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‘Politicised’ Ofsted and forced academisation provoke Brent strike

Parents, teachers, the council and local MP have united to oppose plans for Byron Court primary school to be taken over by the Tory donor-founded Harris Federation after a widely disputed Ofsted inspection, reports BERNY TORRE

NESTLED in a leafy London suburb, teacher strikes at the much-loved Byron Court primary school were long unthinkable. Yesterday that changed, as local anger boiled over at the Department for Education’s (DfE) forced academisation of the community school.

More than 1,000 parents, teachers, Brent council and local MP Barry Gardiner have opposed what the authority called “draconian” plans for it to be taken over by Harris Federation (HF), the Tory donor-founded charity whose CEO’s pay and benefits rose above £500,000 last year.

The National Education Union’s (NEU) Brent branch accuses the DfE of pushing for the go-ahead despite ongoing complaints about an openly “politicised” Ofsted report last November, which has left long-serving Byron Court staff fearing they too will be made to sign up to HF contracts offering Carpetright discounts to make up for poorer working conditions.

On Friday May 17, staff at the school began a six-day strike after an overwhelming 97 per cent backed industrial action over the “lies” and “contradictions” in the schools inspectorate’s report which left teachers asking for mental health counselling.

Backed by a petition signed by more than 1,000 parents, the local council and local MP Gardiner, they are calling for a reinspection of the school and for the forced academy order process to be halted until the complaint into Ofsted is resolved.

NEU Brent secretary Jenny Cooper said it was “disgusting” an opaque meeting of the DfE’s London Advisory Board (LAB), which is filled with multi-academy trust (MAT) execs, in March “prejudged” the outcome of the complaint and recommended Byron Court be forced to join HF.

The board met after Ofsted gave the formerly “outstanding” school its worst grading of “inadequate” across the board in its first inspection in 11 years.

Cooper said staff dispute the findings, pointing to “contradictory” language in the report that praised safeguarding as “effective” yet rated it “inadequate” and that the report was a “perfect example” of why single-word Ofsted judgements should be stopped.

“You feel this sort of shame. The humiliation as if people think you are complicit with something bad and that’s coupled together with the fact that teachers nowadays work such long hours and do such stressful jobs, you end up with the feeling that I’m not valued and that’s where the poor mental health sets in,” she explained.

“It’s not that people that don’t agree that there were some issues… there was a period of massive instability and this has all been since Covid.”

An NEU template mental health risk assessment and questionnaire of staff have been submitted to the local council, which showed a “significant number of members who said yes, they do need counselling and if it was offered they would take it,” Cooper added.

A complaint over the inspection was lodged via a school governor, and ahead of the LAB meeting in March, 118 written responses were submitted especially relating to Byron Court, most of which are thought to be opposed to the academisation order.

“The people on the panel are all CEOs of MATs exclusively and you’re not allowed to attend the meetings,” said Cooper.

“It’s completely untransparent. We’ve got no idea what the board members saw and what was shown.

“At the moment the DfE appears to be close-minded to the idea of doing a reinspection but we haven’t been pressing for that.

“There’s a lot of parents of Byron Court children who are very proactive. I think most of them didn’t recognise the report as creating a true description of the school.

“They want their children to go to the local community school, that’s why they chose it and I think like everyone else, they felt like ‘you’re dissing our school.’”

She added: “The parents have felt that they haven’t had a voice as well.

“When it got to the decision at the DfE they couldn’t believe that they didn't have a chance to have their voices heard as stakeholders.”

The NEU plans to take its Ofsted complaint to the external ombudsman.

Gardiner however laid the blame on infighting and incompetency within the school’s senior leadership, failures in the local authority’s response to its financial black hole after child registry did not match an expansion from a three to a five-form entry,  and Ofsted for not inspecting soon after it got a new headteacher.

While a lifelong opponent of academisation, he told the Morning Star that “being honest and objective, I cannot say the problem is with the DfE,” as statute forces it to act as it has following an all-inadequate Ofsted report.

He is calling for a reinspection which, subject to significant improvements, would allow Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, with whom he has met over Byron Court, to halt the process.

“It was a tough and rough inspection. What I got from the teachers, and it’s my view, had they inspected literally a month later, after Keegan had changed the rules following the suicide of [the headteacher] Ruth Perry, I don’t think that school would have got the rating that it did get.

“I think they had a very rough inspection… there are grounds for a reinspection.”

Brent Council cabinet member for Children, Young People and Schools Gwen Grahl said: “I have written to the DfE and Secretary of State opposing this draconian forced academisation.

“Allowing the school longer to effect improvements and giving Byron Court the opportunity for reinspection prior to proceeding with academisation proposals is likely to resolve the current industrial dispute and provide reassurance to families and school staff during a tumultuous period for all.

“Byron Court is a much-loved community school and academisation remains deeply unpopular among families and staff.

“The local authority has quickly put extensive support in place to enable the school to address the issues raised by Ofsted and demonstrate that it can offer the high-quality education that all children deserve, without recourse to forced academisation.

“This includes changes in both the senior leadership team, through the recruitment of an interim executive headteacher, and the school governing board.

“It is clear that legislation surrounding forced academisation is disenfranchising communities and removing the valuable oversight of local authorities.”

Teachers, parents and local councillors descended to picket outside the school yesterday. Cooper said it went “really well” with chanting and cheers as seasoned trade unionists shared stories from their own industrial disputes.

HF is chaired and sponsored by Margaret Thatcher-loving prominent Tory donor Lord Harris of Peckham, non-executive director at Arsenal FC and Matalan and former Carpetright chairman.

He is no longer associated with Carpetright and is currently an adviser and shareholder of Tapi Carpets, a flooring retailer set up by his son Peter and former Carpetright bosses.

Ofsted said it did not comment on individual schools and the DfE said it can’t comment on invidual cases. Harris Federation were contacted for comment.

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