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Thursday, 11 June 2020 19:55

Kent Catholic Schools Partnership: An Unholy Row in Holy Quarters

Update 29 September. CEO Clive Webster has now resigned from the Trust. 
Update 29 June: The proposed Review of the Trust (see below)  has been postponed to a later date.
With over 9,000 visitors in the three weeks since this article has been published, it is by some way the most popular article on this site this year.
The controversial Chief Executive of the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership (KCSP) is 'unexpectedly away for his duties at present' and is reported to have been removed from his post. Whilst the Trust states that he remains an employee the discrepancy could well be explained by his being on gardening leave whilst arrangements are made. The KCSP is an Academy Trust that runs 19 Catholic primaries  and five secondaries out of a total of 26 primary and six secondary Catholic schools in the county. Clive Webster, the CEO, was paid an annual salary of £155-160,000 in 2018-19, above the level where the Department for Education warns Academy Trusts about high pay . 

A letter from the Partnership to me (4th June) states: ‘Thank you for contacting Kent Catholic Schools' Partnership.  I am able to confirm that Mr Webster is unexpectedly away from his duties at present but has not left KCSP and remains an employee of the Trust’. School governors are unable to get any further information and some are naturally very unhappy about this, approaching me on the subject of his departure. This is very surprising as KCSP is normally a highly disciplined organisation. Secrecy about the matter is unlikely to be helpful to anyone, unless discussions about Mr Webster's future are taking place.  

Clive Webster created a national controversy and unhappiness amongst many of the Trust’s primary schools last October when he instructed them not to host the Kent Test for grammar school entrance from this year onward. This decision appears to have been his own initiative and a subsequent letter from the then Archbishop of Southwark publicly reversed it, following an unholy row in the Trust. The depth of the public row over the decision to ban Trust schools from hosting the Kent Test cannot be understated. The Archbishop’s predecessor had earlier publicly blocked another unpopular policy personally championed by Mr Webster, reorganising the Trust structure, including leadership of the individual schools.

I originally had two articles running, both covering matters relating to the Partnership and issues at one of its schools, St Thomas' Catholic Primary in Sevenoaks. I have now separated these themes, the article relating to St Thomas being here. I have also reallocated comments to the article for which they are most relevant. 

Other events
Although there have been no further comments from the Trust about Mr Webster’s absence, Schoolsweek reports that in the absence of the CEO, Mark Harris – director of finance and HR – has taken on the role of deputy CEO (not Acting?) at KCSP. 

Headteachers and other senior school postholders in the Partnership received a letter on 17th June informing them that the Board has commissioned an evaluation of how the Partnership is performing. Apparently, it is of paramount importance to learn how the schools themselves see the Partnership (see below).

Following publication of the first version of this article, I learned of the controversy at St Thomas’ Catholic Primary School in Sevenoaks, where the headteacher was given ‘Special Leave’ until the end of the school year. A letter from the KCSP Chairman (in the absence of Mr Webster) informed parents this was because the Partnership’s ‘Immediate priority as a Trust must be the children and staff of St Thomas’. The unhappiness at the school is so great that I have covered events in a separate article, but it is clear that the Trust has been negligent in its oversight.  

Kent Test Hosting Ban
The controversy over the banning of Trust schools from hosting the Kent Test was extensively covered in the national media and I was interviewed on several occasions. I also received enquiries from as far away as Ireland and was sent copies of the relevant Trust Board Meeting Minutes which I used to illustrate my previous articles. Many of the Trust's primary schools were up in arms, as, although it is rightly Trust policy to support comprehensive education through Catholic secondary schools, many are proud of their pupils’ performance in the Kent Test and market those successes strongly. To make matters far worse, there was an explicit threat of disciplinary action to headteachers who ignored the instruction.

The ‘position statement’ from the Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, in my view a masterpiece of politics in the way it explains away previous events, made clear that: ‘"The ban was inoperable, discriminatory and not supported Canonically from the Bishops’ Conference, and so could not therefore be Diocesan policy’. Pretty conclusive and placing Mr Webster in an impossible position.

Reorganisation of Trust Schools into Clusters
In a second major controversy, Mr Webster proposed a radical reorganisation of Trust schools into clusters, each led by an Executive Head, with individual school Principals forced to re-apply for their jobs and losing responsibility for finance and related matters, described to me as ‘Confusing governance structures with completely unnecessary duplicate layers’. An attempt to bulldoze this through was again halted by an Archbishop, in this case, the late Most Rev. Peter Smith. One governor from a KCSP school described the existence of the current KCSP structure and model to me as “a white elephant best tolerated and ignored until it hopefully goes away”.. This was not helped by a view quoted in  SchoolsWeek that 'school leaders must face up to the fact that staff budgets need trimming. The reality is … there is too much of any school’s budget that goes on staffing. That’s a really difficult message to hear'. For schools facing severe finance cuts, this was regarded as a bit much from a leader on a £150,000 annual salary, proposing a team of superheads, no doubt on super salaries.
KCSP Letter regarding the Commissioned Evaluation Report
Update: The proposed Commissioned Evaluation Report outlined below has been postponed to a later date. This may well be connected with the publicity generated by this article,  and/or the realisation that there is considerable unhappiness about the current leadership of the Partnership which perhaps needs to be addressed first.  
I understand this project has been some time in the planning, although recent events clearly underline the critical need for such an analysis. St Mary’s University, Twickenham, which is carrying out the independent review, is generally regarded as the oldest Roman Catholic University in the United Kingdom grew out of a previous RC Teacher Training College. So it may be regarded either as having a strong and helpful insight into Catholic issues or alternatively be liable to support the status quo.

The letter explains that the members of the Partnership Board:

have our own sense of how the Partnership is performing, but of paramount importance to the Board are the views from the schools themselves.

The aim of the evaluation project is to secure a better understanding of what those views are.

St Mary’s will be looking at the extent to which the KCSP Directors, the Central Team and the Partnership are effectively:

• providing strategic leadership and operational guidance to the schools within the Partnership

• supporting schools better to serve the needs of their pupils and staff

The programme will start next week so there is a clear sense of urgency. There is a major concern about this 'paramount concern' of which, apparently, there has previously been little evidence. Any sense of Partnership has been secondary to the drive from the centre which created the two major issues described previously, along with others. 

Clive Webster
Mr Webster is in some ways one of the best qualified Academy Trust CEOs in the business, with a strong and varied track record, although he has no experience of senior leadership in a school. After several years as a classroom teacher, he became an educational psychologist and worked his way up to Principal Educational Psychologist, London borough of Hillingdon. After an MBA degree, he then climbed a different ladder to become Assistant Director for Children and Young People then Assistant Chief Executive, Surrey County Council. He then became Director of Children’s Services, Southampton City Council in 2005, being made redundant in 2013. However, it was not until 2015 that a scandal emerged of events during his time in Southampton: 'a damning report has heaped blame on “serious systemic and individual failings” and a completely “unstable” management of his department'.  Mr Webster was appointed as CEO of KCSP in 2013.
Mr Webster, CEO of the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership, was and presumably remains the Trust Designated Safeguarding Officer. This raises a number of questions. I am told that the safeguarding issue at St Thomas' concerning Mrs Aquilina was reported to Social Services and so there will be a record of this.  Was Mr Webster made aware of the matter before he took his absence? If not, who is currently acting Safety Officer for KCSB? Were they officially aware of this issue either after it was reported, or directly? In either case, why was no action taken before the matter was made public through this website?
The Trust
Schools in the Trust generally perform better than the average, and the KCSP rightly makes much of this in its public pronouncements. Its most recent Newsletter in September 2019  highlights GCSE performance, sent before the controversy broke when it was one of the top ten Trusts in the country for progress, for the second consecutive year. It may be coincidence but, given there are normally six newsletters published each year, there are none shown on the Trust website since.

The biggest problem was probably at St Edmund’s Catholic School, a secondary in Dover, which the Trust took over four years ago, and has improved its standard from the previous Special Measures under KCC. It has now improved its image and is oversubscribed for the first time in September, turning away 31 first preferences. However, it has been forced to close its Sixth Form through lack of demand during the lean years and is currently running at a net deficit of £257,000.

Nothing in this article decries this strong performance of the Trust in terms of school achievements and progress. It is rightly proud of its record of running 19 schools, nearly all high performing at either Key Stage Two or GCSE (in an academically selective county), an excellent Ofsted record with six Outstanding schools and, dare I say it, an excellent record in securing places at Kent grammar schools.  

The Trust has a declared ambition to run all 32 Kent Catholic schools by 2022. Presumably, those that haven't joined are resistant, and it has been suggested that Clive Webster was an obstacle, so it will be interesting to see what happens now, especially given recent events.

I have had correspondence with various educationalists associated with KCSP and past and present parents of St Thomas’. Whilst these are self-selecting, there is a consistent view about the problems of the Partnership, focusing on the attitudes and actions of the CEO, several of which are outlined in my previous articles on the Kent Test.  What I find unusual this time around is that the normal sense of loyalty that binds Catholics together appears to have fractured, indicating the level of concern felt by so many and underlined by the number and depth of comment on my previous article.

Last modified on Monday, 16 November 2020 19:29


  • Comment Link Friday, 19 June 2020 09:50 posted by Concerned parent again

    Hi previous poster - does your character reference take account of the facts surrounding the investigation - ie do you have specific detailed knowledge.

    Of course you and many parents and children will have had a happy time but that is hardly the point. It’s the incident that goes WRONG that counts in safeguarding matters, not the account of the many who (thankfully) have had a happy and contented time.

    It’s the one lost sheep not the rest of the flock when it comes to safeguarding....

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 17 June 2020 06:55 posted by Catholic

    KCSP must by now be well aware of your 'Unholy Row in Holy Quarters' (excellent title by the way) article, but has chosen to ignore it, allowing speculation about the position of its CEO Clive Webster to bubble. He is 'unexpectedly absent'. There are no clues as to why. It is said he has left his post following recent scandals in the Trust. We need an urgent statement from the Trust as to what is going on, or is it just too 'superior' to care.

  • Comment Link Sunday, 14 June 2020 14:13 posted by Concerned parent

    Deputy Head - there are strong rumours of an enormous issue with the head at one of KCSP’s primary schools at the moment. Whatever is going on with CW is nothing compared with what is said to have gone on at the school concerned; be interested to hear how that pans out...Covid or not! PETER: I have heard the same rumour about a local Catholic school. Feel free to name it; if necessary in a private email. It sounds as if the school needs to be exposed.

  • Comment Link Sunday, 14 June 2020 10:46 posted by Deputy Head

    Has the Catholic Church acted during the lockdown in the hope of getting this through quietly?

  • Comment Link Saturday, 13 June 2020 19:03 posted by James

    It would appear that Mr Webster is on gardening leave negotiating a financial reward for bringing KCSP into disrepute and running it into the ground. Nice work if you can get it!

  • Comment Link Saturday, 13 June 2020 17:22 posted by St Margaret Clitherow Parent

    It has now taken two Archbishops to highlight the fundamental issues with KCSP. Is it not now time for it to be disbanded (it can hardly be offered on to a non-secular Trust!). Clive Webster has too much to answer for and one can only pray that the answer to your hypothetical question is that he has gone quietly. However, I fear this is too much to ask. When he left Southampton he benefited from a large payout as 'compensation'. Schools are there for educating our children not engaging in this deep political squabbling

  • Comment Link Saturday, 13 June 2020 17:12 posted by KCSP School representative

    The removal of CW, if that is what has happened, gives hope that some of the other major issues will now be dealt with, and the focus returned to school-level rather than KCSP. As a body this is not the “light touch” wrapper that was promised when academy conversion happened but much more an empire-building exercise.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 13 June 2020 17:08 posted by KCSP School governor

    Peter: The legacy of the attempted restructure lives on in KCSP, with confusing and duplicate governance layers, multiple governor vacancies across the Trust’s schools etc etc. General view is that the the individual academies succeed in spite of the involvement of KCSP, not because of it (ie success or failure at an individual school level is for the same reasons as ever were). Much of the internal and external communication from CW and the board just seemed to be publicity aimed at justifying KCSP’s ongoing existence.

  • Comment Link Friday, 12 June 2020 14:16 posted by John Jones

    Did you carry out any independent research into Mr Webster of whom you speak so highly. PETER: I reported on what was publicly available. Subsequently: plenty more came in, which I have now incorporated in an extensive update.

  • Comment Link Friday, 12 June 2020 10:20 posted by Catholic Primary Head

    I have also heard this and am disappointed there is no clarification from KCSP. A clear statement on what is happening would stop rumours getting out of hand, but you Peter appear to have the inside track.

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