Wednesday 3 December 2014

Stop the Smash-and-Grab at Sedgehill School

News is now breaking about how, over the last few weeks, a series of steps has been carried out by Lewisham Local Authority, which seem designed to engineer a forced academy conversion at Sedgehill School in Bellingham, SE6. However, parents, staff and students are not going to sit back quietly and let children's education be damaged by such a hostile takeover.

Sedgehill is not a failing school but a vibrant South London comprehensive. It has good parental support and a fantastic tradition in, for example, the performing arts. Its new Sixth Form is performing well, with students leaving with A* and A grades at A-level. Its roll is expanding at both Year 7 and Year 12. Yet this is a school that the Local Authority unjustifiably deemed to be worthy of being sent an official '"warning notice" a few weeks ago, a process which has now opened the door to the forced academisation of the School. 

Of course, Sedgehill School  is also precisely the kind of school that an expanding academy sponsor would want to take over. It's a school that's already improving and expecting 65% of the present Year 11 cohort to obtain 5 or more A*-C GCSEs with English and Maths (5A*CEM) in 2015 . 

However, what better for a prospective sponsor than to take advantage of a quick 'smash-and-grab' in the spring and then declare the new 'Academy' a success in the summer, when all the hard work had been done by the previous school? Would anyone operate that cynically? In a Labour Local Authority? I can only present the facts and allow people to draw conclusions. 

Lewisham Authority has taken full advantage of the Coalition's pro-Academy legislation.  At its last Ofsted inspection in October 2013, Sedgehill school was judged as 'Requires Improvement' overall (although both Behaviour and Safety of Pupils and Leadership and Management were judged as Good). However, that overall 'RI' judgement alone is not sufficient to allow the Secretary of State to force a school to become an academy. No, that could only happen if the school was issued a "warning notice". Of course, that's just what Lewisham LA did at the end of October 2014.

Was the "warning notice" justified? Legislation states that a  LA is only allowed to issue such a notice if "the standards of performance of pupils at the school are unacceptably low". That's not a description that parents (including myself) would recognise as applying to Sedgehill School.

Yes, this summer's GCSE results disappointed the school, as they dipped to 44% 5A*CEM. However, this 9% drop was replicated nationally, as changes to examinations led to a drop of 7% on average overall. Several other Lewisham schools showed similar or greater 'dips' with the Council's own Select Committee paper explaining that "schools have been responding to a conflation of a series of changes to exam structure and content" and that "there was much volatility in the system this year and this did impact on many of our secondary schools". However, when it came to Sedgehill School, a warning notice was unfairly served.

The school appealed against the notice, but the arbiter of the appeal in law is Ofsted! Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have rejected the appeal and upheld the warning notice.

Now the full force of the undemocratic legislation can be applied. Staff have been told that the Authority is in the process of rapidly 'consulting' over disbanding the existing Governing Body and replacing it with an 'Interim Executive Board' appointed by the Authority. Of course, these are likely to be individuals chosen to carry out the Authority's wishes.

As David Wolfe QC explains on his blog "In my experience, when governing bodies are ... told that the Secretary of State wants to turn their school into an academy ... there is a strong sense of “jump or you’ll be pushed” ... Where they don’t jump, the local authority or Secretary of State imposes an Interim Executive Board which then acts on their behalf in going through the motions of a consultation etc. with a view to initiating the academy conversion process as if they were a normal governing body - except that, instead of the process being initiated by a governing body which comprises parents, staff, community governors, etc, it is then initiated by a body of people put in place to bring about the forced change to being an academy.

I'll add just one more fact to help you draw your conclusions. Before being 'pushed', Local Authority Officers had already told Sedgehill Governors that they wanted them to agree to the Principal of Bethnal Green Academy becoming the school's new Executive Headteacher. However, the Sedgehill governing body voted against this recommendation. So, the very next day, the LA issued their warning notice - now leading to the imposition of an IEB. Coincidentally or not, the Bethnal Green and Shoreditch Education Trust, which governs this Academy, has recently become a DfE ‘approved sponsor’ to take over other schools, allowing it to expand its academy network. David Wolfe's words may prove to be remarkably accurate.

Far from supporting children as the Authority may claim, their actions will damage education. Staff and students are facing disruption instead of support. Parents are already discussing whether their children will be happy staying at an Academy, instead of at a community school like the existing Sedgehill. An imposed change to school senior management is expected - which could then soon be followed by an attempted Academy conversion. Yet, as research has consistently shown, there is absolutely no evidence that academy conversion provides any educational benefits - and why should it?

Events of the last few days and weeks have shocked staff and parents, who are only just now finding out the full story. However, the Sedgehill community isn't going to just allow these undemocratic and unjustified manoeuvres to succeed. Parents and staff meetings are already being called and campaigning actions, including strike ballots, planned. Along with the wider support of parents and staff in SAIL (Stop Academies In Lewisham), we will be organising to expose what is taking place and to oppose the damaging imposition of an IEB and Academy at Sedgehill School.


PaulG said...

Thanks for this Martin, as a concerned parent who chose Sedgehill for the outstanding Performing Arts specialty, and because of Mr Mackenzie's leadership, I'm alarmed at what seems like an unjustified coup by Lewisham's Head of Standards. As you point out, the criteria for intervention have not been met, and although I would like to believe she has the needs of students at heart, this mismatch between the last Ofsted report and her actions is troubling.

Simon Garcha said...

This is a brilliantly concise and accurate description of what can only be described as the immoral exploitation of power harming the future of our children. It is both angering and heart-breaking to see this obscene abuse of authority and the lying to the public about their motivations. The timings of the various machinations are very telling. Thank you for pointing these out!

Tom Mann said...

I'd like to share a letter I just emailed to Frankie Sulke's team, after my specific qus were unsatisfactorily replied to with a copy+paste of yesterday's statement from Lewisham.

"Thanks for your response, but I would prefer a rather more personalised response. Your statement does cover some of my questions, but the following three remain unclear to me.

1. What the appeals process is. I have now learned that the imposition of the IEB was only possible after you issued a ‘warning notice’. And that the warning notice can only legitimately be issued under certain very specific circumstances. I would like to know what the appeal process is against that specific decision to issue a warning notice, as I fear it has been issued in error/without a defensible evidenced basis.

2. Why you are going beyond the existing framework of ofsted inspections/actions. In your statement you strangely imply that you know what Ofsted is currently thinking about Sedgehill, and what it might conclude if it visited again. Assuming Ofsted is independent, all you and I can possibly know right now is what was written in the Autumn 2013 report. The parents and governers both think the school is on a safe sustainable trajectory to lasting success. The imposition of an IEB will radically destabilise the whole fabric of the school. I believe you should back out of this process and leave it to Ofsted and the governing body, but provide the excellent support that your education department is equipped to provide. Furthermore an IEB, by its very definition, is reserved for a collapsing school, where a radical change would be welcomed by the parents and children. Look closely into Sedgehill and you will see that not one of these groups thinks Sedgehill is anything other than a growing success story that simply has not yet come to fruition. Look at the Ofsted ‘Parent View’ and tell me that it is not abnormally positive compared to even some star schools.

3. Why you think the extreme disruption this will inevitably cause will achieve better outcomes for the children. Please answer this question. I foresee guaranteed downside if an IEB and new head are imposed against the will of the parents, governors, teachers and children. In exchange for this guaranteed downside I have no evidence to believe that an IEB and new head will deliver an upside over and above what the current team is already on track to deliver, sustainably. On the other hand, if you leave the current team in place but support it meaningfully rather than combat it, you will get the outcome that you want (improvement in GCSE results and higher uptake)but without probably years of trauma and disruption that will in my opinion lower the achievement of children who have to live through the transition.

I fundamentally believe that whilst you have the best intentions at heart, the solution you are proposing does not stand up to logical scrutiny, has no democratic mandate as it is unsupported by all groups, and will definitely cause far more problems for yourselves than it may solve.

I offer you a challenge. Come back in September 2015 after this year’s results. Look at the projections for the cohorts lined up behind them. Look at the next Ofsted report. And go from there. Basically wait a bit longer. If you are right and the current team fails to deliver on their projections, you will find you have the support you need. If you are wrong then you can safely disengage and let Sedgehill continue to grow in success. What is there to lose?

I ask you – why would I be saying all this, as a parent of a year 7 pupil, when I obviously want the absolute best for him? Unless you also have children at Sedgehill, how can you think your view should override those held by parents? Parents pay the taxes and give the mandate to Ofsted and the elected local authority to act on our behalf. If you are acting against all of our wishes then something fundamental has broken down and ultimately will not prevail.

Tom Mann