The Sunday Times article begins: "Just a year ago, it was one of the worst-performing schools in Britain. Enter a new headmistress and a ruthless zero-tolerance policy, backed by a controversial education minister" . The article actually has got its time line badly wrong. The new headmistress took over eighteen months before the school lost its previous consistently satisfactory GCSE performance and failed its students by achieving this one off disastrous result. Was this the result of the ruthless zero tolerance policy? Overall there is no significant improvement over the three years she has been in charge of the school up to July 2014 when the article was written. The 5 A-C Grade figure of 36% is now below the new government benchmark of 40% (under previous management the then benchmark of 30% was regularly exceeded).One can only speculate why the false claim was made in a reputable newspaper, especially when it had been put to me before publication and I produced solid evidence disproving it to a Reporter who had certainly read my articles about the school. What I do know is that those three articles identify a number of other false claims made about and by the school/academy, and hope that these have not influenced Ministers. However, the KentOnline item does suggest it was the Sunday Times article that has produced the present outcome.
What I do know with regard to the Sunday Times article is that it describes a terrifying historical climate in Swan Valley School that bears no resemblance to anything I have ever heard of in any school except Swan Valley under its first headteacher, that is in complete contradiction to the findings of Ofsted (twice) under his successor, and that is completely with odds to the schools' local reputation at the time which was building fast, or the comments made to me by parents and prospective parents. It may refer way back to the time of the first headteacher of the school who was clearly out of his depth, but this was an environment stamped out by Mr Jones who succeeded him around 1996. I believe I am misquoted in the article as: "An educational consultant tells me parents would come to him and say 'Get our son in anywhere... Anywhere but Swan Valley'". Actually, this applied to parents who were coming to me at that time and, as the Local Authority allocations confirm, still apply but perhaps that is simply a misunderstanding on her part.
With regard to performance, OFSTED in 2009 also reported that GCSE results were the best in the school's history up until then. It records that: "The headteacher is passionate and untiring in his drive to provide for his students the best possible opportunities for learning and personal development. Staff morale is high: teachers and other members of staff speak glowingly of the progress the school has made". It is certainly true that 2014 GCSE results were an improvement on the previous year, when 18 months after Ms Colwell took over, at 24% A-C passes, they were the second worst in the county and, at 966, by far the worst progress rate in the county from 11-16. Oddly, in the Sunday Times article the head is quoted as saying: "There is everything wrong. Seventy six per cent of kids did not get the government benchmark. That is a failing school!". Surely, the blame for this sharp one off decline in performance can hardly be laid at the door of the previous management, long gone. So yes, "worst performing" is accurate for that one year only, but "reputation", never and before the new headmistress took over not for the intervening five years. The article includes the school forecast of 46% A-Cs including English and maths for 2014 made at the time of the exams, which would apparently place the school in the top 100 most improved schools in the country. The reality of 36% suggests a massive over-optimism and lack of reality; still there is always 2015!
With regard to zero tolerance, one solution at Ebbsfleet Academy is to send students off to the North West Kent Alternative Provision Service for a spell, which can conveniently extend to the rest of their school education. This OFSTED Outstanding Service which caters mainly for students who are at risk of or have been excluded from mainstream school because of their attitudes and behaviour is highly valued by schools in Dartford and Gravesham, but places are strictly limited. There is therefore considerable unease amongst some other local secondary schools at the high proportion of places taken up by Ebbsfleet students who have been removed from the school site in this way permanently or temporarily. Concerns are also expressed by parents of students with Special Education Needs about the school's attitude to their conditions, an attitude perhaps illustrated once again by the Sunday Times article: "The Principal got rid of the school counsellor. 'The best care we can give these kids is a string of A and A* Grades, not sit here pandering'". So no need to worry about special provision for SEN then! Another quote: "When she took on the job she wrote down on Post-It notes, the names of pupils she suspected 'would not cope and make it'. They have all gone". Certainly if zero tolerance means driving out all the students who cannot cope, the school becomes far easier to manage; never mind the casualties. For the school year 2014/15 Ebbsfleet Academy had the highest number of permanent exclusions in Kent at eight children, although it is one of the smallest schools in the county. It is followed by another Brook Learning Trust school, High Weald Academy second highest number of exclusions at five students, also one of Kent's smallest secondary schools. It is of course a policy which a number of other more "successful" academies adopt to raise academic standards, driving out the low performers and those with learning difficulties at the expense of those other schools left to pick up the pieces. I shall never forget the bewildered mother of a child from a severely damaged background who found Ebbsfleet Academy awash with vacancies, but throwing up barely legal obstacles to obstruct the child's admission. KCC's "hard to place" service couldn't resolve the problem either!
Over the past three years, I have been contacted by a trickle of concerned parents each year, worried about the oppressive atmosphere in the school, which has certainly contributed to its lack of popularity and is in sharp distinction to the glowing reports about morale in the two previous OFSTEDs, caught in 2011 as: "Older students report that their learning in class has improved over time due to improved teaching. They attribute this, in large part, to the behaviour systems implemented three years ago and the sense of school belonging, engendered by the move to a house system. These, they say, have been very successful in developing a positive learning climate and most students are now eager to learn. Relationships between staff and students are strong and students say that their teachers are always available to provide advice and guidance about how to improve their work" . Other parents moving into this fast growing residential area contact me desperately wanting to avoid the school because of its current reputation and are happy to take up places in Gravesham schools and elsewhere as an alternative. As I forecast previously, the school hit hardest by the opening of the new Leigh UTC last September, recruiting in Year 10, appears to be Ebbsfleet Academy, which can only add to the pressures on numbers. All other Dartford secondary schools were full in Year Seven for September on March allocations, with 95 Dartford children being placed in Bexley secondary schools who had been unable to get into the schools of their choice, whilst Ebbsfleet had 13 vacancies even after its 52 Local Authority Allocations. As in previous years this vacancy figure will increase as places free up in other schools and students move to take them up. The one piece of good news for Ebbsfleet Academy is that the development of the new Ebbsfleet Garden City will bring large numbers of families into the area so that the school will inevitably fill within a few years, but it still has a long way to go before it becomes the "school of choice" as was claimed at its opening as an academy would be a consequence of zero tolerance.
Meanwhile Mr Nigel Jones, the headteacher forced out by the arrival of Ms Colwell as head of what was then Swan Valley School, is now the highly successful and respected head of Milestone Special School - Outstanding OFSTED, which is part of the thriving Leigh Academy Trust. Sadly, apart from the Ofsted Reports, he received none of the due praise for raising standards in the school but, as a reward was disgracefully dumped to allow his successor in. The process of his removal is explained graphically and proudly by Ms Colwell in the article beginning with "a clandestine meeting at a hotel bar just off the M20, she was told that the former head would be leaving (I don't think he knew this at the time!) and asked if she would interested in taking his job". Once upon a time there were rules about the appointment of headteachers but, with academies today it appears that anything goes in some organisations with appointments and dismissals made quite informally. However, at the time Swan Valley was a Kent County Council School and so subject to strict rules about appointment of headteachers but KCC clearly broke all the rules for some inexplicable reason on this occasion. So, on the following (probably) Monday the announcement was made in the school staff briefing that she was the new head and Mr Jones had gone. A senior KCC officer was present to add authority to the statement. I have written several times previously on this website about the disappearance of allegedly failing headteachers from their posts, but the explanation behind this one has taken even me aback as I have read this account for the first time whilst preparing this article. Perhaps Kent's Senior Secondary Adviser who has also been responsible for the removal of other Kent secondary headteachers can shed a light on this bizarre case of the removal of a successful head, and the appointment of a successor in an appalling breach of rules and, I think, the law on headteacher appointments to Local Authority maintained schools. He had of course recently relinquished his additional role as Chief Executive of the Brook Learning Trust, to which KCC had given management responsibility for Swan Valley School, and which later took over the school as a sponsored academy.
It is a strange and worrying world.