Fleetdown Primary School newsletter was brought to public attention on Wednesday by the BBC, and in an interview the headteacher unwisely called unauthorised holiday absence “a form of child abuse”. The published school newsletter states: “We want parents and pupils at Fleetdown who follow the school’s rules, and have decided that drastic measures need to be taken to halt the decline in attendance”. Drastic but unfortunately illegal!
I do have enormous sympathy for the head of this school and many others as the removal of children for holidays or other unauthorised reasons can have a number of significant negative effects on the individual child and the school.
However, it is clear that fines, the recommended method of deterrent, are nothing of the sort, with Kent seeing a total of 5622 fines last school year, the largest amount in the country. For the savings on a holiday to Disneyland or the ski slopes far outweigh the fine levied, so schools have to come with other methods to discourage this and no, I don’t know what the solution is.
What I do know is that it is not a solution to illegally remove a child’s place at the school, fill it with another child and then invent another illegal process for governors to decide if the child should be offered an additional place. In such a case, the only legal route back is for the child to re-apply for a place and as the class would be full, then they have the right of appeal to an independent panel, a ridiculous scenario. With every single urban Dartford primary school full this year, Fleetdown is certainly not alone in facing this problem.
As I observed on Radio Kent, it is astonishing that this school has not sought advice about the legality of the matter in advance from KCC. Indeed a release from KCC notes amazingly that “The headteacher of Fleetdown Primary School appears to be aware that it would be unlawful to exclude children on the basis described”. One can only wonder if her governors knew she is encouraging them to act outside the law. The release goes on to state ““As it is a local authority school, Kent County Council will be instructing the governors to amend their relevant behavioural and absence policy to reflect current legislation.” Surprise, surprise!
Hempstead Junior School governors had a different problem to solve when they found themselves unable to work with the headteacher who has clearly been making waves in the school since her appointment in September 2013. Parents have not been officially told about the resignation of the five governors, although the group is made up from the Chairman, Vice Chairman, Chairman of Finance along with two parent governors and the clerk to the Governing Body and staff received confirmation of their resignations. The June newsletter describes this as a “restructuring of the governing body”, a somewhat surprising description of what has happened. The governors have clearly behaved very professionally and have not gone into detail about their concerns although these have been shared with Medway Council, in the forlorn hope that the council would intervene on behalf of the children. Of the six governors remaining, one is the headteacher, and two are staff members, the Interim Chairman being the sole Medway Council representative (described by Mr O'Brien as "a strong local authority governor presence on the governing body" but presumably the sole reason "there is confidence progress will be maintained"), who used to work for the council.
What is most worrying is the attitude of Medway Council, to whom the governors made representations, with the Cabinet Member of Education apparently having no interest in their concerns, or those of parents. He places faith in the ““strong local authority governor presence on the governing body and there is confidence progress will be maintained.", although this comprises just one governor.The school and Local Authority make capital out of its “Good OFSTED”, although this took place just a month after the headteacher took up post so this measured events before her arrival, and also reference to improved standards, although Key Stage 2 results over the past three years are virtually unchanged.
Indeed, in 2014, the latest year reported on, the school came just below Twydall Primary in KS2 performance, the latter being in Special Measures. The difference between the two is that Twydall governors have shown a determination to turn the school around, although having to battle Medway Council all the way. You will find the story of that battle elsewhere on this website, and the school is now negotiating a sponsorship arrangement with Rainham Mark Grammar School, an arrangement that looks an excellent prospect for the future welfare of Twydall’s pupils.
Comments on the Messenger article webpage paint a grim picture of life at the school, and give strong clues as to why the governors resigned in the face of Medway Council refusal to take action. It is difficult to see what else they could do! Clearly yet another example of Medway Council leading from the top and burying its head in the sand to avoid taking action to improve matters. The current headteacher's previous school, St Botolph's CofE Primary in Gravesend, is much improved since she moved to Hempstead, as confirmed by OFSTED. She was also Deputy Head at St Mary's Island CofE Primary at its low point of being in Special Measures.
Medway Council regularly makes public pronouncements on the value of governors, but Mr O’Brien now dismisses this with: “Our primary concern is always for the education of the children, and that is in no way affected by their decision”. In other words, the departure of the three most senior governors, two of the three parent governors and the clerk is a complete irrelevance! It could be that they are wrong in what they were trying to achieve, but ‘no way affected’ – never. Something is very wrong here.