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Wednesday, 09 January 2019 19:58

Holmesdale School: Further Revelations

Swale Academies Trust (SAT) has engaged in a series of email exchanges with Kent County Council staff, which have been forwarded to me following a Freedom of Information Request. These culminate in serious allegations that KCC tried to block the Trust’s attempts to prepare the failing Holmesdale School for the best possible start in January.

In particular Swale Academies Trust alleges that: KCC's deliberate and deeply damaging procrastination over the awarding of the support contract left the school without support from June 2018 to late November 2018; KCC attempted to block the appointment of a suitably experienced Headteacher to take on the Headship of Holmesdale at incredibly short notice; and that KCC refused to engage in SAT’s offer to provide Holmesdale with a full complement of teachers for January.

I have previously published another article explaining the issues at Holmesdale, which was itself highly critical of KCC’s failure to take positive steps, but this cache of emails takes the concerns to a new level, alleging serious failings by senior officers from both KCC and 'The Education People', Kent's privatised School Support Service. One can argue the details of the issues, but what is not in doubt is that the children at Holmesdale have been failed by the school for years, and KCC appears to have chosen to hinder, not help, the school’s recovery.

For much of the past year Holmesdale has been provided with inadequate school Support from The Education People (TEP), Kent’s In House commercial company set up to sell educational services to schools, which boasts on its website of its 'exceptional quality' for Secondary School Improvement  The section below demolishes this claim. 'Moral Purpose'?

Education People 3

 

This is a lengthy and quite technical article, but it raises serious issues about how KCC managed its responsibility for the children of Holmesdale School. The damage to their life chances should not simply be swept under the table. 

Whilst the emails, 46 in number, are in the public domain, by virtue of their being released to me under an FOI request, I am choosing not to publish them in full here, as I think it both unhelpful to identify the individuals named in them, and also important to focus on the key issues. However, I do quote excerpts from several of the messages below. What is clear from these emails is that there is ample evidence to support the allegations. 

The allegations in paragraph two above were sent by SAT to the KCC Corporate Director of Education on 12th December but, at the time of writing, the Authority has not acknowledged the complaints.

According to the email trail, the most recent problems began in June when SAT was awarded the sponsorship of Holmesdale under an Academy Order, as and when it became an academy. At that point, SAT understandably wanted to take over the direction of the school which had not moved on under the school support provided by Brook Learning Trust, according to the two Ofsted Inspection Reports. Instead, KCC came up with a contractual framework for anyone taking over responsibility for School Improvement. SAT found this framework inadequate for reasons spelled out in the enclosed email dated 28th June. These reasons appear entirely justified and, in my view, when taken along with other evidence show that KCC appears out of its depth in such a situation. A very lengthy follow up email, dated 20th July is also highly critical of KCC.  One puzzle is how a representative of The Education People was able to speak several times on behalf of KCC against SAT, given that the two are supposed to be separate entities.There could also be a conflict of interest, as TEP was not only deployed after SAT failed to get the contract it tried to keep them away from taking on responsibility. 

SAT:Over the past six weeks it has felt like the most important thing for (KCC) has been to keep SAT away from Holmesdale at any cost and be content to see the school struggle as collateral damage in this endeavour. Whilst that on the surface might appear somewhat of a dramatic representation, the facts of the matter are that the school has failed its first monitoring visit and had zero support for the past six weeks despite repeated offers from SAT as the sponsor to begin active support. If this is in fact solely down to the process that Kent must follow for the commissioning of any services from a third party I offer the view that the process is not fit for purpose.

Eventually in late September, SAT learned its bid to provide School Improvement to Holmesdale had been unsuccessful, although none of the alternative bidders for the contract (unspecified, if there were any) were appointed either, leaving the school in limbo. Two emails on 17th September and 20th September between the Trust and KCC, showed a complete breakdown in relationships, with SAT attempting to push the need for support outside a contract and KCC resenting the fact and the manner of this pressure.

Then in October, KCC suddenly reversed its decision and awarded SAT the School Improvement contract subject to it being signed. Further disagreements followed, with SAT wishing to appoint an Executive Head to oversee the work of the school, the Interim Executive Board for the school endorsing this decision, but KCC vetoing it.   

 On 2nd November, SAT refused to sign the contract as:This is because of clauses in the contract specification which state that teaching will be "trending towards outstanding and securely good" after 12 months. In addition there is the same requirement for personal development and for leadership but that the trending towards outstanding and securely good is after 6 months. It is worth remembering that Holmesdale is in Special Measures. Talk of outstanding in the contract and measuring how we perform against Ofsted outstanding criteria after 12 or 6 months is not remotely realistic. We will not sign on that basis, for the key reason being that payment relies upon this unrealistic benchmark being achieved. Further to this, (TEP) has told the IEB today that they think the contract we have been given to look at is the wrong one and has now been superseded. Given that the school had been allowed to decline further over the previous eight months, SAT’s objections were entirely reasonable. To have provided the wrong contract after such protracted negotiations is surely just incompetent!

The correct contract was eventually signed and SAT became School Improvement Partner to Holmesdale on 26th November but, with the resignation of the headteacher, the following exchange took place on 3rd December:

SAT: Following the news today that Tina Bissett has resigned as Headteacher at Holmesdale, I am writing to ask for authority from KCC for SAT to appoint a new substantive HT from 1st January  2019.  The Trust is hoping to have a conversation with a successor tomorrow, and as it will be in everyone's interests to have a suitably qualified and experienced Headteacher in place with minimal disruption of continuity I would be very grateful if you can confirm that we can go ahead and appoint.

KCC: We can discuss the future plans for Holmesdale in our meeting next week. Please be advised that it is not for the Trust to appoint a new headteacher. We would welcome a discussion with suggestions / proposals on how the school can operate in Tina's absence moving forward, or at least for the interim period between now and April. I understand that Seamus is there for a significant amount of time and has already identified to the staff that he is now, in effect, in charge. So SAT was able to respond rapidly for a school in crisis (see next section), and no headteacher, whilst KCC is happy to leave it until April.

December 11th
SAT, 1.10 p.m: I understand that (TEP) has, on behalf of KCC, refused to approve Nicki Hodges appointment as Acting Head teacher for Holmesdale. By refusing to approve Nicki Hodges appointment as the interim Head of Holmesdale in accordance with the wishes of the IEB you are placing the school and the Trust in an impossible position. We have worked hard to secure for Holmesdale a first class Headteacher for January who is experienced in the task of leading a school out of SM. The IEB and the Trust worked hard to choreograph yesterday a position whereby Tina Bissett's departure can be announced today, the staff told of Nicki's appointment and at the parents' meeting tonight the same message being conveyed. This has been organised to prevent further unnecessary disruption for the school. At the parents' meeting tonight we are expecting a large turnout with parents likely to be very anxious to know how the school will move forward. There is already a huge amount of unhappiness in the community and a lack of certainty about the future of the school will only serve to make this worse.

At present I am unable to announce that a suitably experienced Head will be in situ, despite this being agreed by the IEB unanimously because you will not approve her appointment. Without Nicki the school does not have a Head for January and we cannot do our work. This is manifestly not in the school's interests. Before the proverbial hits the fan in around 4 hours time could you please confirm Nicki's appointment in order that we can all move on.

KCC, 16.14: Given that the IEB chose to support your wishes and therefore rejected our advice to postpone the parents' meeting until the new year (which would have given a little more time to sort all of this out) the short answer to your email is that clearly it has to go ahead. With the agreement you have secured from the IEB (acting as employer) the parents can be told that the (KCC appointed) IEB has agreed to SAT providing  an Interim Head.  I don't think that there is much more to usefully be said beyond that.

The CEO of Swale Academies Trust submitted a forceful and formal letter of complaint about the actions of KCC senior officers to the Corporate Director of Education for KCC on 12th December. It contains serious allegations about their conduct which will no doubt need to be investigated. These allegation include those in Paragraph Two of this article. The email begins:

SAT: At the open parents' meeting held at Holmesdale last night there was a great deal of anger over the staffing predicament that the school faces with many teacher vacancies unable to be filled until at least April 2019. These absences will significantly impact upon children's results and life chances going forward. You may be aware that I wrote to (KCC) on October 19th offering to fill these vacancies for January 2019 prior to the resignation window closing on October 30th•  (KCC) did not even have the courtesy to reply.

In summary, KCC sought to block Swale Academies Trust from taking on the School Improvement contract for Holmesdale School over a period of some five months. It failed. KCC sought to block SAT from appointing an Executive Headteacher. It failed. KCC sought to block SAT from appointing an Interim headteacher. It failed.

KCC refused SAT permission to appoint nine teachers from January. SAT has made very late temporary arrangements to try and meet the needs.

It is widely accepted that Swale Academies Trust is a difficult organisation to negotiate with, but throughout it has stressed the importance of improving standards for the benefit of the pupils. KCC has consistently opposed SATs involvement in Holmesdale School,  mainly by citing procedural issues that do not appear to have restricted action in other parallel situations. Each of these have been overcome. Nowhere in the KCC documentation is there any reference to the pupils of the school or their welfare of education. However, KCC is concerned about an email that ‘makes reference to your negative perception regarding the competence of the Local Authority, which you make no attempt to disguise either publicly or to my colleagues’. I leave it to readers to judge if this is unfair.

The Education People
This is a commercial in-house company set up last year and run by KCC to sell education support services to schools. The Chairman of its Board is Patrick Leeson, recently retired KCC Corporate Director of Education. 

It makes claims on its website about its support for secondary schools: The support we provide to schools and colleges is of exceptional quality such that, in Kent, 92% of establishments are now rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. This is false, and the Kent secondary school improvement record is far from exceptional as shown below; arguably it is inadequate. 

Of the 97 Kent secondary schools which have been inspected, the latest Ofsted for just 87% are good or outstanding, not 92% as claimed. The latter figure is only partially achieved by omitting  the four RI or Inadequate schools under county control that have subsequently been academised and not yet re-inspected (Castle Community (now Goodwin Academy), Charles Dickens,  St Edmund's Catholic School & Swadelands (now Lenham School)).  The Education People cannot in any case claim to provide support for all of  Kent's schools in this way, as academies are under no obligation to take up their services including, for example, the nine Ofsted ‘Good’ schools of the Swale and Leigh Academies Trusts and many of the grammar schools. Of the 65 non-selective Kent schools, the 50 academies provide 84% good or outstanding. However, a third of the 15 county schools mainly supported by the Education People and previously by KCC do not reach this standard, with four having an inadequate latest Report: Charles Dickens, Swadelands, Holmesdale, and Royal Harbour. The first two have now been taken over as academies. Further, two of the ten Good county schools, North and Whitstable have only improved to this standard after having been taken over by Swale Academies Trust using its own school Improvement section. Further, two other county schools, Chaucer and Pent Valley, have closed after failure in the past four years.

None of this amounts to a record of success, let alone one of  ‘exceptional quality’.

In summary 

 
Latest Ofsted Outcomes for Kent Non-Selective Schools 
  Number
Percentage
O & G
O G R I
Kent Secondary Total 97 87% 30 54 9 4
Kent  Non Selective Latest 65 80% 5 47
NS Academies 50 84% 5 37 8 0
NS County  15  67% 0 10 1 4

  Note: two new Kent schools have not yet had an Ofsted Inspection. 

 

Last modified on Saturday, 23 February 2019 07:30

2 comments

  • Comment Link Thursday, 17 January 2019 11:00 posted by Ex Teacher

    As a teacher, I walked away from Holmesdale last year. I was appalled by the schools' failure to address its problems, but saddened to desert the children who are victims of incompetence. Brook Trust knew what the problems were, but failed to address them. How much were they paid? Keep it up Peter, you may be disliked for turning over these stones, but no one else will.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 16 January 2019 07:55 posted by Ex Governor Holmesdale

    I was a governor at Holmesdale and have kept my contacts ever since as the school has dropped like a brick from Ofsted 'Good' to this shambles. I couldn't agree more. What a disgrace. Heads should roll.

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