Saturday, October 16

“Toxic” work environment accusations at London’s best school | Schools

The governors of Holland Park School, one of London’s leading academies, launched an independent investigation into allegations of the school’s “toxic” work environment under one of England’s highest-paid principals, and the incendiary claim that critical personnel questionnaires were hidden from Ofsted inspectors.

Twenty-six of the school’s recently deceased teachers have written to the president of the governing body in Holland Park, whose recent parents include Cabinet Minister Michael Gove and former Speaker of the Commons John Bercow, and separately the government academy regulator, the Education and Skills Financing Agency (ESFA), which presents detailed examples of what they describe as abuses of power by the director, Colin Hall, and his senior team.

The letters, two of which were sent to the governors and copied to ESFA and a third directly to ESFA, were sent in June and July. They claim that the harassment and intimidation by the school administration, judged “exceptional ”by Ofsted, are endemic and affect staff turnover and morale.

Nine of the signatories had left school due to stress, depression or anxiety, which they say was related to the atmosphere at work, and staff were insulted and humiliated, publicly appointed and embarrassed for poor work or test results and were assigned a seating plan for staff. meetings to indicate who was for or against.

The letters, seen by The Guardian, say that teachers who wanted to leave were subjected to intimidating behavior, such as having their classes taken away. Some say they were threatened with poor references to discourage them from attending job interviews or that they were given inaccurate and damaging references that led to the revocation of some job offers.

One claims that the bullying did not stop even when he left school and moved to a new job, as he was told by senior leaders that unless he could provide additional data on a previous class at Holland Park, his reference would change. “Subsequently, a senior manager at the school emailed my new school to tell me that they were changing my reference to say that I was ‘unprofessional,'” he said.

“Fortunately, my new school understood how unfair and unfounded this was and therefore it did not influence my new position. However, it caused and continues to cause significant stress. ”

Most of the professors have asked to remain anonymous, claiming in letters that their experience makes them fear retaliation, although some agreed to speak to The Guardian in confidence. Anna King (not her real name) was fired from work by her GP suffering from work-related stress in 2020, after her complaints about the school’s Covid security measures were not addressed.

“We were asked to sit shoulder to shoulder without masks at staff meetings and it was suggested that committed staff would come to work even if they had potential Covid symptoms. All the other schools I knew seemed to take it more seriously, ”he said.

After she went on sick leave, a senior manager at the school contacted her to suggest that despite being ill, she should provide cover work for some of her classes, as she was taking “paid time out of school”.

King wrote to the school leaders expressing his concerns. The response said that they did not believe any of the Covid government guidelines had been violated.

King, an Oxbridge graduate, never returned. “That school is considered outstanding and one of the best in the country, yet it was a toxic work atmosphere governed by structures that made people afraid to speak,” he said.

Holland Park School has always attracted attention. He called the “Eton socialist” in the 1970s due to his prominent left-wing parents, his reputation declined in the 1990s before the arrival of the current director, Colin Hall, who is credited with transforming the play into an outstanding and over-the-top undertaking. requests.

Ofsted’s last full inspection in 2014 described the school as “exemplary” and said Hall led with “drive and skill admired by everyone in the community.” According to the most recent performance charts from the Department of Education, the school’s measure of progress is well above average for GCSE, but below average for Levels A.

Since 2012, Holland Park has been housed in a state-of-the-art building, after part of its previous site was sold to developers. The cost of the new building £ 80 million – about five times the cost of an average high school.

Colin Hall, Principal of Holland Park School, in 2012
Colin Hall, principal of Holland Park School, in 2012. Photograph: Martin Argles / The Guardian

In 2019 it emerged that the director had spent thousands of pounds on Farrow and Ball paint and Jo Malone scented candles. Hall’s salary of £ 280,000 makes him one of the highest paid academic leaders in England and, according to a recent report analysis, the highest paid per pupil, as Holland Park Trust contains only one school.

This is not the first attempt to expose culture at school. An earlier presentation made to ESFA in 2019 by a different group of 30 teachers, raising similar concerns, was followed by a monitoring visit from Ofsted to discuss leadership and protection in the school, which it later deemed “effective.”

It was during this inspection that despite Ofsted’s guide stating that staff should be able to complete questionnaires online, this digital option was not possible at Holland Park and teachers who wanted to complete the questionnaire had to do so on paper, to be deposited in an unsealed wicker basket outside the principal’s office .

The school maintained its outstanding rating, but in a letter to ESFA, a teacher involved in management at the time wrote: “Despite Ofsted’s January / February 2020 report that ‘all staff members who spoke with us and they completed the survey for this inspection they were unanimous in expressing how they feel very well supported by the senior leaders ”, there were a good number of surveys that were critical of the school.

“These surveys were not anonymous or isolated from the senior management team, who read them. Those that were deemed negative in tone or content were removed from the wicker basket which was later examined by inspectors. “

An Ofsted spokesperson confirmed that paper questionnaires had been used because online surveys “for technical reasons” had not been possible and that staff had been able to put them in a collection box or give them directly to inspectors.

He added: “The staff had every opportunity to speak with the inspection team, as stated in the published report. In addition to the staff surveys, this included direct conversations with the inspectors as they walked through the school (without the company of senior leaders), and the inspectors met with various staff members at their request. “

Holland Park Governors Chair Anne Marie Carrie declined to comment on staff turnover, saying it would not be appropriate for the school to respond to individual complaints, but said the governors took the allegations extremely seriously. “The well-being of all members of our school is our highest priority,” he said.

“We were concerned about receiving anonymous complaints, raised on behalf of former members of the school staff. While we believe that many of the issues raised have already been considered by our regulatory bodies, it is important that such statements are thoroughly considered. To provide assurance, we have taken immediate steps to commission an independent external review. This is the appropriate forum to explore these issues and for everyone involved to provide detailed, evidence-based answers. “

In a statement through the governors chairman, Hall said he was “saddened and concerned” by the allegations and would support the independent review. “We do not recognize the characterization of the school or our leadership in the allegations raised,” he said.

Bercow, who was recently elected parent governor of the school, said he wholeheartedly supported the external review. “This is the right forum for these issues to be investigated and it is only fair that everyone who cares about the school community awaits the results of that review. Therefore, I will not comment further on the matter at this time. “

Letters coordinator, former Holland Park employee Lara Agnew, said: “We have tried on separate occasions to alert the chairman of the governors to complaints about the toxic environment, harassment and abuse of power by the leadership team. and the way the Ofsted questionnaires were handled. So far we have had no response. As a result, we have no choice but to involve ESFA again. “

Several of the teachers, some of whom left last year, said they would be prepared to confidentially submit evidence to an independent review of work practices at the school.

A DfE spokesperson said the primary responsibility for oversight of the academy rests with the trustees, but said concerns about the school had been raised in 2019, after which the ESFA worked with the school and its trustees to address the problems. He added that a similar process would be followed with the most recent concerns raised with ESFA.

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