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Friday, 26 February 2016 22:34

Hempstead Junior School - Headteacher Suspended

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The headteacher of Hempstead Junior School in Gillingham has been suspended after an extraordinary series of recent events, as described below, following a controversial time as headteacher since her appointment in September 2013, including conflict with staff and governors that resulted in a high turnover of both, together with difficult relations with many parents. However, she enjoyed the support of Medway Council and its Cabinet Member, Mike O'Brien throughout, even after a previous Chairman of Governors, the Vice Chairman, Chairman of Finance and two other governors resigned over their inability to work with the headteacher, the reason quoted in a letter to the Council as: "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”, which was a clear cry for help for the school. However, this was dismissed out of hand by Mr O'Brien who considered: "The decision by some of the governors is entirely a matter for them – Obviously no concerns there then! 

Hempstead Junior

Sadly, the Council has now chosen to dig itself in a deeper hole by belatedly sending out a letter to parents, stating: "The Headteacher is unwell and will be absent from the school for the time being",although there is now a wide awareness of the true facts in the school. The headteacher is pictured above with Mr O'Brien. 

The issues are exemplified by the extraordinary Minutes of an Extraordinary Governing Body meeting, which took place on 16th December 2015. These feature the proposal to remove Mr John Colam, vice chair and then Acting Chair of Governors at the time of the Meeting, from the Board. Oddly, neither the headteacher (who had submitted 50 pages of evidence against Mr Colam after the closing date for providing evidence to the meeting), nor the proposer of the motion chose to attend the meeting. The proposal was rejected, and then Mr Colam was elected Joint Chairman of the Governing Body! The motion proposer resigned from the GB next day. You can catch a flavour of the issues with parents in the passionate comments below, although I have tried mainly to keep the focus of this article and a previous one on the factual evidence. 

The letter explaining the absence of the headteacher was sent above the signatures of the two co-chairs of governors  and begins: "We have been asked by Medway Local Authority to provide you with their statement concerning the Headteacher Mrs Smith". In other words the school and governors had nothing to do with preparing the statement  that follows! The letter took two school days to prepare amidst rumour swirling around over the weekend, the headteacher having reportedly being seen being escorted off the premises by a Medway Council officer. Of course it would have been a good opportunity to deny the facts in this article, which are increasingly widely known in the school community and beyond, but naturally I am being asked why the Council version differs from my version of events. Clearly governors and the school do not wish to deny my story, which is why they have placed responsibility on the Council.

I am afraid browsers will have to come to your own view on which version is true but clearly, either I am mistaken or Medway Council is not telling the truth unless the suspension has made the headteacher unwell, in which case both can be valid! Personally, I would have thought that if I was genuinely mistaken although I am confident of my information from a variety of sources now,  that Medway Council or the Governing Body should have contacted me to tell me so, given the importance of the matter! Interestingly, the letter, re-produced in full in one of the comments below, also  contains the statement: "Hempstead Junior School has always been a great team and ‘family’ and we all need to pull together".  We have been told this is a council statement, but whilst it appears to be pretending to be from the HJS 'family', shows a familiar lack of understanding of what has been going on in the school. The Medway Messenger has yet a different response from Medway Council: "A Council spokesman said "The head teacher has been away from the school for a few days, and the day to day running of the school continues as normal"So in fact, no problems at all worth mentioning!  The Council letter appears to have created a new policy, but will Medway Council now notify parents as a norm in other schools when headteachers are unwell?

The Council had previously tried to stem the tide of unhappiness surging through the school by appointing a new Chairman of Governors to resolve relationship issues between head and governors in the short term, after the two previous ones had resigned. She was a Local Authority appointee and previous employee of Medway Council described by the Medway Council Cabinet Member as: "a strong local authority governor presence on the governing body”. but lasted less than a year and then resigned, the third Chairman to resign since Mrs Smith's appointment. During this latest period, the Council expressed concern about the following of GB procedures, and the school has been issued with two Warning Notices one relating to financial measures the other to leadership and governance.

But even this appears to have raised no alarm bells at Medway Council, about the leadership of the school which then took another turn for the worse, as the headteacher tried to remove the Acting Chairman of Governors three months ago. Following the public information about governor turnover is difficult, but five resigned last summer, and others have gone since, many evidently unable to tolerate the headteacher’s style of management and leadership. I have looked at the Minutes of all the relevant GB Meetings and have to say, I see only a very professional group of people concerned for the future of this very troubled school trying to carry out governance properly, but lacking Local Authority support. 

OFSTED intervened with a Special one day Inspection of the school in January, although whilst this is full of praise for the teaching taking place, it clearly agrees with the Local Authority assessment that the school is ‘causing concern’. This was broadly neutral in allocating blame between head and governors, apparently influenced by Medway Council which, along with Cabinet Member Mike O'Brien, has been very supportive of the headteacher at the expense of governors until now. Recommendations of the Inspection Report include restoring good communication and trust between governors and the headteacher, and redoubling efforts to ensure the widespread trust and confidence of staff and parents in the school’s leadership, including governance. Sadly these recommendations sounded unduly optimistic given the current meltdown (sentence written before latest news). It was pleasing to see the co-chairmen writing a very positive letter to staff after the inspection to congratulate them on the quality of teaching identified in the school, as academically Hempstead Juniors continues to enjoy success although staff turnover could affect this in the future. However, a letter sent out by Mrs Smith to staff shortly after this shows an astonishing lack of awareness of the issues, as it appears to lay the blame at everyone else's feet, with no hint of recognition of any personal fault. Amongst those at fault for the situation apparently are: the governance of the school; long term staff having left and some current staff who complained to OFSTED; staff failing to follow proper procedures for complaint; failure by staff to keep an eye on each other and take action if they are being negative or unprofessional; and a minority of parents who are negative in the playground and on social media. Apparently all that was needed was some tweaking and all would be well. Sadly, this last sentiment appears a gross misjudgment, perhaps one amongst many. 

Below you will find amongst the 25 comments, sixteen powerful testimonies (and one contrary view). At an earlier stage I chose to remove some of the most passionate phrases, but these are to the best of my knowledge all genuine postings, and there is nothing offensive about any of them; I was just concerned about unproven allegations (the anonymous postings have generally identified themselves to me!). 



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