A decline in standards

I was left absolutely despairing after reading the Berwick Advertiser's March 29 article about Berwick Academy.

Friday, 29th June 2018, 9:00 am
Updated Friday, 29th June 2018, 3:17 pm

The reference to ‘a new beginning’ that the damning Ofsted report has brought about is cringe-worthy and fails to understand the magnitude of the problems at Berwick Academy.

It makes no attempt to explain the reasons behind the disgraceful failure that has taken place under the leadership of the recently abdicated head teacher (HT), her senior leadership team (SLT) and the board of trustees, governors in old speak.

David Cairns, the chair of governors, is quoted: ‘We are all disappointed by the report and some of the findings’ and goes on ‘Despite the negativity this is still our local school and we must, as a board and community, rally behind all at the school who care passionately about the young people of our town so when Ofsted visit again in the near future we can receive a positive letter showing progress is being made’.

David and his board of trustees have previously been provided with detailed, accurate accounts of the long-standing failures associated with the HT and her SLT.

The astonishing decline in standards has been fully evident and in plain sight of pupils, parents, staff and unquestionably the school leaders and the governors for several years.

This is further supported by long-standing concerns that have been raised with the school by Northumberland County Council, five previous Ofsted reports over a three-year period, concerns from the trades unions, the Regional Schools Commissioner, local councillors and numerous complaints raised by pupils, parents and staff, many of which appear to have gone unrecorded on the school’s records.

What is truly disappointing is the failure and unwillingness of David Cairns and his board of trustees to act despite clear unquestionable evidence; it is apparent there was contentment to let events play out and the process take its natural course.

The former HT has successfully managed to devastate years of hard work that had led to very significant improvements in the performance of the school. From its low standing in the late 1990s to a situation nearly 20 years later where it will take a number of years to get the school back on an even keel, the school has gone full circle.

The future of the school is entirely dependent on creating a centre for learning which supports the needs, aims and ambitions of the young people and the wider community that it serves.

My absolute despair, disbelief and immense concern in this matter is that the very people who have presided over this disgraceful decline in standards at Berwick Academy are now apparently going to lead, manage and take the school forward. It’s astonishing!

The SLT and the governors have been party to the lack of educational direction and mismanagement of our only state-funded secondary school for at least three-and-a-half of the nearly five years the HT has been in charge, and in most cases have contributed to that mismanagement.

My wider reaching questions, however, are aimed at the agencies and elected representatives who also knew and had insight into the concerns at Berwick Academy. Northumberland County Council, to their credit, have acknowledged that they shared exactly the same concerns and have tried on numerous occasions to raise and discuss their concerns with the HT, her SLT and the chair of governors, as well as Ofsted, the Regional Schools Commissioner and the Department for Education (DfE).

Local elected councillors have attempted to support numerous parents in pursuing concerns with the school and have met the HT, her SLT and governors. Ofsted has consistently raised the same concerns in the previous five inspection reports published since November 11, 2013; it is inconceivable that action should have been delayed for so long and that a decline on this scale be allowed to continue to wreak such devastating effect.

The DfE and their Regional Schools Commissioner have known for some considerable time that results, behaviour, attendance, staff turnover, lack of improvement have all been a serious concern and yet no significant interventions have taken place.

The MP Anne-Marie Trevelyan, a governor at the school well into 2016, had a strong vested interest to ensure that Berwick Academy was performing strongly as a good school post-academisation, and was also in compliance with the extended legislation enacted during Michael Gove’s term as Secretary of State for Education. Has the MP effectively represented the needs of the school, our young people and the wider community?

I am genuinely troubled in the light of England’s Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield’s report – Growing Up North, Look North: A generation of children await the powerhouse promise, that this has been allowed to happen in Berwick.

We are the most northern English community, with significant pockets of social and economic deprivation and experience major difficulties associated with rural isolation and lack of access to services, a limited, poorly performing economy with major concerns over access to employment and training, low wages, an aging population and now an ‘Inadequate’ secondary school.

All this at a time when there has, for many years, been a universal acceptance that education is an essential element for young, disadvantaged and vulnerable people to work their way out of poverty.

This is a national scandal – a failing HT has been allowed to lead a state-funded stand-alone academy into this disgraceful situation in the plain sight and full knowledge of those around her who are tasked with challenging her approach.

The agencies charged with scrutinising her and the school’s performance, maintaining and ensuring improvements in the performance of the school and its learners, intervening when it is deemed necessary and before the school was allowed to deteriorate to such an unacceptable position have failed.

I have attempted to raise all of these issues by following the approved and recognised methods since October 2013. At every stage, I have complied fully with the requirements of internal and external policies and have sought to give those tasked with leading and managing Berwick Academy the opportunities to listen and make the necessary changes to avoid this disaster.

More recently, my approach has involved truthful and accurate disclosures to DfE, Ofsted and via social media in accordance with whistle-blowing legislation, covered by the Public Interest Disclosure Act. These were copied into the agencies and the elected representative with the over-arching responsibility for ensuring appropriate education provision is available within this community.

I am now being threatened through attempts to bring disciplinary action for speaking out about the school and ‘gagged’ for highlighting the involvement and knowledge of the other parties involved.

This community deserves so much better than this. It is now essential that we speak with a unified voice to make clear that we are not willing to be treated as a forgotten, down trodden and taken for granted community that nobody cares about.

Secondary education is of paramount importance to this community and our young people. It represents their futures.

We should be given an unequivocal commitment from the local and national agencies, leaders and elected representatives involved in addressing and re-imagining education for the young people of Berwick.

Ged Thomas

Berwick Academy teacher