him. 

I have covered the misfortunes of Ebbsfleet Academy many times in this website, including one of my earliest articles written in 2013 which covers the above incident. It explains that the email was sent to the parents from the Quest Academy, copy to the head of Swan Valley, although a representative of Swan Valley confirmed to me that the school had no connection whatsoever with Quest at the time. However Mr Smith, its author, wrote about ‘our Home-school Agreement’, and indeed the Swan Valley agreement at the time appeared based on that of Quest. The email can only be described as threatening, especially the section: “These 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”. A letter to another pupil at the time made clear that it was necessary for the Home School Agreement to be signed ‘so that your son can start the new academic year in September as planned’.

A subsequent article comments on a feature in The Times, explaining how tough-love had transformed Ebbsfleet Academy, which it had but for the worse. I also have a walk-on part  in the feature after an interview with the author: ‘An educational consultant tells me parents would come to him and say, “Get our son in anywhere … Anywhere but Swan Valley.”’’ Absolutely, but I was talking about events under the transformed new culture which continued until Ms Colwell and Mr Smith had both left the school, and not the improving school they had inherited. At the foot of my article, I appended a postscript: ‘After I had briefed the parent about the legal situation, she explained the regulations to the school, as a result of which they have now conceded they cannot stop her son returning to school in September. How unnecessary it all is, when with a different approach she would have been perfectly happy to sign’. By this time Mr Smith had taken a Graduate Diploma in Law whilst at The Quest. 

Daniel Smith
Mr Smith has had a rapid rise to the top. After a degree in PPE at Oxford in 2007, he immediately joined the Teach First Scheme for highfliers and was placed at Westminster Academy where, according to LinkedIn, he left three years later in 2010 as Assistant Principal, having taken an MA Degree in Political Theory in his spare time. He then moved as Assistant Principal to The Quest Academy in Croydon, where this time he gained a Diploma in Law in his spare time, no doubt encouraging him to offer legal advice. Joining Ebbsfleet Academy, in 2013 as Vice Principal, he had the time to acquire his first education qualification with an MA in Education Management. Mr Smith moved to Harris Garrard Academy in nearby Thamesmead as Principal in 2017, a school which had been placed in Special Measures shortly before he arrived, but he only stayed there for three years before moving yet again to Pimlico in September 2020. The ‘back to basics’ approach which he applied from the start without taking up any time to assess the situation, not only proved unpopular with students from a traditionally activist population, but  ‘Even teachers have joined the uprising against Mr Smith, with up to 30 said to be planning to leave at the end of the year, and a vote of no confidence in him by the National Education Union last night’, as reported by Mailonline, although this is a regular supporter of tough love policies. Surely this was a car crash waiting to happen from the start, with even the Trust leadership now backing down on various issues in the trial of strength with students, rather than supporting their uncompromising headteacher. How the Trustees must be wishing they had researched the appointment further to avoid this.  
Whilst not directly relevant to these events, I was struck by the following links between two very well connected headteachers. Dr Jo Saxton was appointed as a Curriculum Consultant to Future Academies in 2012 whose lead school was Pimlico Academy. The school had previously been found Ofsted Outstanding in 2010, after being placed in Special Measures four years earlier, bringing to an end its reputation as a school for the children of left-wing intellectuals to attend. Shortly afterwards she became CEO and Director for Education, resigning in February 2016 when she moved to Folkestone to found and run Turner Schools, a controversial and underperforming Academy Trust. She was then appointed to a post in the Department of Education in March 2020, when she also resigned as a Director of Ofqual, leaving the Turner Trust with a budget deficit of £1.3 million, in the hands of Sean Murphy.

Mr Murphy, then a young science teacher had married Alison Colwell, when both were at Deptford Green School, Ms Colwell being Deputy Head. She left mid-term to move to Ebbsfleet Academy, subsequently taking over as Principal at no notice when her predecessor, who had been doing a good job improving the school, was sacked with no notice. He subsequently went on and secured two consecutive Outstanding Inspection reports at his new school. Meanwhile, Ebbsfleet became the most unpopular school in Kent under Ms Colwell and Mr Smith, through its uncompromising and confrontational approach to difficulties, an approach which Mr Smith appears to have taken with him to Pimlico.

Read 1948 times Last modified on Thursday, 08 April 2021 06:34
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  • Comment Link Saturday, 10 April 2021 12:15 posted by Tawny Owl

    It is certainly worth reading ‘Zero Tolerance’ by The Old Grey Owl. Although not credited anyhwere, it is surely the story of Ebbsfleet Academy, complete with Camilla the Superhead. An illuminating read.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 07 April 2021 23:51 posted by John Fowler

    Excellent analysis and a sober lesson on the need for thorough pre-employment checks. Can I correct one point? I was a governor of Churchill Gardens Primary School from the end of 2011 until it closed as maintained school in September 2013 following a concerted campaign by DfE, Future and Westminster CC. The first reference to Jo Saxton was on 12 August 2012 when she was described as Director of Future’s ‘The Curriculum Centre’ although as far as we could ascertain she was not a teacher and had no relevant teaching qualification although it was claimed she ‘has extensive experience of improving standards and curricula in the primary sector’. By March 2013 she had the job title of Director of Education, Pimlico Academy Trust and we assumed the effective chief executive of the trust, two years before the date in your piece. PETER: Thank you very much for this, and the correction. I found it very difficult to pin down the roles at Future Academies as they varied according to the reference I read. I have now corrected my original.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 07 April 2021 18:13 posted by Fiat Lux

    And is it just a coincidence that Turner schools came breezing into Folkestone to ‘run’ these schools with their former CEO clearly an acquaintance of at least one of the Peers (namely Lord Nash)? It’s not what you know.....
    Turner Schools came having no knowledge of the area, dreadful man management skills and a one size fits all approach. The fallout in the local area in the last three years tells its own story. Shame we don’t all have a job in government to ‘fall’ into.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 06 April 2021 20:26 posted by Andrew Pearce, Follower of Academy Politics

    In your connectivity section, you have omitted to mention how Lords Nash and Agnew weave into the story, the former being Co-Founder of Future Academies and erstwhile Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools, the latter Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the School System. PETER: Indeed, I was trying to keep it relatively simple, but I agree these two Lords do come into the picture. Friends in high places!

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