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Monday, 16 November 2020 19:58

Dismissal of Kent Headteacher for Gross Misconduct

 Update 28th November: To few people's surprise surely, Mrs Aquilina's actions have led to a proposal for the KCSP to bring St Thomas Catholic Primary School into a cluster of West Kent schools. See below for details. 

It was announced today that the Headteacher of St Thomas’ Catholic Primary School in Sevenoaks, Mrs Claudia Aquilina, has been dismissed for gross misconduct by her employers, the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership. This follows her suspension from the post earlier this year on June 17th. The decision to suspend was highly controversial amongst some Catholic parents as she had a loyal following who thought her wonderful. The record 89 comments attached to my initial article, which with its predecessor has now been read over thirty thousand times, indicate the depth of feeling she aroused, both positive and negative.

St Thomas Sevenoaks 2

Over the many years I have been commenting on Kent and Medway education matters, I have seen a number of headteachers removed from their posts, but cannot recall any dismissed as bluntly as this, indicating the seriousness of the case.

That original suspension was certainly due to a serious breach of both safeguarding legislation and of lockdown requirements, although not related to child abuse. I was given a version of the allegations at the time which made sense and were about completely inappropriate behaviour by a professional but, in some very generous lights, could be seen as simply foolish.

By the end of the summer term, the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership (KCSP) considered it appropriate to bring the suspension to a halt and she was to be reinstated in September. However, the whole matter was becoming exceedingly complex with her husband, a Catholic parish priest who became involved with school affairs,  standing down ‘voluntarily’ from his post, and supporters campaigning strongly for her return to school. I updated the story at the beginning of September when KCSP changed their view and renewed the suspension, apparently because of further events either discovered or happening.

The Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, the Most Rev John Wilson, has got drawn into the story because of the actions of Father Aquilina. The Diocesan Director of Education & Schools Commissioner, Dr Simon Hughes, was drafted in as a Governor of the school in September, highlighting the seriousness of the case.

Some parents got up a petition sent to the Archbishop, blaming the suspension on to KCSP who they alleged were incompetent and also engaged in a Trust centralising policy damaging to the school. You will find my comments on the inflammatory update here.  Certainly, the Trust has had its own problems as explained here, although there appears no obvious link between the two.

Catholic politics became involved in the story because of the Ordinariate, a branch of Catholicism set up around 2010 which allowed married priests to continue to practise, although Father Aquilina complicated matters by leaving the order after being appointed a parish priest. 

It does look as if those supporters of Mrs Aquilina have become less vocal in recent months, perhaps indicating an acceptance of the reality.  The school is now looking for a new headteacher. I wish it well after the last few traumatic years. 

Post Script: On the day this article was written, a small show of defiance against the decision was taken by the distribution of a leaflet via the windscreen wipers of parental cars in a nearby car park. Although it was sprinkled with false claims,  the leaflet appeared to refer to information not in the public domain. It is worth remembering the parental view of the school identified by Ofsted in 2019, which strongly challenges the picture of nirvana conjured up by this leaflet. 

Proposal to place St Thomas' into a cluster of West Kent Schools
 St Thomas' Catholic Primary School under Mrs Aquilina has had a controversial past few years even before the recent events. The shocking outcome of a drive by the school to get parents posting views on its Ofsted Parentview webpage are a strong indicator of this, and yet the school has still been split by a powerful clique of followers of the headteacher and her husband, currently 'on leave' from his own post as vicar of the Catholic parish of Westerham and Biggin Hill. Something had to give and it turned out to be the actions of Mrs Aquilina, that first caused her to be suspended and then dismissed from her post. You can find the latest outcome in a letter to parents dated 28th November, from the Kent Catholic Schools Partnership here, which now proposes to place St Thomas' under the control of a strong and successful school leader. If this small one form entry primary school had been in safe hands it would have been allowed to continue along its own path, as apparently was promised in principle back in 2017, but the Trust does have a greater responsibility to all the children. The Catholic Diocese of Southwark made clear its determination to resolve local problems by first appointing the Diocesan Director of Education & Schools Commissioner to the school's governing body (see above). Then earlier this week Monsignor John O'Toole was appointed to the Governing Body of KCSP. He is Episcopal Vicar for Kent until a new Auxiliary Bishop for the Archdiocese is appointed by the Holy See, and is also Chaplain to His Holiness the Pope. Parents need to stop whistling in the dark and pull together to restore the reputation of the school, although it is clear that much of the furore is created by outsiders amongst the astonishing 42,000 visitors to the three articles I have written on the subject who no doubt feel they are being helpful. 

 

Last modified on Sunday, 29 November 2020 18:54

21 comments

  • Comment Link Sunday, 29 November 2020 16:29 posted by Shaw Taylor

    From Sylvester: "I don’t think one can be sure that any emails or other confidential material will have actually been shared with the author. It could simply be that the author was listening to someone who had seen them.....It is also possible that some of those people that saw such material ought not, strictly speaking, have done so but did so in the course of, for example, their day to day work."

    Random thought: Perhaps info was inadvertently shared over a phone call..or overheard.....or perhaps shared over a meal? Some nice seafood, maybe even oysters if the occasion suited, followed by a beautiful rabbit stew. Perhaps info slipped out after a glass or two of muscat, who knows...then onto the windscreens. Easily done I suppose.

    Take care and keep 'em peeled, Shaw

  • Comment Link Saturday, 28 November 2020 23:59 posted by Ieuan Gutteridge

    I’d respectfully agree with some of the recent writers. Although I’m sure there are the best of intentions on the part of people trying to defend the previous (Westerham parish led) regime at the school, we can all do without any more of this. It has caused enough damage already and we really do need to move on.

    Please help us in trying to achieve that. Especially people without any connection with the school; it really isn’t helping at all. So please stop if you can.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 28 November 2020 22:41 posted by Exasperated of Sevenoaks

    This is a public website so I am not sure anyone needs to prequalify before they can comment. And to both U-turn and Iron Age I would respectfully point out that my post was focused primarily on proposals that will significantly change the Leadership and Governance of the school. If they are parents I think their attention might be more usefully directed at those changes. They don’t have long. PETER: What makes you think this is a public website? But thank you for explaining to me how it operates.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 28 November 2020 20:19 posted by Euan G Atteridge

    I’d agree - let’s move forwards together and we don’t really need any more input from people unconnected with the school who just want to grind axes. Let’s work with KCSP and the governors and move on.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 28 November 2020 17:47 posted by U-Turn if U Want 2 of Sevenoaks

    "Due process has been completed and I am sure that any decision will have been taken in the light of the evidence presented and with proper regard for the relevant safeguarding rules. It is time for everyone to move on."

    Yes let's all move on.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 28 November 2020 16:51 posted by Iron Great Age

    I think, respectfully, that there are too many people commenting on here who are not parents at the school. Indeed, some only seem to be connected to the school because they are friends of the former head teacher or parishioners of her still-suspended husband, and hence have an axe to grind as it were.

    Please, given the trauma that has happened at the school over the past months, can we provide the school and its real stakeholders (students, parents, staff and governors and KCSP) the space to move forwards together in collaboration?
    Thank you. PETER: I don't think I have too much to disagree with this.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 28 November 2020 13:07 posted by Exasperated of Sevenoaks

    After what must have been nearly a full week of careful thought and reflection the KCSP have announced in a letter to parents the fruition of a 3 year old plan to put St Thomas into an academy cluster under the leadership of an Executive Headteacher. As part of this transition there will be no like for like replacement of the Headteacher role. St Thomas will instead be overseen remotely by an Executive Headteacher with an Academy Principal – effectively a Deputy Headteacher role - being put in place to run the day to day life of the Academy. The change from single academy will take place over the Christmas holiday.

    Parents are being given just a week to submit written questions on the change to the KCSP. They will be spoilt for choice since the vast majority of responsibilities and accountabilities formerly delegated to the local Governors will be lifted and shifted to the Executive Governing Body that currently oversees schools in Tonbridge and Tunbridge Wells. This includes Admissions Policy, Safeguarding, Finance and HR. Just how major a shift it is can be illustrated by a simple example: voluntary parental contributions to the school will now be overseen by the Executive Governing Body, not those at the school. Thus the degree of autonomy offered locally will be far less than when St Thomas’ sat under Local Authority control. No wonder parents are being offered the chance to “ask questions” rather than vote or have their voice actually heeded.

    This change will come as a surprise to no-one who saw the petition circulated over the summer calling for the reinstatement of Mrs Aquilina, or the successor “windscreen letter” circulated rather more informally last week. Both made clear that the KCSP agenda was to move the school to this cluster arrangement. What is curious is that KCSP were so coy about their “oven-ready” plan until just after parents received the rather heavy-handed notification of Mrs Aquilina’s departure. So the moral of this story is: if you want to know what is really going on watch out for letters left under your car windscreen. PETER: Sadly the actions of Mrs Aquilina have brought about the consequences that some parents most wished to avoid.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 25 November 2020 12:42 posted by Dave

    It’s good that some positives are coming out of all this. If former sceptics like Exasperated of Sevenoaks are now seeing past events and leadership in a different light then that can only be a good thing.

    We are blessed to have someone of the calibre of Dr Si Hughes involved. All to the good.

  • Comment Link Saturday, 21 November 2020 18:48 posted by Nulla salus for you Exhausted!

    Exhausted!:

    You really ought to know by now that ANY criticism of the former regime or its senior team members will be swiftly met by an accusation of being ‘un-Christian’. Have you not learned anything...!? You simply shouldn’t hold those kind of views, let alone publish them on a public blog. PETER: I think the last sentence is being ironic. If not please resubmit with clarity.

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 18:45 posted by Sean

    Hi

    - people are entitled to send wishes (and money or anything) to the ex Head if they so wish as a leaving gift

    - people are entitled if they so wish not to hold in high esteem a Headteacher who has been sacked for not being able to keep kids safe

    - we seem to have another poster who claims to know more about the case than they should: “also isn’t it curious that no other authorities have been involved, which they surely would....”. Er how might they know that to be the case.....?

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 17:20 posted by The spleen doctor

    Just reading through all the messages on here and I am struck initially by Sylvester's more recent comment. The underlying sentiment seems to be (although of course I can't be sure) that he accepts the dismissal of the former Head...but is hurting...and is hunting high and low to find other issues somewhere and somehow to try to paint a picture that "all are as bad as each other and Mrs Aq is no worse". I think trying to paint the education system and all who work within it in that way is something of a stretch. As if to say if we all looked hard enough there would be people guilty of gross misconduct all over the place, in every school, so we should be more accepting of bad stuff.

    The writer of the windscreen letter on the other hand seems less ready to accept the dismissal, and is adamant that there has been some kind of big miscarriage of justice but can't really put their finger on why or how.
    Windscreen wants the powers that be to do something about something...anything...but he/she isn't really sure what. It's all very frustrating and disappointing and hard to accept for Windscreen and the output as a result is all a bit mixed up and incoherent, inadvertently seeming to claim that they have access to some kind of inside track, which Sylvester has tried to explain away in comments here. The problem being of course that unless you have an inside track you can't know the truth and so you can't really present things as "the truth".

    One big anomaly is that Windscreen doesn't believe KCSP to have delivered justice in respect of the former Head; yet Windscreen seems to want to trust KCSP to deliver some kind of justice in respect of this other alleged issue to which both he/she and Sylvester obliquely refer.

    I of course am not aware of whether Windscreen and Sylvester are acquainted but perhaps if they are they could compare notes with each other.

    As I mention above, reference has been made by Windscreen and by Sylvester to an issue or incident. One would hope and assume that parents directly affected (if any) will take up any issues with the school and/or KCSP privately themselves. I don't think they need Sylvester or Windscreen taking it upon themselves to create some kind of bandwagon; it could look horribly like they are using other people's children to as a vehicle to vent their spleen in the face of the outcome reached re the former Head.

    In fact I think it already looks like that, sadly.

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 16:58 posted by Curious Parent

    ‘Exhausted!’ seems personally offended by the idea of sending a thank you/farewell card to someone who has dedicated 5 years of service to the school. For ‘Exhausted!’, whatever Mrs A’s 'misconduct' it seems to have cast a huge shadow over all the positives she has done over the years. Even the letter from KCSP had the decency to mention some appreciation. I read from this that ‘Exhausted!’ knows much more than us, or perhaps just isn’t a fan of Mrs A.

    We are, after all, a Catholic school, and it would be very unchristian not to send a card. What kind of example would we be setting our children, certainly not one of compassion, gratitude or forgiveness. To me it seems fitting that a parent governor arranges this, and it must have been agreed by Mr Wright to have been sent out on the school email, I think it’s absolutely the right thing to do.

    But perhaps ‘Exhausted!’ knows more than the rest of us. What is this “gross misconduct” that she has been “disgraced and dismissed” for. Mr Reed has already said it is nothing to do with child abuse. But I assume that Mrs A has done something very serious and detrimental to child safety to be sacked, given the indifference to the class Mass at St Thomas Church on Oct 13. It must be much, much worse than that which involved filming and streaming children to YouTube without parental permission, sitting them all on top of each other during a pandemic, and I even heard that a child became ill when the priest gave them communion when they weren't supposed to have it.

    I am surprised though, that no parents have heard about it, whatever this dreadful incident is. Within such a small school, we all heard about the first charge, the one where she gave help to a family in lockdown. We all heard about the recent disastrous mass on Oct 13. Perhaps it occurred between July (when she was reinstated) and September (when she was placed on special leave), but then our children weren’t at school during this time.

    Also isn’t it curious that no other authorities have been involved, which they surely would have been if a child has been endangered. I’d like to know because were my children even safe these last few years? I always felt that they were, but now I’m just left wondering. We have a right to know what happened. If anything did happen that is.

    I also find the flyer letter intriguing, the petition that went around the school also mentioned changes to the leadership structure. It will be interesting to see what is the next step for the school. I’m assuming we will get a replacement headteacher and that will prove the flyer and petition to be “fake news”. Both said the motivation is a leadership change, notably KCSP’s unpopular executive model - one head between a cluster of schools. Well it better be fake news, I wouldn’t be happy about that. I heard how bad it went down at St Greg’s when they became part of that model. The school will go down hill for sure. But at this point I will rely on the assurances that the cluster system, blocked by the previous Archbishop, has not been revived under the new one. Or if it has, parents are allowed to have their say. I would certainly not want Mrs Aquilina’s departure to be used as a pretext for moving the school into a cluster. Now that would be a disgrace.PETER: This is the final lengthy tirade I will let through. Please keep future comments factual and fewer than 200 words (the one above arrived before I could finish this edit!).

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 12:18 posted by Exhausted!

    The soap opera continues unabated. It was too much to hope that the dismissal of the head for gross misconduct would bring to end this sorry saga.

    On Tuesday, we were treated to the embarrassing 'windscreen letter' which was part of a continued desperate attempt to manipulate the narrative—suggesting that somehow there was a conspiracy at play, rather than acknowledging the simple truth that the head was the author of her demise.

    On Thursday, through the school email system parents received an email from a parent governor soliciting financial gifts and messages of gratitude and support to be passed on to the ex-head.

    I entirely understand the school facilitating the forwarding of gifts and cards from parents who wish to do so. But for a governor in his official capacity to set up a gift registry for a head, disgraced and dismissed for gross misconduct is both ludicrous and offensive.

    The role of the local governing body is to be champions for school, and the safety and education of pupils. It is not their place to reward a head, who has been dismissed, in part for failing to follow and implement standard educational, safeguarding norms.

    That a governor should act in this way demonstrates a profound misunderstanding of his role. It doesn't matter how nice Mrs Aquilina is, and she is, she showed a cavalier disregard for safeguarding and paid the price. I suggest that he and any governors that support this initiative should consider their positions on the governing body.

    Maybe KCSP and, or, the governing body should issue a position statement that the individual governor acted outside of the governing body's knowledge and authority and on his own account, presumably reflecting his views and not those of KCSP or the local governing body?

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 09:52 posted by Sylvester

    Some very good points here although I do not think they have in any way invalidated my arguments. But a few more thoughts from me..

    We are, as Mixed Metaphor has said, discussing issues that the church, to its credit, is trying to address. But that should not blind us to the fact that mistakes continue to happen. So the events of last month need to be thoroughly investigated and those responsible dealt with because what is the point of selective justice? Disciplining in some cases but not in others? Acting (or rather not acting) as though some continue to have a free pass? That is not a church cleaning up its act. That is a church that has learned nothing.

    Some have said that the author of the windscreen letter could have only written the letter they did had they been given access to confidential emails. I continue to question this assertion. Peter could only write this helpful blog if he were supplied with information provided by various people involved in Kent Education. I am sure that in doing so there are no breaches of confidential information. In writing the blog he will reach conclusions , presumably based on a mixture of written evidence and conversations with actors involved in the various events. That is a fine service to parents in Kent. Peter has clearly reached his own conclusions in this case and it is clear to him that KCSP have proceeded perfectly properly. Moreover he assures us that the Catholic Church’s own lawyers will have reviewed this case. On what basis could he have reached such a view? Could he have done so only by being shown confidential data? Certainly not I would have hoped. No I am assuming that any information shared, was shared appropriately and that we should accept it on that basis. So, because the author of the windscreen letter takes a different view to the one prevailing here we should not assume that their arguments must either be untrue or could only have been reached by resorting to dubious methods. That truly is the territory of Trump. PETER: Your assumptions about me are false. Please don't develop conspiracy theories.

  • Comment Link Friday, 20 November 2020 05:38 posted by Mixed Metaphor

    Peter, your Trump analogy appears very apposite. Blind loyalty by a faction with no regard for the truth, having lost the battle, are quite prepared to bring the whole structure down if possible. Heavens above, this is a church school! And then there is the character off stage, also in trouble with a Catholic church rightly determined to clean up its act.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 19 November 2020 13:06 posted by Totally and utterly confused

    It’s all very confusing. The letter I saw presents a host of assertions and accusations as if they are factual. It even says “THE TRUTH” in big and bold at the top.

    Surely the writer of the windscreen letter was sure of their facts in order to be so bold. Sylvester seems to cast doubt on that eg “could simply be that the author was listening to someone who had seen them” and “ what they may have shared with the author is a sense that....”. Sylvester’s analysis points to this all being based on hearsay and an expression of opinion rather than any real facts.

    But it would be strange for the writer to position the letter as “THE TRUTH” without having access to the facts. So either totally inappropriate stuff has been passed to the writer of “THE TRUTH” presumably in order to help them write the piece, or it isn’t the truth at all, surely? PETER:: I am afraid I am not confused at all. Mrs Aquilina has been dismissed for grosss misconduct. This is not a light charge and will have been checked carefully by the Catholic Church's lawyers, conscious that any issue relating to safeguarding in these delicate times for the Church will be scrutinised. . To claim that a leaflet left on car windscreens is likely to bear anything resembling 'THE TRUTH' it so proudly proclaims is surely an echo of the methods of Trumpist falsehoods from across the Atlantic.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 19 November 2020 11:04 posted by Sylvester

    A very insightful comment from Sid that should give us pause for thought. It makes us wonder whether there may have been a breach of confidentiality in order for the author of the windscreen letter to write as they did. Having now seen a copy of that letter I would conclude that Sid’s assertions do nonetheless have an element of guesswork about them.

    From my reading of the windscreen letter I don’t think one can be sure that any emails or other confidential material will have actually been shared with the author. It could simply be that the author was listening to someone who had seen them. That could be one or more of quite a sizeable number of people given all the different parties involved. It is also possible that some of those people that saw such material ought not, strictly speaking, have done so but did so in the course of, for example, their day to day work. However what they may have shared with the author is a sense that the actions taken against Mrs Aquilina were disproportionate, a conclusion that doesn’t appear so outlandish given recent events at St Thomas Church. PETER: I am sorry but the legal advisers to the Trust would never allow the term ' we have had to dismiss Mrs Aquilina for gross misconduct' to be reproduced in a public letter if it were to describe a disproportionate action by the Trust. I think to suggest this is outlandish.

  • Comment Link Thursday, 19 November 2020 08:10 posted by Not Chris Whitty but you don’t have to be

    Regardless of the content of the letter (although as poster Sid has pointed out it just reveals/ confirms that there were big trust and confidentiality issues rather than convincing anybody of the opposite), it is a very, very unwise thing to do to be leaving dozens of potentially Covid infected papers under people’s windscreen wipers, for people to have to remove in order to be able to drive their cars.

  • Comment Link Wednesday, 18 November 2020 07:24 posted by Sid

    The windscreen letter on the face of it does nothing less than confirm that highly sensitive, private details about pupils and families, as well as details of allegations, have been shared with whoever has put the letter together. That would be a significant breach of confidentiality and trust.

    Discussion of confidential matters with third parties seemed to be happening many months prior to the former head’s dismissal and seemingly formed the basis of a petition back in the summer; now the letter of yesterday which is of a similar ilk and similarly unwise. There’s no other explanation unless the authors of these things were just writing without any proper knowledge of what they were writing about (which is of course also possible).

    Equally, the author of the letter must, if they are claiming to be writing the truth, have been shown details of confidential emails in order for the author to be able to form the view that there were, in the opinion of the author, “technical breaches”. Again, on the face of it confirmation of breach of confidentiality and trust.

    It is hard to think of any other explanation as to where the author is getting their information from, assuming there is any factual basis for the letter writer’s claims.

    Readers of the letter will be left wondering whether whoever organised this letter is a supporter of the former head, or someone trying to make things even more difficult for her.

  • Comment Link Tuesday, 17 November 2020 07:56 posted by Exasperted of Sevenoaks

    A very sorry end to a sad saga. But all is not lost. I was told of an incident in October at St Thomas Church involving a Foundation Governor and a Year group from the school that was streamed on YouTube and which involved safeguarding issues - particularly serious in the case of one child - but which was dealt with rather more pragmatically than appears to have been the case with Mrs Aquilina. The video was simply removed from YouTube by the church/school - albeit too late to prevent copies being downloaded and privately shared - and a letter sent to parents from the headteacher with the aim of bringing the matter to a close. Might this be an early indication of a moderating influence being brought to bear by Diocesan Director of Education and St Thomas Foundation Governor, Dr Hughes?

  • Comment Link Monday, 16 November 2020 23:35 posted by Classics Teacher

    What a Greek tragedy, complete with supporting cast.

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