Tuesday 7 July 2015

The Harris Federation and Ofsted – What’s really going on?

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Last week the Anti Academies Alliance received an anonymous letter by post to our PO Box regarding the Upper Norwood Harris Academy. It makes some very serious allegations. As soon as we received the letter we contacted the Harris Federation’s head office. We were put through to a press officer who asked to see a copy of the letter. We sent this along with a request to comment on the allegations. We heard nothing from them.

It is not the first anonymous allegation we’ve had – indeed we got two this week and receiving whistle-blowing complaints has become a regular feature of our work. This is odd and suggests that the usual lines of accountability are being disrupted, but more on that later. The key question was what to do with the allegations?

It is clear that it is from a member of staff. We now know that the letter was sent to other individuals and other organisations. The tone of the letter suggests both fear and loathing. Whoever sent it does not like Harris, for sure. We believe it is a cry for help from a whistle-blower who fears that they cannot raise professional concerns. That in itself is good reason to publish.
There is another – educational – reason for publishing the allegations. The Education and Adoption Bill is passing through parliament. Central to the thinking behind this Bill is the government’s belief that sponsored academies are best way to improve ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ schools. The plan is to allow chains like the Harris Federation to take over more schools, more easily. Nicky Morgan seems to believe they have better leaders and better methods. This claim still needs to be tested and evidence presented to support it. Henry Stewart of the Local Schools Network has done an analysis using OFSTED data that shows sponsored academies are less effective at school improvement than local authority schools.
Only four sponsored academy chains are performing above average in terms of school improvement. The Harris Federation is one of the four. So its record is crucial to sustaining the government’s view that sponsored academies are better at school improvement. What if it is cheating on school improvement? The government, OFSTED and the general public really need to know. The government have put all their school improvement eggs in the sponsored academy basket. What are the implications if perhaps the most important chain in the country is cheating? As head teacher Tom Sherrington recently pointed out, Nicky Morgan needs to get her maths right and her facts straight otherwise she is merely promoting the ‘voodoo of academisation’. The future of school improvement rests on these issues.

But there also a third reason for publishing the letter. Public confidence in politicians has been declining for many years. The MPs expenses scandal and other things have brought the relationship between business and politicians under scrutiny in education too. In the 2006 there were allegations that former head teacher Des Smith had helped recruit wealthy sponsors for Tony Blair’s (City) Academies Programme by promising honours. Lord Harris – Tory party benefactor and owner of the Carpetright chain avoided any allegations, but his connections to the Tory Party continue throw up concerns. If the new Education Bill is passed, the Secretary of State will have even greater powers to hand schools over to sponsors. She will choose the sponsor and nobody will be able to question her decision. The system for selecting academy sponsors is already opaque. The criteria for selecting appropriate sponsors are secret. Under the new rules, could it be possible that certain business people might be able to influence the Secretary of State in the matter of which school they would like to take over? When Tory Party donors and CEO’s (Sir Dan Dan Moniyhan, CEO of the Harris Federation was knighted in 2012) knock on Nicky Morgan’s door, she needs to know if they are playing by the rules.

So, for three good reasons, we are publishing the letter today. We have also written to OFSTED and the Secretary of State Nicky Morgan alerting them to the allegations. We believe they need investigating and answering and that this should be done publicly and transparently.

The text of the letter we received on 26th June 2015 is as follows:

It may interest you to learn of the Harris Academy Chain’s approach to OFSTED inspections. Harris Academy Upper Norwood in South London is being inspected today. Virtually all the normal teaching staff have been sent home for two days to be replaced by a specialist team of Harris teaching staff from outside the school with pre-prepared lessons. 10% of the students who might be thought of as challenging have been removed for the duration of the inspection. Not really in the spirit of the inspection process is it? This is common practice amongst Harris Schools and just the tip of the “dirty tricks” they use to boost examinations and con inspectors.

Staff at the school are treated appallingly and 40 are leaving this year. The Harris model of education is a virus. Please help expose it.

 

We hope, for the sake of the children and parents, at the Upper Norwood and other Harris Academies, that these allegations are false. For too long, our children have been put at the centre of an experiment. Politicians, of all colours, have told us that the privatisation of schools – by turning them into academies under business sponsors – will improve education, especially for the most disadvantaged. After nearly 10 years we now know there is no ‘academy effect’. Hopefully, this letter will encourage the government to remove their ideological blinkers and start to engage in an evidence based approach to school improvement.

Edited to add:

The Federation did respond on 30th June. Unfortunately their email went straight into our email junk folder. We can only apologise for that. We re-print their response in full below.

There is not much more to say. Our readers can judge for themselves. We would however like to correct the misconception that our ‘sole purpose is to attack academies’. It is not. Indeed many of our supporters work in academies! And we have always acknowledged the dedication and hard work of teachers, including those in academies.

We exist to expose the lies and stupidity of politicians and sponsors who promote the myth that academisation is a better vehicle for school improvement.

After 10 years of playing politics with school structures as part of some neo-liberal grand strategy to roll back the state (Gove used the phrase ‘supply side revolution’ – we call it privatisation) it is clear the experiment has failed.

Unfortunately the poverty of political representation in the Westminster bubble means that this simple truth – based on evidence- is not being given sufficient attention.

We exist to ensure that it is. If there are any parents, staff or children unhappy about that please let us know.

This is the full text of the Harris Federation’s response

Thank you for taking the time to contact the Federation about the anonymous letter you received and for your courtesy in sharing its contents with us.

Given its anonymity, it is impossible for either you or us to tell whether the person who sent it is in fact a “whistleblower” with a genuine concern to raise. It could as likely be someone intent on damaging the reputation of the school and choosing the Anti Academies Alliance as the recipient of their ire in the belief that  you will give them the oxygen of publicity with the least amount of objective scrutiny.

The Harris Federation has a very strong policy on whistleblowing, however, and we believe that any accusations received need to be investigated appropriately. As we agreed on the phone, the correct recipient for accusations such as this is Ofsted and we would ask that you do indeed forward the letter to them so that they can choose what, if any, action to take.

We are likewise providing you with a full response to refute these accusations because we believe it is in the interests of the hard-working and committed staff at the academy that we do so. It would be completely inappropriate for their work, dedication and talent to be tainted by allegations that have no basis.  As an organisation whose sole purpose is to attack academies, you obviously have an agenda that you will fight to promote but we would hope that the strength of the answers we set out below would mean you would pause to think before publishing.

Therefore, to answer the points raised in the letter:

Harris Academy Upper Norwood did receive an Ofsted inspection last week. (For your information, the academy amalgamated with our South Norwood academy in September 2014 however, it retains its own identity and school number hence its Ofsted inspection but shares teaching staff and a 6th Form with the South Norwood site).
The school days during the visit were exactly as should be expected at this time of the school year including controlled assessments taking place in languages for Yr 10 and the new timetable underway to begin GCSE work now that current Year 11s and Year 13s have departed. These timetable changes are introduced at this time of year every year and allow students to get to know their teachers for next year, alleviate the need for Supply Teachers at both school sites, and allow next year’s curriculum to begin to be taught by the right staff. These changes were routine and the Ofsted inspectors were fully informed.

No members of staff were sent home for the inspection.
No lessons were taught by brought in Federation staff.
There were no pre-prepared lessons. As we are sure you will know, inspection now very much focuses on what is in students’ books. This means it is not possible to “hide” the work of students. All lessons had books available to the inspectors.

Students were not kept at home. All lessons had seating plans available to the inspectors who could track any absence and ask the school to account fully for any student not present. To have an absence rate of 10% would have rightly been raised by Ofsted had that been the case.

It is untrue that 40 of its staff are leaving the school this summer. When it was a stand-alone academy, it didn’t even have 40 teaching staff. Since being amalgamated with our South Norwood academy in September, the school has one staff across both sites. There are not 40 staff leaving the combined staff either this summer.

Cynics might argue that it is fortuitous that you have received this anonymous letter just as the Education and Adoption Bill is being debated. No credible journalist, for example, would publish these allegations without being able to confirm the veracity of their source or be able to get it substantiated by a second source.

You however seem very keen to publish the allegations on your website. You may have no reason, as you say, to doubt the letter’s “authenticity”. Likewise, we would suggest, you have equally no reason to treat it seriously other than your desire to generate publicity for the Anti Academies Alliance.

Should you choose, on reflection, to print the allegation you have received, we would request that you would display a similar courtesy and commitment to openness and accountability by publishing this response in full too.

 

 

 

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