There are few things more awe-inspiring than a trot round the Houses of Parliament. The oldest parliament in the world! Stunning ‘perpendicular gothic’ architecture! All the pomp and ceremony and hush and history and whispers in paneled corridors! I know there’s a good argument for the country to be run from a more modern, accessible, functional, light and open building, but I have to say, I love the place. And last week I was lucky enough to be invited to a meeting in the Commons which may turn out to be a pivotal moment in the twisty-turny story of our primary school.
The academy chain that took over our school in February 2013, TKAT, had requested a meeting with Guildford’s MP, Anne Milton: unwavering supporter of the school, writer of many, many letters asking awkward questions about what exactly TKAT were doing at the school and how they managed to lose an outstanding head teacher, and total laser brain. Anne Milton’s office called and asked if I’d like to come along, as a representative of the Weyfield Primary Academy parents. Ooh, this’ll be fun, I thought. I’d never met TKAT’s CEO Karen Roberts and was interested to hear what she had to say.
Cue slightly awkward moment at Portcullis House last Thursday when TKAT’s communications director Amanda Godfrey spotted me in reception and came over to say hello. I don’t think they were expecting me to be there. We were all – including a guy from the Department for Education invited by TKAT – taken down the underground passage to the Commons, through the various imposing halls and lobbies to a packed tea room where our little party arranged itself around a small table and took tea. All terribly civilised.
I don’t think I’m breaking any confidences to say that the meeting was focused on how we – as a school and a community – move forward from here, and how TKAT can try to put right the breakdown in trust between them and us as parents and staff. The DfE guy told Anne, when she asked how Weyfield could get out of TKAT, that there’s no way out of an academy funding agreement unless by mutual consent.
The main discussion, however, was how crucial the new senior leadership team will be in getting the school back on track. Because despite having no applications for the post when it was advertised in February, TKAT have managed to find us a new head teacher, Neil McDonough, who starts work after Easter.
The letter home from our new chair of governors, fellow blogger Clare Collins said:
‘Neil is a hugely experienced head and is also an Ofsted lead inspector. He is currently an executive head for three primary schools in Kent; prior to this he undertook an interim headship of a school in special measures and saw it removed from this category within a year, with leadership being judged as ‘good’… As governors we are clear that our vision for Weyfield is to foster the “Weyfield Way”, ensuring that high standards are achieved and maintained, and that this must be supported by top quality provision for both the children and the staff. Neil knows Weyfield as, over the last two terms, he has carried out some consultancy work in the school, and we are delighted that this introduction to the school has led to this appointment.’
We’ve since asked TKAT some more detailed questions about his appointment. It turns out he will only be working three days a week in the summer term as he has other commitments (he is currently running a consultancy, Make My School Better), and four days a week from September. How you can effectively run a very challenging school and not be there full-time, I don’t know, but there you are. Welcome to Gove’s brave new world of education.
He’s got a challenge on his hands: staff morale is extremely low, a whole sheaf of senior staff are leaving at Easter, and there’s no deputy yet in post. Some of the anonymous testimonials we have gathered from staff tell a very sorry tale of the current state of affairs at the school, with a rapid decline in behaviour and a perturbing lack of leadership and direction. Most urgently, some of the Year 6 children appear to be out of control. I am hearing stories of toilets being deliberately blocked, walking out of classrooms, graffiti, disrupting lessons, swearing at and threatening staff, and the reintroduction of an exclusion room. Back to the bad old days of two years ago, in other words. Not good for a cohort under great pressure to perform in their upcoming SATs.
The tea party at the House of Commons concluded with Anne Milton (who chaired the meeting quite beautifully) saying she’d be keen to meet the new head before he takes up post, and Karen Roberts looking me in the eye and promising me that TKAT really did want to keep Weyfield and was absolutely committed to putting things right and being more transparent and open and communicating better with us.
Only time will tell, obviously. I am still of the view – as is our MP - that Weyfield should have been allowed to join a local academy partner, the Guildford Education Partnership led by George Abbot secondary school. It will take a lot of evidence in the months ahead to convince us TKAT are in any way good for our school rather than actively damaging it.
But during the meeting – and this is why I said at the start that it might have been a crucial moment – I began to suspect Anne is also right about something else. Namely that now, with the appointment of our new head, is an appropriate time for Weyfield to try and move forward from the past three months of shock and grieving the loss of our tiny-bit-special former head, Simon Wood.
We’re no longer on that particular giddy and joyous journey from failing to Outstanding, and the children, staff and parents all miss him. But I fervently hope that after this significant stumble, we will soon be striding along another road that leads to the same end. I have no choice but to hope, and to try and make a positive contribution to that process: at least one of my children will be at the school for another five years.
There’s little point being obstructive, shouty and militant for the sake of it, since we’re never getting Simon back. (He starts work for another academy chain, Reach2, next month and we wish him the best of luck in his new role.) Equally, of course, we will not simply lie down quietly and be passive when dealing with an academy chain that still has huge question marks over aspects of its processes, transparency, management style, values, accountability and governance.
As parents, I believe we need to walk the only sensible line between the two extremes: acceptance that we are where we are, it is what it is, and while we will give the new head all our support in his endeavours to get the school back on track, we will continue to keep a very close eye on developments, and won’t hesitate to speak up if we feel our children’s education is being compromised in any way.
Because the purpose of education isn’t achieving good SATS results, Ofsted ratings, and gathering data: it’s all about the kids. About their aspirations and progress and happiness. About them deserving to have an education that enables each and every child, regardless of background and circumstance, to fulfil their potential. About them feeling respected and cared for so they respect and care in turn. If our new head truly gets that, and TKAT start understanding it too, we might just have a chance. I am an eternal optimist… I’ll look forward to meeting Neil McDonough soon, and hearing his plans to make our school sparkle again.
Oh, I almost forgot: the BEST bit of my trip to the Palace of Westminster was actually after the meeting. Anne Milton very kindly signed me in to the public gallery – the cool open bit over the Labour benches, not the bit behind a glass wall – and I sat there very happily, in proper awe of my surroundings, trying not to look at Nick Clegg’s crotch as he slouched on the Conservative front bench (I was surprised how many of them were tapping away on phones and tablets. I swear I saw one of them playing Candy Crush). Sat on the iconic green leather benches, I was lucky enough to hear most of the MPs’ wonderful tributes to the last great socialist, Tony Benn. Now there was a man who unfailingly spoke up for what he believed to be right, and those without a voice, and yet worked within the system without compromising his principles. Whatever your politics, he was an example to us all.