A tale of two Valentines

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.lets dance

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.

19 thoughts on “A tale of two Valentines

  1. Weyfield Parents says:

    This year’s disco was a sad affair indeed. Although everyone worked very hard and pulled off a fabulous evening, there simply wasn’t the same spark that we’d had at the Christmas Fayre or on Bonfire Night.

    Everyone felt deflated – especially with the news we received that afternoon, with regard to David Linsell staying with us until July, as it transpired that no Head in their right mind wants to touch Weyfield with a barge pole so long as it is still under the “Guardianship” of TKAT.

    There was no Simon/Kate duo flitting in and out of the kitchen with smiles and in search of a sneaky hot dog or two. Interim Head, David Linsell didn’t put in an appearance in the kitchen at all.

    Weyfield no longer has a strong, experienced senior leadership in the school. David Linsell knows nothing about running a primary school, and poor Kelly Mack, our newly appointed Assistant Head, whilst brilliant and truly a member of #TeamWeyfield, has been thrown right in at the deep end. She not only has to step into Kate’s shoes, but Simon’s too, at the same time as puppy (puppet) training David Linsell.

    TKAT has no genuine interest in the Weyfield staff, students and community. Until Simon’s departure, TKAT never visited Weyfield, never publicly praised the school and never attended any of our community events.

    TKAT’s interest in Weyfield is all about expansion. We’re their first Surrey school. We’re nothing more than a stepping stone for TKAT. After all, what genuine interest could they really have in our “below floor” school?

    • Thanks Stace. Powerful, passionate stuff as ever! I am a little reluctant to bring our interim head into this – as an eternal optimist, I am still giving him a chance, and he’s the kids’ headteacher so it’s important to me that they respect him – but there’s only so much someone who is temporary and part-time can do. You’re also right that we’ve lost that spark and sense of true, dynamic leadership. What we still have, albeit for the wrong reasons, is a strong, united, community of parents, staff and supporters, and it’s important that we continue to leverage that. Weyfield still rocks…

  2. Katy Rossiter says:

    Maja, I am so impressed by, and proud of, you. I know it takes an awful lot of strength, resilience and determination to fight a huge organisation when they are just wrong! The lies, deletions, manipulation of truth, and intimidation can be incredibly difficult to tackle – but you have. You have inspired me to help in our local issue of unlawfulness by the National Parks Authority here in the New Forest. There are a lot of similarities to your campaign – “lost” minutes of meetings, underhand tactics, and the overwhelming whiff of guilt, secrecy and fear. Like you, I have never been a political animal. But, also like you, circumstances have given me a strength that I cannot ignore and must use productively. I’m glad that you have found like-minded people to tackle this issue with TKAT – “no man is an island” etc! As our esteemed former leader – god rest his soul -used to say, “KBO”. Keep Buggering On Maja – we’re all here for you.

    • Thanks Katy! You know KBO was my mantra through my Interesting Cancer Experience, and as you said the other day, ‘if you can f*ck cancer, you can f*ck Michael Gove’, although that brought a VERY unpleasant picture to mind! Thanks for your support, as ever. Good luck with the National Parks Authority – it’s easy to whinge and wail and do nothing, but sometimes you just know something is badly wrong, and you must speak up. ‘If not me, who, and if not now, when’ etc. xxx

  3. sarah says:

    Another fantastic blog.Who in their right mind would work for TKAT!They have failed our sch in a huge way,accepting a resignation off the most wonderful, inspirational head & now we have a part time head! Year 6 have been knocked back as I said they would in the meeting, but was told we will make sure that wont happen!Sadly old ways are slipping back.The staff are doing an amazing job as they have worked tirelessly in the last 2years to help to get us to where we are,I truly hope for the sake of the children left in Weyfield when my son leaves in july we get the result we want & TKAT hands us back.X

    • Thanks Sarah. I’m quite sure Simon’s departure is far from the last from TKAT’s stable. I hope Year 6 can rally before their SATs this year – and I hope you’ll keep in touch and carry on being a supporter after your son leaves! x

  4. Great blog post as always. It does raise the question of what TKAT actually offer the school. Doesn’t appear to be a lot. Seems more about taking the money with nothing in return. Although not as extreme as your schools case, I have been through upsets at primary school when my youngest was just starting out. It was quite a trying time as we didn’t feel she had the best start to her education. Thankfully, the school turned around with a new head and all seems to be going in the right direction. Sadly, to late for her but good for those there now, especially my nephews. I do hope the same happens for your school and you find a way to get free of TKATs clutches. Good luck xxx

  5. Nick Wood says:

    Another great blog Maja, whilst I read your blog with interest I can only hope with all my heart that Weyfield will once again become’s that ‘ Magical place to learn ‘ I know who’s dream that was and having visited your lovely school and enjoying meeting many of the children, staff and parents, oh and the chickens, I was quite astounded to watch children running up asking if they could do anything to help, do you have any jobs I can do ? etc , others almost pleading to be allowed to collect the chickens eggs, , As I walked around the school It became apparent that my ‘Chaperone’ knew the name of every single child that came near us, and took the time to interact with each and everyone, introducing me one at a time to so many that we met… I also had the pleasure of watching a bike display whereby your ( then) headteacher was subjected to a scary but exciting bicycle stunt , thrilling the whole school both teachers and students, causing great laughter and cheers .. later in the day I watched many enjoying cycle lessons in the playground, and much more. Whilst I was only there a few hours the feeling within Weyfield was electrifying, welcoming and exciting ……….. I feel much sadness to read that may be fading away, I therefore offer you my full support in whatever action you feel necessary to take to keep Weyfield the fantastic ‘Magical’ place it is… Nick :-)

    • Thank you Nick – I well remember your pride at seeing what Simon and his team had achieved at the school – it was very special indeed. It’ll never be quite the same again but hopefully Weyfield will rise again… x

  6. I am sorry that your school is going through this, but not sorry you’ve become politicised. Sounds like your energy is a great asset. I hope you can make big changes, and be a fantastic precedent for other schools going through this sort of thing.

  7. Kelly McGhin says:

    Broke my heart reading this. I’ve shared it on my Facebook page (hope you don’t mind). We have to show the world the reality of forced academies; how demoralising and deflating they are for staff. Good teachers are leaving the profession in droves; I hope your brave words show these that there is still some fight left in us.
    Keep the faith!

  8. Thank you Kelly. Good teachers and heads are hard enough to find as it is, without the demoralising, goalpost-moving pressure of being forced into a relationship with an organisation that doesn’t understand your school or your children, or share your values. We will carry on fighting!

  9. Nikki Senior says:

    I have had the absolute pleasure of working with Si at two schools. To describe him as ‘inspirational’ is an understatement! He has the skill of nurturing and guiding staff – those who share his vision of an inclusive school – and supporting them even when they don’t know they need it. I have read about the saga at Weyfield with absolute dismay and feel so sorry for the children and families who are left. Si was kind enough to support me during a very bad patch in my career. He was non-judgemental, supportive and full of positive ideas that it was impossible not to get caught up with them, and this was despite me not even being at the same school. That, in my eyes, is what a true gentleman is. Having read the comments by parents on the web I can only say, ‘Si, if my parents and children speak half as positively about me then I have done alright!’ Simon Wood is not only a true advocate of the child and their learning in the broadest sense of the word, but also someone who I am proud to call a dear friend.

    • Hi Nikki. Thank you so much for your comment. I haven’t yet come across anyone who has worked with Simon at any point in his career who didn’t have a similar admiration and affection for him. I just wish TKAT’s CEO Karen Roberts had spent more time with him and the team at school – just one day in his company, on his territory, and she would have seen and understood what his colleagues and the parents and carers at the school already knew: that he was a inspiration and a critical factor in the school’s rapid improvement. His loss is felt very keenly by everyone at and associated with the school. Staff member after staff member has said to me that the corridors just don’t feel the same without his presence, and I know the children feel that too.

      • Nikki Senior says:

        I totally agree. It is so sad and it would appear that the wellbeing of the children has taken a poor second place to data etc. If I had children I know who I would want to teach them!!

  10. Having taught for many years and had the priviage to work within a creative well thought of school, I have been aware of the slow decline of joy in schools. This has sped up to a great despondent over all feeling of how far is this all going to go, I am so heartened that parents are fighting back with positive action that is the only way changes can be made. The government are arrogant enough to think that the public and parents are not intelligent enough to ‘understand’. your story is something I have heard form colleagues around the country. Unfortunately I am also one who has left the proffesion because I no longer agreed with the path it was taking. I miss the children which surely are the priority in school not data.
    Fight they are your children and it is their future.

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