The disappearing head: the next chapter

I know you’ve all been dying to know: so what happened next, after our amazing head teacher disappeared on the first day of term?

The last couple of weeks have been a proper rollercoaster, to say the least. The first few days after we got that letter home saying Simon Wood had left, it was like Weyfield Primary Academy was in mourning. There were lots of tears from staff and parents that we tried not to let the children see. Not having a chance to say goodbye was the worst thing for everyone, especially the children. It was like a light had gone out.

In the days before the planned meeting for parents to meet our new interim head and ask questions of our academy group, TKAT, feelings were running high. At the meeting, they didn’t even send anyone operational who had been involved with the school or the senior leadership team: we got their brand new communications director, who stuck to her script and simply refused to answer a single question relating to Simon’s departure, which totally wound up a full room of emotional parents. She made it clear that he would not be returning as head teacher, but did say that he would be visiting the following week to say goodbye to the children.

When asked a question about how TKAT usually managed high-performing talent within the organisation, she came out with the stunning line ‘we grow our own talent’. Ouch.

Year 6 parents were particularly concerned about the impact on the children and the pressure on them to turn our SATs results around without the support they had been receiving from Simon and our wonderful deputy head (who will be going on secondment to another local school soon), and with the further upheaval of the appointment of another permanent head teacher. One parent pointed out that there are something like 20 primary head vacancies in the Guildford area and it was going to be difficult to find someone as exceptional as Simon.

Then a parent quite legitimately asked a question about whether there had been any police involvement, given Simon’s sudden and mysterious departure. The playground is fertile ground for rumour, after all. She hesitated just a little too long before eventually saying there had been no police involvement. Allowing some rather unpleasant rumours and questions hanging in the air was an unforgiveable thing to do to the reputation of a man who had done nothing but good for the school and the children, and a number of parents requested strongly that TKAT issue a statement to parents making it clear that there was no allegation of personal or professional misconduct on Simon’s part relating to his resignation. She flatly refused. As someone who has worked with PR and communications professionals for all my working life, I was astonished. We all get that there are legal constraints about what you can and can’t say when someone leaves an organisation, but this was appalling crisis management.

At the end of the heated two-hour meeting – which was recorded and minuted – 90% of the parents present voted that they had no confidence, having heard everything she had to say, in the way TKAT was managing the school. It just didn’t feel like we were on the same side.

By the end of the week, the Reinstate Simon Facebook page – which neither Simon nor any member of staff did anything to encourage, and did not contribute to – had 464 likes. And then the media coverage started: the lead front page story in the Surrey Advertiser that week, and the week after. Our MP, Anne Milton, has been simply amazing and has restored my faith in politicians. She tweeted that she was ‘doing everything I can to help’, wrote very firm letters to TKAT and the schools minister, and did a long, thoughtful interview on BBC Surrey radio in support of Simon and the school.

The momentum built. Parents picketed outside the school with placards, and were interviewed on BBC Surrey and our local radio station Eagle FM. This very blog was featured in the Guardian education diary. Teachers, heads and parents from across the UK and the world expressed an interest in the story.

Then on Thursday 16th January, the school had a visitor. Simon Wood returned for the afternoon and spent time in every classroom saying goodbye to the children. Everyone was thrilled to see him, and after school, despite the pouring rain (did I spot a head teachers’ union umbrella?!) he was mobbed by parents wishing him well. I kept an eye out for Goveian snipers on the roof…

We got one answer: he told us he will be starting a new job in April, but not as a head teacher. Here’s his letter to Anne Milton MP sent on the same day as his visit to school:

‘I am delighted to be able to now share the news that I shall, in April, be joining REAch2 – the largest primary only academy chain in the country. I will join them as an Executive Principal, with the remit of supporting schools in challenging circumstances; securing rapid improvement, and particularly focusing on curriculum innovation. This post would not even have been one I would have considered had I not learnt so much from Weyfield and its community – both in and out of school. I am indebted to Weyfield for this experience which has proved to be life-changing for so many of us. The chance I have been given now in sharing elements of ‘The Weyfield Way’, and potentially influencing, at present, some 12,000 children is really exciting, and one that the Weyfield community can be so proud of having been instrumental in creating. Without the pupils, and families’ engagement, along with the staff team’s innovation, determination and creativity none of this would be possible. It is only right to say that I shall not be returning to Weyfield as Head and, understandably, the campaign to ‘reinstate’ me now needs to refocus its energies on ensuring that ‘The Weyfield Way’ continues; providing pupils and families with life-affirming, life-changing and aspirational experiences and opportunities, always.’

I could not be more proud that our head has been snapped up to be a Superhead. TKAT clearly didn’t know what talent they had (or did, and we have a case of tall poppy syndrome) and I hope his new bosses will appreciate a truly inspirational educationalist.

That evening, it felt something like closure for all of us, of the part of the story in which we had a giddy, extraordinary two years of being led by someone rather special. I think a lot of us felt a bit flat, and sad, knowing for certain that things would never go back to how they were.

TKAT must have hated Simon being back in school and treated like a celeb by everyone, though, because the following day we got another letter home:

‘Dear Parents and Carers. As you are aware Simon was in school yesterday to enable the children to say their farewells. I am now in a position to inform you that towards the end of the Autumn Term Simon applied for and accepted a promotional post with another organisation. Simon tendered his resignation on the morning of 19 December 2013 and his notice would have expired on 30 April 2014. His resignation had not been requested by TKAT and he did not give a reason for his resignation. TKAT proposed that rather than working his notice period he cease working at the School at the end of the autumn term and Simon agreed. I wanted to follow up the meeting held on 9th January to allay fears that were raised at the meeting. I can reassure parents that Simon’s departure was not in any way connected to child protection issues. No such issues have ever been raised about Simon during his time at Weyfield. I trust that we can now move forward and focus on continuing the development of the ‘Weyfield Way’. Yours sincerely Karen Roberts Chief Executive The Kemnal Academies Trust.’

At least she finally cleared up the child protection red herring – a full week after parents asked TKAT to – but many parents and staff are unhappy about the tone of the letter. A woman who to the best of my knowledge has never even visited our school has made it sound like our head was hunting around for a promotion and simply abandoned us. But we know that he was committed to Weyfield’s children and had a seven year plan to take the school to Outstanding. And we know he would never have considered another post except in extremis. And for an organisation that had previously refused to make any further statement about his departure, they suddenly seemed suspiciously keen to tell us every chronological detail.

Reach2 is the answer to the question of where Simon Wood has gone, but not the why, and TKAT’s statement is certainly not the full story. There are still serious questions to be asked about TKAT’s rapid expansion and its management of head teachers who are not ‘home grown’, especially since we now know that they boast of having ‘removed’ 26 of the heads from their 40 academies. (See for yourself in TKAT’s evidence to the Education Select Committee) You can kind of see how this might happen when a school is failing and that’s why they have become a sponsored academy, but by the time TKAT took over we were rated as Good already, and I wonder if they’ve never really known what to do with us.

There’s another twist in the tale: last week, hidden away on the letters page of the Surrey Advertiser, there was a long letter from a former governor at Weyfield who had been involved with appointing Simon and resigned the day TKAT took over. The letter goes into full and frank detail of what happened pre-takeover, and makes it clear that the school was trying to partner with a local academy group but were bullied and threatened by TKAT and the DfE into signing the contract. I imagine the relationship between our leadership team and TKAT was strained even before they took over.

I should at this point make it clear that none of this is about our interim head David Linsell. At the meeting he didn’t do a bad job of introducing himself given the tough crowd. He told us he had left his previous school to join TKAT as a regional director, had had no idea he would be coming to us until the day before the end of term, and was only going to be with us for four days a week until a new head is appointed. He is experienced, has been very visible outside school almost every day at drop-off and pick-up, and says he is starting to fall in love with the place. He’s also handled the local media with dignity and openness.

Speaking of which, there were two points at which TKAT had the chance to avoid much of this negative media coverage and bad feeling. If Simon had been allowed to be in school on the first day of term to tell everyone he was leaving and hand over to the interim head, it would have been a lot easier on the children and we would have had to accept that it was his decision. Failing that, if they had resisted sending out that rather cold letter last Friday after Simon had visited the school and told us about his new job, we might just thought: end of an era, these things happen, we’ll miss him, but life goes on.

But whatever happened between Simon Wood and TKAT, the deadly ineptitude with which the academy group has handled his departure at every turn means that they have  totally lost our trust. Our focus now must be on finding a new academy partner for the school. There’s a new Facebook page, there will be more stories in the media, and we will continue to campaign for TKAT to be removed and Weyfield returned to its community.

I don’t think there’s any precedent for this. We have asked TKAT to send us their complaints procedure and then we will go to the DfE (How to Complain about Academies).

But there is one silver lining. What a community Weyfield has become! It’s ironic that Simon leaving has achieved this, with parents who had never spoken to each other before now feeling like they have a common cause. That’s some legacy. We’ve got some answers – at least we know he isn’t being tortured in some Goviet gulag with all TKAT’s other missing heads – but other questions remain. The Weyfield story continues…

7 thoughts on “The disappearing head: the next chapter

  1. Bryony Pawinska says:

    This is journalism at its best and I hope it will help other schools and heads who are falling foul of this secretive system, which is not child focused by any step of the imagination. I hope you find Letter to a Teacher and Pedagogy of the Oppressed helpful in seeing just how damaging an educational system can be for disadvantaged children if it is controlled by people with no understanding of the realities of living for so many children. So many schools fail vulnerable children, and local authorities are of course variable in how well they manage education provision in their area, but local accountability by elected members is at least open and transparent.

    I have read the written evidence from TKAT to the select committee. It is the sort of report you would expect from someone with a vested interest – we are brilliant and they are rubbish – but little evidence to back up their claims other than data to show an improvement in SATs results. Without having a great deal more information I cannot judge whether this was because of becoming an academy or whether it was because of something else. And it doesn’t show how long it took and the incremental improvement. Neither is it linked to OFSTED inspections which are more broad ranging in their judgements.

  2. Nicki Kurn says:

    Absolutely awesome! What more can I say! We have no intentions of giving up the fight to remove these result driven egotists who obviously have a big greenhouse somewhere growing us a new head teacher!! (Sorry couldn’t resist that one!) We want a company that actually care about the children and see them as children not just numbers!!! Hopefully the new chapter will be us being successful! Xx

    • Thanks Nicki! My betting is that if the SATs are as good as predicted, TKAT will claim credit, and if they aren’t, they won’t hesitate to blame the departed leadership team. There’s no way they are ever going to admit that, whatever the cause of the breakdown of (or maybe even failure to establish) the relationship with the school, they are in any way responsible. Fingers crossed we get the chance to work with an organisation that actually cares about the children at some point. x

  3. “makes it clear that the school was trying to partner with a local academy group but were bullied and threatened by TKAT and the DfE into signing the contract.”

    THIS sentence is why the leader of Lancs CC (who at the time was Conservative controlled) said that such people were banned from their schools and that heads were perfectly within their rights to refuse to meet with them.

    On the flipside, two secondary schools here – one previously outstanding that converted and another that was created from the merger of two other schools and is sponsored by the owner of Carphone Warehouse – were placed in special measures by Ofsted. LCC has written to the DfE to ask what they are going to do to turn them because as they pointed out, if it was two of their secondary schools, the DfE would most certainly be writing to them to ask the same question.

    I’m sorry you won’t get Simon back but glad you are now seeing a clearer way forward. I hope you manage to get TKAT removed, they have not covered themselves with glory in this whole debacle.

    • Thank you Kate – the fight goes on. Some of the ‘corporate governance’ issues around academies, and their modus operandi – there seems to be an awful lot of bullying going on – seriously need looking at. We have expert eyes on TKAT: the way the trust is run, its culture, structure, values, management style, procedures and what exactly they are doing with taxpayers’ money are all being examined. Thank you for your continued support. This stuff really matters…

  4. Roger Butler says:

    It would be interesting to see if The Governor Who Resigned has records of how the school was bullied by DfE into a shotgun wedding with TKAT.

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