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Tuesday, November 15, 2022

‘Pupils are distressed’: community fights top London school’s takeover | Schools

Parents and students at one of England’s top academy schools, where the children of Michael Gove and former Commons Speaker John Bercow are pupils, are locked in a bitter dispute with ministers about plans for the school to be taken over by one of the country’s largest academy chains.

About 200 students at Holland Park school, west London, once known as the “socialist Eton”, are reported by a local council officer to have been involved in a “riot” inside the building two weeks ago in protest at plans for it to join the United Learning Trust, an academy chain that includes more than 80 private and state schools.

A group of parents has called on the Department for Education to jettison the proposal. Lawyers for the parents have sent a pre-action judicial review letter to governors, alleging a flawed consultation and improperly constituted governing body, and the campaign group has asked for a meeting with ministers.

Holland Park school
Holland Park school was once known as the ‘socialist Eton’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Melanie Juno Wolfe, convener of the Holland Park School Parent Collective, said: “Pupils are distressed by what is happening. They do not want ULT or a multi-academy trust (Mat). With no voice they have had to resort to protesting. There is no PTA or body other than this large collective.”

The group has accused the school’s interim governing body of being “detached” and failing to fill parent governor vacancies before the decision was taken to make ULT the preferred academy provider.

The interim body was put in place by the DfE after allegations of a toxic environment, including bullying and humiliation of staff and pupils, misleading Ofsted and poor safeguarding practices under the recently departed headteacher, Colin Hall. At the time of the allegations, Hall said: “We don’t recognise the characterisation of the school or our leadership in the allegations raised.” The Education and Skills Funding Agency issued Holland Park school with a notice to improve last year, relating to the school’s financial oversight. The new governors also set up an independent investigation, which is ongoing, into practices under Hall’s leadership.

Now, says Wolfe, a large number of parents are angry about the prospect of the school “becoming part of a large academy trust which is not part of our local community”.

“There is a complete lack of transparency or parental and teacher involvement. We have been cut out of any discussions. ULT is presented as the only option.”

The government announced in its schools white paper, published in March, that it wants all schools to become part of multi-academy trusts by 2030. In a move that could set a precedent for how the mass academisation policy develops, parents are pushing for Holland Park to continue as a stand-alone academy or to join forces with the local authority and nearby Kensington Aldridge academy, which had close links with Grenfell Tower and lost four pupils in the 2017 fire. Parents allege that a bid put in by KAA to form a trust with Holland Park was not given sufficient consideration by the governors.

Wolfe says the parents feel as if ministers see Holland Park as “ripe for the picking”. “It is our community school. We would like to retain our identity and character and if we must join a multi-academy trust it should be rooted in the local community.”

A petition opposing the Mat takeover has attracted hundreds of signatures and Michael Gove’s ex-wife, the journalist Sarah Vine, weighed into the debate when the ULT decision was announced, tweeting: “Why is a company based in Peterborough being put in charge of a school in west London. How can they possibly have any idea what’s best for our students?”

The local Tory council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, has spoken out about the chaotic situation at the school following Hall’s departure. The lead member for children’s services, Josh Rendell, broke local election purdah last week to call on the ULT takeover to be halted immediately. And the executive director of children’s services, Sarah Newman, issued a statement criticising the lack of communication between the school and parents.

“Over recent months there have been many reports of problematic and rowdy behaviour of students outside the school,” she said. “Last week a child was harmed, and a teacher was taken seriously ill. This week a teacher has left the school in tears and more than 200 pupils were involved in a riot to protest the future plans being made about their school and to express their concern about their teachers. The situation has now escalated to such a level that the council is calling for immediate intervention by the Department for Education.”

In its white paper, the government hinted that local authorities might now be encouraged to have a stronger role in any new academy arrangements, which is why local campaigners are puzzled that the Kensington Aldridge academy bid was not seen as a good option.

A spokesperson for KAA said it believed that its own bid to form a partnership with Holland Park and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was compelling. “We wanted to address the historic problems in the school, which we understood well given the number of Holland Park students who join our sixth form. We also wanted to keep the leadership and governance of Holland Park local and preserve the distinctive identity of the school.”

A spokesperson for the DfE said that one of the conditions of the notice to improve was that the school should consider joining a multi-academy trust. “The school’s existing trust board has followed a thorough process and concluded that the best multi-academy trust to support the school’s needs is United Learning,” he said. “They are now undertaking a period of stakeholder engagement, including with parents, before a formal proposal is submitted to the department.”

And a spokesperson for the Holland Park school governing body said that there were exceptionally serious issues at the school that dated back many years and led to the appointment of a new trustee (governing) board last year. “The trustees gave all bids serious consideration before identifying United Learning as its preferred provider as they believe it is the strong, expert Mat that will give the school the support it needs.

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“We are aware some parents do not agree with this. There are also many who desperately want action taken. The governors’ priority and guiding principle is to make sure the school is again fit for purpose and providing the first-class education that students have a right to expect. It is simply not possible for this to be achieved without significant, long-overdue change.

“The final decision on the school’s future will be taken by the government. The governors will make no recommendation until after the end of the stakeholder engagement process. This process is an opportunity for all interested parties to have their say, whether they are in favour of the proposal or not.”

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