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Sunday, 05 July 2015 22:37

Two primary schools in the news: Fleetdown and Hempstead Juniors

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Fleetdown in Dartford: In its newsletter dated 26th June, the Headteacher announced that she and her governors may take away the place of any child who goes away on holiday in term-time and offer it to the next child on the waiting list. This is of course illegal, as the only way the place can be removed is by permanent exclusion. As the absence results from the parents' decision not that of the child there are no grounds to exclude because of serious misbehaviour the main criterion for permanent exclusion. The illegality is then compounded by the creation of a panel of governors to rule on whether the child can be offered a new place, a procedure which has no basis in law.

Hempstead Junior in Gillingham: as confirmed by the Medway Messenger, five of the eleven school governors have resigned “with the utmost reluctance” as it was “the only viable option left open” to them. In a letter to the school which I have seen, the governors said: “Despite our considerable efforts over the course of many months, we no longer believe we can work with the current head teacher to deliver sustainable progress for the school in general and, most importantly, for the children”. The clerk to the governors appears also to have resigned. Cabinet Member for Education, Mike O’Brien, is reported to have said “The decision by some of the governors is entirely a matter for them.” – Obviously no concerns there then!

Second Update on Hempstead: There is a comment below by the recent vice-chairman of Governors; another by the last but one chairman of governors; and a third, moving statement by teachers at the head's previous school. This is building up to be a strong indictment of current management and makes Medway Council's position look even  more precarious.


Fleetdown Primary School newsletter was brought to public attention on Wednesday by the BBC, and in an interview the headteacher unwisely called unauthorised holiday absence “a form of child abuse”. The published school newsletter states: “We want parents and pupils at Fleetdown who follow the school’s rules, and have decided that drastic measures need to be taken to halt the decline in attendance”.  Drastic but unfortunately illegal!

I do have enormous sympathy for the head of this school and many others as the removal of children for holidays or other unauthorised reasons can have a number of significant negative effects on the individual child and the school.

However, it is clear that fines, the recommended method of deterrent, are nothing of the sort, with Kent seeing a total of 5622 fines last school year, the largest amount in the country. For the savings on a holiday to Disneyland or the ski slopes far outweigh the fine levied, so schools have to come with other methods to discourage this and no, I don’t know what the solution is.

What I do know is that it is not a solution to illegally remove a child’s place at the school, fill it with another child and then invent another illegal process for governors to decide if the child should be offered an additional place. In such a case, the only legal route back is for the child to re-apply for a place and as the class would be full, then they have the right of appeal to an independent panel, a ridiculous scenario. With every single urban Dartford primary school full this year, Fleetdown is certainly not alone in facing this problem.

As I observed on Radio Kent, it is astonishing that this school has not sought advice about the legality of the matter in advance from KCC. Indeed a release from KCC notes amazingly that “The headteacher of Fleetdown Primary School  appears to be aware that it would be unlawful to exclude children on the basis described”. One can only wonder if her governors knew she is encouraging them to act outside the law. The release goes on to state ““As it is a local authority school, Kent County Council will be instructing the governors to amend their relevant behavioural and absence policy to reflect current legislation.” Surprise, surprise!

Hempstead Junior School governors had a different problem to solve when they found themselves unable to work with the headteacher who has clearly been making waves in the school since her appointment in September 2013. Parents have not been officially told about the resignation of the five governors, although the group is made up from the Chairman, Vice Chairman, Chairman of Finance along with two parent governors and the clerk to the Governing Body and staff received confirmation of their resignations. The June newsletter describes this as a “restructuring of the governing body”, a somewhat surprising description of what has happened. The governors have clearly behaved very professionally and have not gone into detail about their concerns although these have been shared with Medway Council, in the forlorn hope that the council would intervene on behalf of the children. Of the six governors remaining, one is the headteacher, and two are staff members, the Interim Chairman being the sole Medway Council representative (described by Mr O'Brien as "a strong local authority governor presence on the governing body" but presumably the sole reason "there is confidence progress will be maintained"), who used to work for the council.

What is most worrying is the attitude of Medway Council, to whom the governors made representations, with the Cabinet Member of Education apparently having no interest in their concerns, or those of parents. He places faith in the “strong local authority governor presence on the governing body and there is confidence progress will be maintained.", although this comprises just one governor.The school and Local Authority make capital out of its “Good OFSTED”, although this took place just a month after the headteacher took up post so this measured events before her arrival, and also reference to improved standards, although Key Stage 2 results over the past three years are virtually unchanged.

Indeed, in 2014, the latest year reported on, the school came just below Twydall Primary in KS2 performance, the latter being in Special Measures. The difference between the two is that Twydall governors have shown a determination to turn the school around, although having to battle Medway Council all the way. You will find the story of that battle elsewhere on this website, and the school is now negotiating a sponsorship arrangement with Rainham Mark Grammar School, an arrangement that looks an excellent prospect for the future welfare of Twydall’s pupils.

Comments on the Messenger article webpage paint  a grim picture of life at the school, and give strong clues as to why the governors resigned in the face of Medway Council refusal to take action. It is difficult to see what else they could do! Clearly yet another example of Medway Council leading from the top and burying its head in the sand to avoid taking action to improve matters.  The current headteacher's previous school, St Botolph's CofE Primary in Gravesend, is much improved since she moved to Hempstead, as confirmed by OFSTED. She was also Deputy Head at St Mary's Island CofE Primary at its low point of being in Special Measures.

Medway Council regularly makes public pronouncements on the value of governors, but Mr O’Brien now dismisses this with: “Our primary concern is always for the education of the children, and that is in no way affected by their decision”. In other words, the departure of the three most senior governors, two of the three parent governors and the clerk is a complete irrelevance! It could be that they are wrong in what they were trying to achieve, but ‘no way affected’ – never. Something is very wrong here.

Read 9656 times Last modified on Saturday, 18 July 2015 23:06


  • Comment Link Friday, 17 July 2015 10:02 posted by yvonne Lane

    I can only comment as mother of one of the Governors who made a reluctant resignation from Hempstead Junior School in 2015 : It was with great concern that I witnessed after the arrival of Mrs Smith, how the fulfilling, enjoyable service as Vice Governor my daughter was performing had quickly deteriorated into one of anxiety and stress. The worry and frustrations felt by her and others were inexcusable, I believe, and the subsequent loss to the children of Hempstead School will reverberate for some time in the future.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 16 July 2015 11:27 posted by John Woodhead

    Dear Peter
    As former members of staff from Mrs Smith’s previous school, we were concerned (but, sadly, not surprised) to learn that 5 governors at Hempstead Junior School, have recently resigned citing, as the reason, ‘an inability to work with the current head teacher’.

    Between December 2009 and December 2011, to our knowledge, 8 Governors left her previous school, including a Chair and a Vice-chair over a relatively short period of time.

    At least 7 highly respected and experienced teachers and a longstanding TA resigned during that period and this included a deputy head teacher, 2 assistant head teachers, the KS2 manager and the inclusion manager. The school also lost a number of ancillary staff. There were exit meetings, formal grievance procedures and appeals - situations that, until Mrs Smith’s arrival, had been unheard of in the history of the school.

    It is our understanding that the parents originated a petition strongly expressing their concerns at what they perceived to be happening.

    The NUT, in response to members’ concerns over levels of emotional upset within the school, conducted a Stress Survey. This found ‘a very significant level of stress among all of the teachers at the school’. The then General Secretary for Gravesham NUT stated that, in all his many years of dealing with case work this was the worst he had ever experienced. Some of those teachers may never fully recover.

    Under the circumstances, as reported, there are those who might question whether the Medway Education Authority and the Hempstead governors were in possession of the above information when their decision to appoint was made.

    We appreciate that head teachers have a very difficult job and that, in the current climate, it is exceptionally difficult to appoint primary head teachers in Kent. However, our concern now, of which your parent readers should be aware, is for the children. When relationships are severely affected, as would appear, we believe, to be the case in those schools for which Mrs Smith has, or has had, responsibility, teacher morale drops to an even lower level and teaching and learning are inevitably affected. We believe that the Medway Authority should therefore pay particular attention to the situation at the Hempstead Junior School and consider seriously the viability of governing the school under the present regime.

    Yours sincerely,

    John Woodhead
    Janet Rees
    Elaine Leadbetter
    Gill Cocks
    Linda Crouch
    Pam Mackey
    (Please note that there are many others who have read and support the contents of this letter but who are understandably cautious about adding their name.) PETER: This is a very unusual letter; as it is rare for teachers to come out and speak in this way and, moreover, to append their names. Taken in conjunction with the two comments below from the former vice-chairman of Hempstead Juniors and the last but one Chairman, there is surely enough here for Medway Council to set up an enquiry at least. But there again, this is Medway that has already thrown its weight behind the Headteacher apparently without looking into the issues, contrary to its recent claims to take strong action when heads are not delivering.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 15 July 2015 10:49 posted by John Cave

    Just read your excellent article on Hempstead Junior School I too resigned the chair of this school soon after the arrival of the current headteacher as I could quickly see that in my opinion she would be almost impossible to work with,
    This after some 15 or more years as a governor latterly as chair.
    Medways response was not to ask me my reasons or even to thank me for my services.
    Is our local LEA fit for purpose? PETER: This is absolutely shocking. Two consecutive chairmen, together with the other senior governors, all leaving and Medway Council's Cabinet member regards it as not a matter of importance or enquiry! Such a meltdown of the governing body of what was previously a good and happy school is almost unique in my extensive experience of tracking schools in trouble. The fact that Medway Council does not care a jot about this crisis in one of its own schools, confirms it is indeed NOT FIT FOR PURPOSE. My front page news item reporting on OFSTED's recent highly critical Inspection and its school improvement service, only underlines this. Can the Council really throw away governors with such experience?

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 14 July 2015 12:56 posted by Juliette Eastwood

    Thankyou Peter,

    You have captured the problems with the Head teacher eloquently and shown respect for the Governors, who have served this school for a combined total close on 26 years. Sadly your article paints a clear picture of why the LEA 'requires improvement'....perhaps some people there should be looking at how effective they are and considering whether they should resign!

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