One parent’s letter to the governors

The governing body have said that they are happy to continue to receive feedback from parents until 31st January, so don’t forget to have your say.

One parent has written the letter below to governors, and has removed personal information for its publication at Love Darell:

Dear Governors,

Darell was ‘first choice’ for our child. We chose Darell because it is a locally-controlled, non-denominational school with a great history of a creative curriculum, together with thoughtful and reflective teaching. The work on the walls looked interesting, refreshingly flamboyant even, and, crucially, the children were obviously happy and proud of their school. Our conversations with teaching staff suggested that they are caring, intelligent and passionate practitioners who value the individuality of each child – a telling difference from the ambiance of other local schools. It was the only school that did not lead the ‘open morning’ with talk of SATs results and Ofsted reports; these were of course mentioned by Laura Whateley, the previous head, but were clearly put into context and when she did discuss them, it was with understandable pedagogical purpose. She was unapologetic about Darell’s diverse intake and this chimed with our impression of the school: a bold, sensible and sensitive institution that we wanted to wholeheartedly support.

I am firmly opposed to Darell converting to academy status and joining ECEDAT because I do not believe that Darell would benefit from being in a MAT led by two secondary schools: the consequent and inevitable risk to the school is far too great. Joining ECEDAT would not facilitate improvements to the children’s education or well-being. In fact, I have become convinced that it would be far more valuable for Darell to work with other primary schools – and it is surely revealing that the majority of other primary schools in the borough have not been swayed by the academy argument despite the pressure from Achieving for Children to do so. Put simply, I do not want Darell to be the test case, in a flawed experiment.

Maggie Bailey said she felt that ‘secondaries have a lot to learn from primaries’ – I am sure that is the case, and primaries can clearly also benefit from some degree of cross-phase work with secondary schools, but there is no need for it to be in such a high-stakes arrangement, without even the guarantee of secondary-school places in ECEDAT schools for Darell pupils – all of which makes the argument for a 3-18 trust somewhat shonky.

Furthermore, I do not believe the narrative that has been spun during the consultation that other primary schools in the locality (and beyond) do not want to work with Darell – this is defeatist and simply cannot be the case, at least if this possibility has been seriously and confidently pursued. Darell is unique, for example, in having Butterfly class, and could do far more to present this as something which other schools should learn from. The music at the school is also incredible and appears to be going from strength to strength – this is an example of something that should be sung from the rooftops. A new head teacher who has been at a school for less than a year surely cannot have yet had the opportunity to foster meaningful relationships with all the local heads, or those with a similar demographic further afield, in order to discuss possibilities for collaboration and co-operation. Meanwhile, it seems that all the energy and attention have been focused on academisation and ECEDAT at the expense of alternatives.

Interestingly, Nelson School in Whitton – which is in a MAT with Waldegrave School (nonpareil as a secondary on its own terms) – has not improved according to its recent, highly critical, Ofsted inspection report. Here, it is significant that the first actions, as outlined in a letter to parents, are to bring in consultants with specialist primary expertise, and to employ a former primary headteacher to support the current head. I strongly hope that the situation at Nelson gives genuine pause for thought because it is a directly comparable situation to Darell’s within our borough and should act as a stark warning. Unfortunately for Nelson, this was an enforced academy project; but Darell has a choice.

There is no current political, moral, financial or, most importantly, educational need to jump into a relationship, the benefits of which are uncertain. The sole exception is the possibility of the school’s having one consistent person providing educational psychological services. I would argue that this is not reason enough. Perhaps, in concert with other local schools, pressure should be brought to bear on Achieving for Children to provide a better service. Moreover, this is precisely the type of service that fits very well with a joint commission by primary schools in a soft or hard federation. In any case, as with teaching, educational psychologists properly specialise in different age groups, some focusing on early childhood work, others on adolescents etc. The prospect of a single person working across the age-range of the proposed ECEDAT trust does not inspire confidence.

To be candid, the other apparent benefits cited during the consultation have veered towards the outright comical, among them mindfulness; restorative justice; and after-school clubs overseen by sixth-formers chasing UCAS points. The possibilities around the teaching of languages seemed interesting, but on reflection: in a school with so many speakers of other languages among the staff, pupil and parent body, it seems ridiculous to propose that Darell cannot develop its own languages teaching without recourse to private companies (La Jolie Ronde et al) and secondary modern foreign languages teachers. Drawing from our own experience: our child had brilliant French and Spanish teaching at their nursery school that was simple and stress-free, centred around song and play, a world away from the “results culture” that almost everyone agrees has sadly become endemic in secondaries. They have definitely taken the bait and along with their multi-lingual peers have a huge appetite for learning all manner of languages. It should not be at all difficult to envisage an ongoing programme of language teaching … or perhaps to consider a termly ‘Languages Week’ involving as many members of the community as possible, and incorporating culture and customs as well as vocabulary. Similarly, I understand that Darell used to have an amazing ‘Art Week’; I am eager for this to be revived.

The key issues facing all schools are: the forthcoming and much publicised cuts to education funding; a chaotic and confusing assessment system throughout the key stages; and teacher recruitment and retention. After consideration of the pros and cons, I am not in the least persuaded that being part of ECEDAT would improve Darell’s future with regard to these issues. We know that the parent body at Darell, if suitably encouraged and supported, will continue to raise vital supplementary funds enthusiastically (and volunteer in other ways) and we would hope that parents and staff will robustly oppose the cuts, and the pernicious effects of ‘SATs culture’, wherever possible.

As more evidence has come in from schools which have tried various new forms of governance, it is now well documented that many teachers nationally do not feel that they can do their best work in academies – and so, far from being convinced by the promises of professional development within a MAT, many of the most talented classroom teachers are hard for any MAT to recruit or retain. Looking, as we all have a moral obligation to do, beyond the short term, even if ECEDAT has currently the best intentions, future cuts will certainly force its board to make very difficult decisions and the academy will of course forever be vulnerable to takeover by a chain or commercial sponsor, leaving Darell with hugely diminished access to local expertise, both pedagogical and financial.

There seems to be an agreement that the key issues particular to Darell are the need to fill more places and to continue to do the best for each child in the school, such that every child makes good progress and is given a broad and engaging primary education. This includes, but absolutely should not be driven by, improving SATs results. Having now read widely on the subject, there is no evidence that academisation improves attainment beyond the occasional one- or two-year bump; in many cases, when school structures are meddled with, the effect on results is in fact detrimental.

Darell also needs to work much harder to engage its families – it is well-evidenced that parental support and involvement are absolutely key in improving educational outcomes. The standing of a school in its community is clearly also improved when a school is full of loyal families. There is a very real sense at the school gates that the consultation process about joining ECEDAT has sought to do Darell down and has made people fearful, and to wonder why ECEDAT is being presented as a saviour / panacea / golden opportunity. The timing of the release of the SATs results, omitting progress data and any of the other usual contextual information, only served to increase this concern. Personally, I have found the consultation alienating and demoralising (despite having been very actively involved); based on conversations with other parents and staff, I now know that I am far from alone in this regard. I have become convinced that what is being perceived as a top-down done-deal-decision would only serve to turn families and teachers away from Darell. In fact, this has already happened with some families defecting to other local schools this term explicitly citing disquiet about the academisation upheaval.

Since joining Darell in September, I have become extremely saddened to have gone from a position of embracing it and looking forward to my involvement during the next seven years, to now feeling anxious about the future, at odds with the school, disenchanted. My positive energy and feelings toward Darell are tragically ebbing away, too soon and, I think, unnecessarily.

However, whilst the notion of an irrevocable tie to ECEDAT is alarming and depressing, the idea of supporting Darell to work with other primary schools is both energising and truly exciting. I am extremely willing and keen to participate in any discussions or actions which will support the decision to remain a locally accountable school that works with other primary schools, perhaps in a federation.

I would urge you, therefore, to withdraw from the current application to convert, with immediate effect, and to actively explore other options (and to engage parents and staff properly in the process of doing so) and to throw the vast bulk of time and energy into supporting interesting educational experiences within the school. I cannot bear the prospect of the school’s being distracted from its proper work of providing a rich curriculum for our own child and for Darell’s other children in the years to come. If, of course, after actively exploring more than one option, staff, parents and governors were united in thinking that ECEDAT were the right way forward, that would be a very different situation to the one we find ourselves in.

An example of productive parental engagement is offered by the model of meettheparents.info. This is an organisation set up by parents in a primary school in Tufnell Park, North London, to address the problem of some of the local secondary schools having a negative reputation in the community. ‘Meet The Parents’ offers the opportunity to do just that and Darell could and should encourage its best ambassadors (parents and children) to do comparable positive work. Another achievable initiative would be to support the work the school already does in partnership with Richmond Adult and Community College with language classes for parents learning English. This could take the form of a conversation club and I would be among its first volunteers. And of course, we need not stop there, given willing … Darell’s distinct character and creativity need not be merely part of its fondly remembered local history.

As the former deputy head of Darell, Brian Glover, has said during the consultation:

‘Darell is the borough’s oldest primary school and was once referred to as “the jewel in the crown.” This was at a time when Darell’s great strengths were in the arts and in social integration. Unfortunately these things are no longer highly valued by government or Ofsted, and of course are less easily measured and placed in league tables.’

We could do far more to celebrate and publicise the diversity of activity that goes on in the school. There is a wide sense that the consultation regarding ECEDAT has been apologetic and has sought to do Darell down … with ECEDAT being presented as a kind of saviour. I believe, in contrast, that our teachers and the leadership know what they need to do day-to-day at the school and in the longer term, and I am convinced that they need to be given time if they are to achieve this. They precisely do not need an extra bureaucratic layer.

Finally, the administrative burden of academisation is likely to be all-consuming – as well as being financially costly. I am absolutely sure that the energies of all would be better spent supporting co-operation with other primary schools.

I implore you to review the process and to consider other options with the genuine and engaged involvement of parents and staff. I will be wholeheartedly committed to any such efforts.

Next post from Love Darell: PROJECT HOPE. Coming soon!

Michael Rosen talks to Love Darell about academization

childrens_laureateYou might know Michael Rosen as a former Children’s Laureate, or as the author of books like We’re Going On A Bear Hunt and What’s So Special About Shakespeare? 

His parents were educationalists; he has worked for decades with many schools and seen the effects of changes positive and negative on how they are run; and he broadcasts on BBC Radio 4 about language and education.

Michael Rosen spoke to Love Darell about our school’s proposed academisation.

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Love Darell: Of our local schools, Darell is the most welcoming to children with special educational needs (SENs), to those who don’t speak English as a first language, and to those on the PPG. What should the families of those pupils expect if the school were to join an Multi-Academy Trust (MAT)?

Michael Rosen: One way or another you will find that a MAT will do all it can to reduce the number of ‘SENs’ because in league-table terms, they are seen as ‘bringing down’ the SATs scores. 

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Love Darell: The director of the academy told parents that ‘results aren’t everything – except of course really they actually are’. Our school has historically placed happiness above SATs. How do things tend to change for primaries when results are prioritised?

Michael Rosen: What happens is that whole chunks of school time (‘lessons’) are taken up with doing work that exactly matches the SATs papers and the SATs way of thinking.

This is devoted entirely to asking questions which only have right or wrong answers.

The problem with that is that if we want our children to weigh up different views, to exchange opinions, to find out new ways to get information, to ‘interpret’ things for themselves then education can not and must not be reduced to right/wrong answers.

There’s a place for right/wrong answers but not all the time. 

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Love Darell: The primary schools in Richmond which have decided not to academise: are they mad?

Michael Rosen: No. They have decided to believe that local democracy and co-operation between schools in a community is the best way to work. I agree with them. 

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Love Darell: What can we expect in terms of communication and accountability if our school becomes part of an Multi-Academy Trust (MAT)?

Michael Rosen: You would find that this area is very muddy. By all accounts, it seems to be very difficult with MATs to have any parent representation of any kind.

When things go wrong, or there are matters that parents want to raise (either as individuals, groups or a large number), you find that it’s very difficult or even impossible.

MATs like to run the way they want to run. They are after all businesses.

MATs are entitled to use school premises for any activity they want. Famously, one academy used school premises to run a dating agency and a leisure complex. (That’s not a joke. It’s true.)

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rosen_bear_huntWe are assured that ECEDAT is “not like other MATs”. Love Darell is fairly convinced that its current management understands what makes Darell special. But if we handed over control, our future would be down to the commercial market, and our staff and parents would no longer be guaranteed a say.

Our strongest defence would be to cross our fingers and hope that there are no more bad times which mean that the goalposts ‘inevitably’ move. If things do change, we wouldn’t be able to say that we hadn’t been warned…

The arguments for and against Darell being run by ECEDAT

Based on this week’s meetings about whether Darell should be taken from public accountability and handed to the Every Child Every Day Academy Trust, here’s a summary of the pros and cons:

The case for handing control to ECEDAT The case for any alternative
Money All schools currently face financial challenges and need to share resources; ECEDAT would share Darell’s resources with those of secondary schools… not yet pursued: sharing resources with other primaries
Acknowledgement that schools which have been Academized don’t actually get any extra funding… not investigated: like-with-like financial comparison with any alternative futures
Darell’s identity Acknowledgement that Darell’s social mix is among the so-far identified risks of the school being run by ECEDAT… …but it might be OK, it might be worth that risk
Results A hope that the brand value of being Academized might make Darell a first choice for more of a certain kind of parent…
A strong insistence that, especially at Darell, results are not the only measure of success… …no mention of ECEDAT’s philosophy, as stated at the meeting at Darell, that ‘results aren’t everything — except of course, actually they really are’
Acknowledgement that Academies tend to improve results only for a brief period…  …
Teaching and learning Acknowledgement that this year’s External Teaching & Learning Review identified Darell’s good teaching, but also saw some areas for improvement; ECEDAT definitely believes in improvement… …other schools’ feelings for or against improvement: not discussed
National Governors Association advice to federate first, avoid massive costs and disruption and then consider Academization based on hard evidence Federation is impossible — or more specifically, it is not legally possible with certain individual church schools which are not legally able to federate with us (based on a PowerPoint slide presented as ‘surprise extra behind-the-scenes material’ at both meetings); of the eg non-church schools, there have been no equivalent ‘consultants’ or meetings… …nothing about formal approaches from governing body to appropriate local schools; only some anecdotes about encounters at meetings designed to encourage Academization, backed by proponents of Academization
Responsiveness / accountability Future ‘policies and procedures’ would be determined by ECEDAT; details on which parts of governance Darell would have a say on, and which would be decided by ECEDAT will not be considered until the end of the consultation process… …a worry expressed that federation with other local primaries might rely on ‘goodwill’ rather than Darell having a say
ECEDAT control would make Darell seriously address ‘structure and the framework for leadership’… …apparently impossible to do ourselves
ECEDAT does not currently ‘plan to grow beyond a certain size’… not addressed: the power retained by federation schools over whether to continue expanding
‘Once Darell becomes Outstanding, which should happen in two years, its staff will be used to help other primary schools’…  …
Politics and our school Academization is ‘the direction of travel the current government wants to see’…  …
Parent and staff input Anything other than enthusiasm about ECEDAT explained as ‘initial fears of change’… not discussed: any changes other than Academization
Pros and cons of becoming part of an Academy of secondary schools After-school clubs from Sixth Formers…
Disruption Acknowledgement that disruption to day-to-day life is among the risks… not considered: getting settled before making a big decision
In a big organisation, more teachers would have the opportunity to move out of the classroom…
Fear Factor If Darell doesn’t rush into a decision, it will get a horrendous Ofsted, results will plummet to -1,000 and the government will force a sale to one of those evil ‘chain academies’ (probably, for some reason, the hated Harris), and Darell’s children will collapse weeping in a harrowing playground of perpetual doom [paraphrase]… …just be very afraid

Here is the feedback form.

Academization update: Is there an alternative?

Hello again! Love Darell has spent the past week talking to parents, staff and the wider Darell family about the proposal by the governing body to give control of Darell to the Every Child Every Day Academy Trust (ECEDAT)

There are two big questions. But first, a little update:

  • conference-2400pxWe are posting feedback at this website – do get in touch at lovedarellschool@gmail.com. (We are especially happy to publish any submissions to the governing body – anonymously or otherwise.)
  • A parent who prefers to remain anonymous has been trying to find out more details about ECEDAT, and we will post their findings here.
  • We are putting together an annotated response to the plans by the governors and ECEDAT: check back here or sign up for the newsletter.
  • And to all those who have thanked us for trying to open up the conversation: thank you for saying so! 😃

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Now, here’s the big question #1: Are there any alternatives? In other words: is the governing body actually considering any future for Darell other than its being run by ECEDAT?

The governors’ document says…

You can have your say or ask further questions by: • Completing the feedback form available online or in the school office • Writing to the following email address: academyconsultation@darell.richmond.sch.uk • Attending meetings at Darell school on 13 December at 7pm or 15 December at 9am. The consultation closes on 9 January 2017.
…but does not say anything about what could make the governing body think twice about “Dexit”. Many people have told us that they are concerned that this is one of those “listening exercises” where, whatever anyone says, the outcome will be the same.

mutcd_r6-2l-2400pxIf they’re right: what is the right way to respond, for the future of Darell? To express concerns anyway, in the hope that perhaps our voices really might count? To boycott the consultation? To legally challenge the application? To publicly beg for clearer terms?

Think about it, talk about it, and let us know! (Or skip to the end of this post for a proposal that we pause to think things through.)

Before big question #2, three things of interest about big question #1:

  1. The Department for Education’s “Converter Academies Pipeline” shows only one of our local schools in this “pipeline”:screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-20-44-47 
  2. Teaching staff at Grey Court school in Ham (one of the secondary schools owned by ECEDAT) have told Love Darell that they have been told that the acquisition of Darell is a done deal.
  3. The formal application to the government that Darell should leave local control was actually submitted before the consultation.

little-boy-and-girl-holding-hands-silhouette-2400pxHm.

(Also, Love Darell would certainly not be confident about a big change happening where the thoughts of our trusted staff are just part of an informal process where only the bravest Darell staff submitted private thoughts.)

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And here’s the big question #2: What ARE the alternatives?

cod-fsfe-checklist-icon-2400pxTeachers, parents and other members of the Darell family have asked Love Darell: is it best for Darell to be run by an Academy which only runs secondary schools? There is definitely wide enthusiasm for sharing resources and expertise with other schools, but are ECEDAT’s secondaries the best partners for Darell?

One parent asked: “Do we want Darell to become a ‘cross-phase’ cog within an Academy machine, or should it be less like a secondary, and more like other primary schools and nurseries – a place where children learn to love school rather than a part of a secondary culture of endless testing and training?”

In other words, has the governing body looked into teaming up with other local schools for the under-11s?

Again, here are some things of interest:

  1. Do read the National Governors Association advice. They strongly recommend that schools form federations before rushing to join a Multi-Academy Trust:

    [Academies are] can be an enormous change for maintained schools, so why the one-way narrative? Instead of missing out on all the benefits of being part of a group of schools, why not consider federating first?

    [F]or many it is likely that the advantages to federation make it a good option.

    Federation can be a very effective group structure, providing maintained schools with the opportunity to form a group – without incurring legal costs – in order to improve the education of pupils… This can be done while still remaining a maintained school, so the process is much more focused on relationship building and producing tangible outcomes for pupils, instead of being dominated by legal changes in charity/company status and land ownership.

    Especially interesting is the list of advantages of federation, and the National Governors Association’s findings that, even when schools do decide to hand control to Academies, this process is much less painful and has more support if the school has first become part of a federation and kept control. But has our governing body followed this?

  2. The nearest thing to considering an alternative that Love Darell has been able to find in the governors’ proposal is this meeting from April 2016…

    screen-shot-2016-11-29-at-21-08-22

    …but this seems to be an event which only looked at Multi-Academy Trusts, and did not start to think about alternatives which might be better for Darell.
  3. At the meeting with Maggie Bailey, the director and secretary of ECEDAT, we were told of some local primaries that Darell could not co-operate with because they were church/”PFI” schools.

Okay! But has the governing body talked to the primary and nursery schools that we could co-operate with, none of which are rushing to hand control to an Academy?

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One last thing…

roadsign-crossroads-2400pxLove Darell has heard from many parents and staff who are open to whatever is best for Darell, who trust that the governing body will do the right thing if the consultation is genuine, but who are worried that one option is being rushed through. So, how about this?

  • We pause the process
  • We withdraw from the “pipeline” for now
  • We get some alternatives into the conversation
  • We get through this year’s Ofsted and results without either forcing Darell’s hand
  • And we make sure we’re doing the best for Darell before making a huge and effectively irreversible change?

What do you think? And if you think it’s a reasonable idea, how do we make that pause-for-thought happen before it’s too late?

The meetings with Maggie Bailey of Every Child Every Day Academy Trust

Hello again!

On Monday and Tuesday, Maggie Bailey of ECEDAT came to Darell to propose that her Multi-Academy Trust should run Darell school.

The impression after each meeting – both from those tempted by academisation and those with questions about it – seemed to be that she was a charming and driven Trust Director with certainly no shortage of ambition. It was clear that the Chairs of Governors at Hollyfield and Grey Court Schools were singing from the same hymn sheet on Monday evening and thought that the co-operation between their secondary schools is working for them. Frank Kitson, Chair of Governors at Grey Court, and Marcus Baines, Chair of Governors at Hollyfield, are both also board members of ECEDAT (see below about accountability).

It was less clear to some how the experience at Grey Court and Hollyfield would translate to a primary school.

So what next?

Here are some questions that came up, and some information to form part of the consultation process…

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Money

key-to-success-2400pxFrom the meetings: It was clear that all schools are facing financial difficulties and that Darell needs to be clever to make sure that the effect on children is minimised. No numbers were mentioned about ECEDAT or any alternatives, though these are of course early days.

For the consultation: How does ECEDAT compare to alternatives?

• Does it have a funding pot in place for Darell to make up the shortfall? And would this be used for academisation or for teaching?
• What would be committed to Darell in the short- and long-term?
• What future funding sources does ECEDAT anticipate?
• What would be the cost of joining a Multi-Academy Trust (legal fees, consultants’ fees, etc)?
• How would we know that Darell’s children would benefit?
• What are the equivalent numbers for the alternatives to ECEDAT?

Numbers and binding commitments, please, before we sign anything!

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Results

cod-fsfe-checklist-icon-2400pxFrom the meetings: There was concern expressed over the most recent test results at Darell. Concern was also expressed because the results were not presented in the same way as previous years, giving context about staff disruption, proportions of children with special educational needs, etc.

For the consultation: What is ECEDAT‘s approach to results?

• What are ECEDAT’s short- and long-term business plans, and how will they change if results do not result in increased pupil numbers?
• In terms of its employment contracts, could Darell teachers and support staff be obliged or expected to come in earlier and work later?
• Would the Multi-Academy Trust be entitled to move children and staff between its schools to improve its figures?

And how does this year’s research by the London School of Economics, which shows that academisation tends to show a one-year “bounce” in results, followed by a drop, relate to ECEDAT and the alternatives under consideration?

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Working with other schools

little-boy-and-girl-holding-hands-silhouette-2400pxFrom the meetings: There was a general agreement that schools work better when they work together.

In terms of which schools Darell would work best with, Maggie Bailey was asked about the advantages of having Darell run by a Trust made up of secondary schools, and she stressed the importance of asking sixth-formers to help Darell children with maths, and to run clubs, and that in more general terms: “We’ve got so much to learn, there’s loads we can learn from a primary.”

For the consultation: The National Governors Association recommends “Federation First” – a way of keeping local control of a school to avoid “missing out on all the benefits of being part of a group of schools”.

• What progress has Darell made in following the NGA recommendations with other local, secular, non-PFI primaries?
• What are the (costed or uncosted) pros and cons of a local primary federation?
• Has sharing resources and co-operating with Windham Nursery and Children’s Centres been considered?

All alternatives should of course be given fair and equal consideration. Another question is whether governors, parents and staff might prefer to watch how ECEDAT learns about primary education from another primary school first – in order to make an informed judgement about what handing control of Darell to ECEDAT would mean for our school.

The view was also expressed that, given how much upheaval there has been at Darell over the past few years, the best thing would be to avoid any further, major changes for, say, a year, and energies concentrated on maintaining our good Ofsted (especially as a poor Ofsted could make handing over control of Darell inevitable…).

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Accountability / Transparency

conference-2400pxFrom the meetings: Maggie Bailey said that the Every Child Every Day Academy Trust does not need a website because she could be personally contacted around the clock and that she would always give a reply within 24 hours – and that in terms of the Trust’s intentions, “the words ‘every child every day’ really tell you everything you need to know”.

Questions were asked about ECEDAT’s being very much led and directed by an individual, Maggie Bailey. What happens when she leaves? Who are the Trust members, past and present (a lot of resignations seem to have happened already)?

How does it feel to be a teacher in a school where the successes are ascribed to the “leadership” (and what about the failures?!)?

For the consultation: How would the Every Child Every Day Academy Trust be accountable to staff and parents? 

• Will ECEDAT publish the minutes of its governing decisions?
• ECEDAT is legally obliged to publish some of its financial data: what else will it volunteer to make public?
• If Darell decided to no longer be accountable to democratically-elected representatives, what would be the precise process for when things go wrong?
• What are the specific details of ECEDAT’s finances, and its short- and long-term plans?
• Some examples: what would the Trust be legally free to change about Darell without consultation: • its name? • its uniform? • its staffing?

Specifics, please, on ECEDAT’s governance and whether it would be contractually obliged to listen to staff and parents – and how it compares to federations and other alternatives.

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How binding?

paper_tape_table_dispenser-01From the meetings: At both meetings, the issue of withdrawal from ECEDAT came up, and whether the Multi-Academy Trust would be given control of the school and its land for 125 years. ECEDAT‘s answer was that a  “divorce” would be easy after six years if the arrangement did not work out. Is it the case that the school would not be able to return to local governance and the only option would be transferring to another MAT?

For the consultation: How free would Darell be to leave ECEDAT?

• What would the likely costs be in terms of lawyers and consultants?
• With ECEDAT in control of the school, rather than its governing body, who would decide what happened next?
• Would Darell be forced to become part of another Academy?
• Could that be a Chain Academy?

Risk assessment, please.

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Consultation

keep-quiet-sign-by-rones-2400pxFrom the meetings: Asked whether staff and parents would be part of the decision about the future of Darell, Maggie Bailey said that a collection of parents’ feelings would be made, and staff would be free to voice their concerns. Asked whether she would personally be happy with a consultation process that did not ballot staff and parents, she declined to answer.

For the consultation: Some binding “referendum” of staff and/or parents would, it is generally felt, risk divisiveness and undermine the governing body’s duty to represent everyone with an interest in the future of Darell. No thank you!

So: how do we make sure that our school is not one of those organisations that holds a so-called “listening exercise” about a huge decision, then just pushes through an outcome regardless of what anyone has said? 

Since the governing body actually made a formal application to hand control of Darell to ECEDAT months before the consultation process is set to begin, how can we make sure that it does not look like one of those “consultations in name only”?

It is scarily easy to find examples of academisation that have been pushed through and which have resulted in demoralised staff and parents no longer willing to volunteer and support a school. The standing of these schools in their community drops or plummets – and none of us wants that to happen to Darell.

• Should an advisory ballot of staff and parents make sure that everyone’s voice is seen to be heard? This would work best if the options presented were not binary.
• If not, how can the governing body reassure staff and parents, present and future, that this is not a political move?
• And if not, how do we include the many stakeholders who do not feel confident in making public statements?
• What is the governing body’s plan to replace the consultation group from which four parents have resigned?
• And in terms of decision-making, how precisely do the voices of parents and staff influence the school’s future?

Over the past 110 years, staff and parents have made Darell what it is. If they no longer feel part of its future and their enthusiasm is crushed, the school could suffer. So, as always, specifics please…

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Good governance

gerald-g-balance-scale-2400pxFrom the meetings: There was no chair of either meeting with ECEDAT. At meetings of the now-disbanded Consultation Group, there was no chair, no agenda, and no minutes were taken. The formal consultation begins on Monday.

For the consultation: What is the nature of the consultation?

• Who is being consulted?
• How will the final decision be taken?
• When does a decision need to be made?
• Who decides?
• Is there only one option?
• How will communication happen?
• What would it take for the pre-consultation application to join ECEDAT to be paused?
• What are the pros and cons of all the alternatives?

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It’s also super-important to say how much enthusiasm and energy was shown by parents and staff before, between and following this week’s meetings. People care so much about this school and want to be sure that whichever path we eventually take, it really is the best for Darell.

Many thanks if you’ve read this far: you are living proof of the passion and commitment on the part of governors, parents and staff, past and present, that have made Darell unique! In summary, then, those consultation questions again, as a document to download:

PDF: Questions for the consultation about the future of Darell Primary & Nursery School

Let’s do this!

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Responses to all of this

blosdazWe’ve had many expressions of thanks for setting up this website and it feels great to have opened up the conversation about the future of Darell.  We’ve written to local politicians of various hues to ask what they think and will publish their responses as and when we hear from them.

This is a page for thoughts from people who care about Darell, past and present. All contributions are welcome: those excited by ECEDAT, those with questions and concerns, those who are still unsure about the whole thing etc, etc. Write to:  lovedarellschool@gmail.com

Comments can be published anonymously or otherwise!

Cllr Penny Frost (Opposition Spokesperson for Education and Governor of Meadlands School, Ham):

I am not particularly in favour of turning primary schools into academies.  There are other models which might be more suited to them.  They run the risk of getting swallowed up. Federation is a good model for primaries.

N., current parent at Darell:

Let’s pause the process. We need more details. So many questions and such few clarified by ECEDAT.

Cornelia Fey, parent of child at Darell 2010-2014 (year 2-4) before returning to live Germany:

[Darell was] the best of the 5 schools my children went to,
Laura Khalil [former headteacher], the office and the teachers impressed me with the respect and love they had for the children.

Brian Glover, former deputy headteacher at Darell:

I am shocked and saddened to hear what is happening at Darell where I spent 21 years as deputy head. Darell is, indeed the borough’s oldest primary school and was once referred to as “the jewel in the crown.” This was at a time when Darell’s great strengths were in the arts and in social integration. Unfortunately these things are no longer highly valued by government or Ofsted, and of course are less easily measured and placed in league tables.

Former parent, 1999 – 2005:

Our boy went to Darell from 1999 to 2005. From there he went up to Christ’s, then to Richmond College where he did the International Baccalaureate and then to Exeter University for a BSc in Zoology. So Darell wasn’t a bad start.

Under the headship of the late Brian Thompson, Darell School was a delight and how wonderful it would be to think that his ethos was still being adhered to.

This academy business does stink. The whole concept is so open to corruption and, I’m convinced, ultimately aimed at the financial enrichment and political credo of the organisers rather than the educational and cultural enrichment of pupils.

State schools must remain under local control.

Christian Wolmar, Labour Party Candidate, Richmond Park Constituency By-Election:

This worries me enormously.  It is really about privatisation.  The notion that ‘academies’ offer more variety and freedom is misplaced.  It is about the creation of large entities which are a precursor to full privatisation.  It has not worked well in Sweden and will not work well here.

Barnaby Marder, former parent:

When my son went to Darell, it was one of a number of good local authority primary schools. Now, it’s pretty much the last proper local authority primary in the area. It would be such a shame to go down the route of ending true accountability and local democracy to make it into an academy – a form of school which has no known academic benefit.

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Why the consultation group fell apart

At the end of last week, Darell’s consultation group fell apart when four parents resigned. Love Darell asked them why…

Katy, mother of children in Years 2 and 3:

I asked to be involved with the consultation because I was surprised that a proposal had been made which would mean more change for the school, increasing the workload to staff and disrupting our children’s education. I wanted to make sure I was well-informed so that I could make a judgement about whether the changes would be worth it.

I believe that consultation should begin early, that there must be sufficient reasons given with information available for all options (not just the governors’ preferred one) and that the decision-makers should be open and transparent. The Supreme Court agrees with me and I’m confused as to why the governing body do not. It was with extreme reluctance that I resigned from further contributions to the consultation. I admire the governing body: I know that they are underappreciated volunteers doing their best, and I hope that they do not take these comments personally. However, I think that what started as one option for improvement, spurred on by political discussions regarding academisation, has actually led them down a path which would radically change the school. We need to convince them to slow down, to let the current team of staff have at least a year with no change, and then see what the future holds for Darell.

The reasons suggested for joining this multi-academy trust have been varied and none has so far convinced me. Actually, the reasons concern me because they do not align with the ethos of the school – that we provide an education for all, that we are inclusive, that we are not driven by results but celebrate the uniqueness of each child.

The results data released on Friday appeared quite worrying – but please don’t be alarmed. The school has a diverse mix of children and families, and we are stronger because of it. The achievements of some children simply cannot be quantified and I’m saddened that’s what is happening. Furthermore, I am disappointed that the results are actually being used to justify academisation when research commissioned by the Department of Education shows no indication that academisation improves results!

Many of last year’s cohort of Year 2 and 6 may have had a special educational need or started at Darell without a word of English. Our results will not show the efforts the staff make every day to help these children develop strategies for coping, the kindness and patience that they are modelling to our children, or their efforts to ensure that our children are well-rounded and simply happy – and isn’t that the most important thing?

I have the great privilege of volunteering at the school and I can reassure all parents that these results show only a small picture and that I saw first-hand how hard the Year 2 and 6 staff work. The explanation did not explicitly put the results down to staff, but without a breakdown of the class cohort I’m afraid that is exactly what it did in reality. I am perplexed by this decision, because the consultation group informed the governors very clearly that it would be a mistake to publish the results in this way. It would only serve to scare parents; it would be deeply insensitive to families with children who did not meet expectations; it would damage our reputation in the community and it would create a bias in the consultation.

Regarding the funding issue, it is complex, and it also affects thousands of schools across the country and they are certainly not all choosing to convert to academies. It makes sense for Achieving for Children to encourage some schools to become an academy: they keep their jobs and are left with the “best” schools. Darell – a more expensive and possibly challenging school to run because of our inclusive intake – can be given away.

So what’s the alternative? How about looking within Darell for a great model? The nursery. My experience of the nursery is that they use tried and tested methods based on years of experience. They are flexible and work collaboratively with parents but also hold them to a high standard – the same high standard that they hold for themselves. The children thrive as a result. They protect the way they run the nursery and they are free from a lot of interference – maybe because their “output” can’t be quantified by testing maths and phonics. There are ways to replicate the key elements of the nursery model across the school.

We also need to all do our part in all of this. We can help the school with funding issues by contacting our next MP, demanding that he or she raise in Parliament the issue of the serious deficit in school funding. We can help the school save money by reading the newsletters and by returning forms to the school so that they don’t spend time chasing us. We can help increase the attainment of our children, and decrease staff stress and resources, by doing all we can to support our children’s learning at home. We can champion Darell to the members of our community, helping to raise its profile. These are small things but they will all make a difference.

I am convinced that the proposal to academise Darell began because of a political agenda. Politics can be dirty, so let’s keep our children out of it. I will fiercely protect the staff – their reputation, their rights and their work/life balance – and all of our children at the school. I know that you will all do the same.

Louise, mother of children in Reception and Year 3:

I left the consultation group yesterday because I didn’t like the way the school was managing the consultation process. There has been no formal consultation of parents or staff on all options available. I have seen no evidence of other options being discussed and therefore feel the consultation process is just a tick box exercise. Something they have to do. I didn’t feel parents would be well informed of what it means to give all control of their child’s education over to an academy that has no proven record with primary schools and would need more primary schools to join to succeed. I don’t understand why we are making a hasty decision when other primary schools have declined to join ECEDAT. They have looked at other options.

Lucy, mother of child in Reception:

• there is a huge reluctance to discuss other ideas for Darell’s future – how can it be a genuine consultation if the governors have already set in motion an application to join ECEDAT and the Chair of Governors is a trustee of the very trust the school is proposing joining?

• the Governors have taken advice from a management consultant who specialises in transferring schools to academies  – putting the cart before the horse?!

• we were told that the process was about ‘reassuring’ parents and staff and I thought that it would be about conversation, e.g. on the day that we resigned, we were asked to come up with things that Maggie Bailey should prepare over the weekend to talk about – i.e. help her prepare her sales pitch.  Shouldn’t she already know the concerns of primary school parents?

• the consultation group asked if they could come to a meeting with the Every Child Every Day Academy Trust.  The request was not even acknowledged let alone responded to.

• On 22nd October, I asked for practical details to be put in place for the structure and organisation of the public meeting during the consultation … suggesting a neutral moderator to chair , a date set so that people have plenty of time to organise childcare to attend etc., a commitment to invite representatives of local political parties, Heads and governors of other local schools and nurseries, community groups such as Friends of North Sheen Rec, Pensford Field etc.  I asked that the governing body provide information about all this before we came back to school after half-term on 1st November.

• the consultation group meetings never had an agenda or minutes taken properly which suggests that our time and ideas were not being taken seriously.

• the irresponsible publication of the SATs results with no contextual information two days before Maggie Bailey coming to sell the idea of ‘Every Child Every Day’.  The poster about Monday and Tuesday’s meetings with Maggie Bailey says that we will be able to find out how ‘Every Child Every Day’ will improve our children’s education – I find it hard to read this as anything other than a ‘done-deal’.

• I consider that the teaching and support staff are the single most valuable resource in the school – I find it scandalous that their views have not already been taken into account

• We have asked for information about this not to be put in the newsletter.  It is hugely important and should be put in separate, clearly signalled letters.  As a parent of a reception child, I would have liked to know that this was in the pipeline back in the summer term when parents of children already in the school were told about it.  Darell was a first choice for our family, precisely because it is a community, inclusive local school.

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Is there a financial need to hand Darell to an academy?

irrevocableNo.

Sharing resources is the way forward for Darell, and indeed for all primary schools. But there are lots of options. All schools face these issues. Not all schools resort to becoming part of a “Multi-Academy Trust”.

Many primary schools have preferred to form federations with nearby primaries. This is where schools form a single governing body rather than giving away control. Here is the official government advice on federations:

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-18-53-57

sheen(The National Governors Association believes that schools should consider federation before applying to academies, to save massive legal costs and fees to “consultants” and to keep control of their own governance. You can read more about that here.)

These options need to be considered alongside a transfer to one particular “multi-academy trust” if we want to be sure we are taking the best steps for Darell.

How cost-effective would it be to share resources with an organisation which runs two far-off secondary schools?  What would we share with sixth-formers in Surbiton!?

experimentThe “Every Child Every Day Academy Trust” intends, over time, to take over more primary schools. Do we want Darell to be the “experiment” school where this organisation learns about how primary schools work? And, if it does assimilate more primaries, do we want our best staff re-assigned to those schools to “improve” them?

Academisation is always a disruptive and time-consuming process. Already this week, volunteer training was cancelled.

Love Darell believes that the Darell community should not be scared into making a hasty decision. The issue of academisation can get political, but that is a conversation for another place (and possibly a waste of time!) Our cowaste_of_moneyncern is that the process for entering into the discussion for Darell to join a “Multi-Academy Trust” and the process of consultation were rushed and are flawed. We love Darell and its staff and we are keen to avoid the disruption and additional workload which would be inevitable in such a huge and irrevocable change as academisation.

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Funding is determined by pupil numbers. (Perhaps Darell’s expansion to two-form entry was a mistake?) One way to increase pupil numbers is to engage and communicate well with existing happy children and parents.  Word-of-mouth recommendations are very powerful in Kew, Mortlake and Richmond!

Also, numbers can go down as well as up. Some parents will not keep their children at Darell if it does become join an academy trust.

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Do Darell’s results make the case for a takeover by “Every Child Every Day”?

dahlNo.

Darell’s governors decided to publish some results today. A strategic move given that in two days’ time Maggie Bailey is coming to tell you how  “Every Child Every Day Academy Trust” ‘will improve your child’s education’?!  Why is joining a MAT the key to ‘raising standards’?

It is not necessary to do Darell down. When school results are reported responsibly, they give a full picture, including details such as…

  • full and clear information about progress over time rather than a snapshot
  • important information about how many of the children were new to the school, had special educational needs, speak English as an additional language, had moved from countries where Year Two was their first year of formal schooling, etc etc
  • context about the year itself (for example, Darell lost three members of staff due to maternity leave, another to long-term sickness and underwent the transition to a new head teacher)

…which make the numbers make sense. This is not what happened today. In case it happened, the parent consultation group specifically requested that the results letter show this information, as in previous years. For some reason, this was ignored on the day the governors decided to finally start selling the case for “Every Child Every Day”.

While this year will be different, we should remember that there are many ways to make the teaching and learning at Darell as wonderful as we all know it can be. But there are no silver bullets.

This year, the London School of Economics researched whether academisation actually improves results, as opposed to making noises about it. The answer was that there is often a short-term “blip” of higher results, followed by “back to zero” in the years following.

As with the financial issue (read more here), permanently handing control of Darell to one particular “Multi-Academy Trust” is one option, but it may not be the best option.

It should certainly not be the only option.

screen-shot-2016-11-11-at-19-34-23

From the National Governors Association: Forming or Joining a Group of Schools: staying in control of your school’s destiny

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Does academisation improve pupil progress and attainment?

There is currently no clear evidence (see this BBC News report), particularly for primary schools since the vast majority of the country’s schools are still under local education authority control.  Love Darell understands that other local primary schools (e.g. Marshgate, The Vineyard, Sheen Mount and The Russell School) have not chosen to academise and they face the same challenges as Darell.

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