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!

2 thoughts on “One parent’s letter to the governors”

  1. Completely agree with you! Darell school is unique and should follow its own path, stand out from the crowd. Thank you for sharing your valuable thoughts in the letter.

  2. A wonderful, intelligent and heartfelt appeal – you are clearly a true supporter of the great strengths that Darell always had, and it seems, still does.
    I am greatly impressed by the strength of your reasoning and reading your letter has raised my spirits.
    I worked at Darell for 21 years and still feel a great affinity. It is also the case that there are a number of ex-Darell teachers working in other Richmond and Kingston schools, some of them now headteachers, who hold very dear the ethos and philosophy of education that they developed at Darell, and who bring these to their current roles.

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