It was the school Valentine’s Disco last week. It’s one of the smaller annual events in the PTFA calendar: the kiddies get to dress up and have a boogie/slide across the hall on their knees while us merry band of helpers serve hotdogs for four hours. I love being part of the committee and being involved with events at school: it’s my community and I am very fond of everyone in our small-but-growing tribe of active parents. But this year was weird, to say the least.
The kids had a great time, but for the adults, this Valentine’s Disco was rather poignant. You see, a year ago on Valentine’s Day, just hours before the disco, Ofsted’s report on our school was published. It was the day we officially became a ‘Good’ school, jumping up two grades from requiring improvement across the board, to being described as ‘magical’, after acquiring a rather fab new head teacher just 12 months previously. It was one of the best days ever, for everyone working at the school and with a vested interest in its progress and improvement. I wrote a blog post that very day: we were all giddy with excitement and the atmosphere that evening, as we poured endless cups of orange squash for small people sweaty from jumping around to Gangnam Style, was utterly joyous.
What a difference a year makes. This year, things weren’t so good. Since we were forced into academisation with The Kemnal Academies Trust (TKAT) last February, things have gone from the sublime to the sadly ridiculous. We shockingly lost that amazing head teacher, Simon Wood, on the first day of this term, and now our wonderful deputy is off too. The letter home on the day of the disco from our brilliant chair of governors gently explained that there had been no applications for the vacant head’s post and our interim head – a TKAT executive – will be continuing part-time until the end of the summer term.
In the past few weeks, that sense of joy seems to have been sucked out of our happy school, like the Dementors descending on Hogwarts. It might have just been the onions, but there were many hugs and tears in the kitchen on the evening of the disco, as it dawned on us how different things had been on the same occasion a year previously.
No-one can quite believe it has come to this. This isn’t how the story was meant to unfold. From being the proud ship Weyfield Primary, freshly painted, confident and embarking on an incredible journey, it now feels more like we are battered, weathering stormy seas, completely off course, and our captain’s walked the plank after pirates boarded the vessel (I’m stretching the maritime metaphor here, but you get the gist).
We miss acutely how our school used to be, when it felt like we had strong, energetic, dynamic, creative leadership, when everyone was working incredibly hard, with great cheer, for a common goal, and we were already starting to feel like being Outstanding was a possibility – unthinkable just a couple of years ago.
The teaching and support staff are doing an incredible job in the circumstances, but if I – merely an involved parent – am feeling what can only be described as grief, then goodness knows what it’s like for them. It must be so hard keeping buggering on. They are such a dedicated, committed team, and they care deeply about the children, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some felt unable to continue under the TKAT regime.
My two, in Year 1 and Year 3, are still happy, and really engaged in this term’s topic, but even they say that school just doesn’t feel the same. I gather in some cases behaviour is slipping back to the bad old days, and some of Year 6 in particular have become disillusioned. Our SATs were on track for dramatic improvement this year, but I wonder if that will turn out to be the case come the summer. I also wonder whether we would maintain our ‘Good’ rating if Ofsted came in to inspect the school now. The quality of teaching isn’t in question, but that sense of magic and wonder and excitement that was so praised by the inspectors - not to mention the leadership – is fading.
The point of being instructed by the Department for Education that you have to become a sponsored academy is to improve a failing school, but since we were actually already ‘Good’ just before TKAT took over, I can’t see how they are adding value. What exactly are we getting for the slice they take off the top of our budget from the DfE? If anything, the collateral damage of our head leaving will impact the success of the school and the children’s prospects. [TKAT can carry on bleating that he resigned and took another job all they like, but consider this: in the business world, you manage high-performing talent - exceptional individuals who by their nature tend to be mavericks, innovators and change-makers - extremely carefully. You cherish them, because they are rare and valuable, and try to hang onto them at all costs. You don't just accept their resignation, unless you're the sort of organisation that prefers home-grown yes-men, of course.]
And it’s here that our sadness turns to anger. How on earth have we gone from the success of a year ago to the doldrums we find ourselves in now? What is happening at Weyfield is surely not Michael Gove’s vision for his pet academies project.
Something is not right with this picture. And something must be done.
A core group of parents has formed; we are doing our research, taking advice, and we fully plan to effect change. We are all over Facebook and Twitter rallying the troops and keeping other parents informed. We are gathering together our supporters, from all stakeholder groups; Weyfield’s very own Order of the Phoenix is taking shape.
Our first line of attack is the media: we had the front page of the Surrey Advertiser three weeks in a row, plus other stories every week since. We’ve also been in the Guardian twice so far (here and here), and education correspondent Warwick Mansell wrote a brilliantly detailed blog post on how academy chains are managing their heads, based on our story for the National Association of Head Teachers. The journalists covering our story are doing a very good job of revealing what sort of organisation TKAT is; no wonder we didn’t get any applicants for the headship.
We’re also working closely with our local MP Anne Milton – who has been incredibly supportive and helpful – and asking questions and demanding answers of everyone from the school and the academy trust, to the Department for Education and the highest levels of government.
The bottom line is: we want TKAT out of our school. We want to be released from our seven-year contract with them, and to find a more suitable partner who truly shares the values exemplified by ‘The Weyfield Way’. The fact that there is no direct precedent for this is irrelevant: Weyfield IS the precedent. We should never have been forced into academising with them in the first place: we’ve slipped through a gap in the system, and we are exploring every avenue to find a way out, with several promising leads.
If TKAT thought we would quieten down and drift off after we realised Simon wasn’t coming back, it must now be dawning on them that they were very much mistaken. They are learning we have a strong parent voice, that we are intelligent and articulate, that we are not going away, and that we will not let them get away with anything we are unhappy with. Censoring the minutes of the first parents’ meeting on 9 January, for example: during the process of transcribing the recording of the meeting, TKAT asked for the comments from an NUT rep to be omitted from the record. This is clearly neither transparent nor acceptable – the NUT were understandably livid – and after pressure from parents, we now have a full transcript. They are making noises about listening and working together – they ran two sessions to ask for parents’ input into the kind of person we wanted as a new head, for instance – but I have to say, the consensus among parents (and staff, we suspect) is that they have handled things so badly, we just don’t trust them.
If you only drop your kids off at school, pick them up at the end of the day, and assume/hope they are safe and learning what they need to learn in between times, you might not get why I’ve got such strong feelings about all of this, and have become so involved. But because of what’s happened at our school, I’m starting to understand what’s happening to education in this country, and it’s not pretty.
I was never that much of a political creature before, bar shouting at Question Time every week, but this issue has politicised me. Because it’s not just about how and by whom schools are managed, or about how we measure progress and attainment. It’s not just about the wisdom of the academies project, or Voldegove’s obsession with facts, test results and league tables. It’s about our children. Not just what and how they learn, but also about their well-being, safety, prospects, ambitions and happiness. The whole child, in other words. Too often, the children are missing from this debate. And on our local level, we just don’t feel that our children are being well-served by the academy trust we find ourselves with.
We’re all painfully aware of how much things can change – for good and for bad – in a year; I wonder where we will be by the 2015 Valentine’s Disco. Will we still be with TKAT? Will we even have a permanent head teacher by then? How many other staff will have left? My dearest hope is that whatever transpires, by this time next year the joy is back in the school. Between hotdog shifts, I hope we’ll all be dancing madly to ‘Happy’ with the kids, and really feeling like our ship is back on course.