Special school thrown into 'chaos' after 'pupil imprisonment' allegations used to push academy conversion, it is claimed
PUBLISHED: 05:30 12 January 2019 | UPDATED: 14:36 16 January 2019
THE BRIDGE ACTION GROUP
Education officials "orchestrated" safeguarding concerns at a Suffolk special school to remove senior staff and push through its conversion to an academy, it has been claimed.
Suffolk County Council (SCC) oversaw major changes at The Bridge School in Ipswich, including the suspension of its headteacher of 20 years, after claiming concerns requiring “urgent attention” were raised in October 2017.
Governors and parents say the changes brought disarray to the school, which saw its previously “good” Ofsted rating slide to “inadequate” amid further staff suspensions.
Now, the council has published its report into The Bridge School, which caters for around 150 pupils with learning difficulties from its site in Sprites Lane.
But with no new details about the allegations, concerns have been raised that the investigation has been merely an excuse to keep the public in the dark.
An SCC spokesman said the review was focussed on what happened between October and March’s Ofsted report and sought to learn from “where weaknesses may have occurred”.
He said safeguarding allegations had not been included as there were ongoing investigations, which must conclude before a final decision is issued.
The governors claim, however, that the safeguarding concerns related to the use of a classroom locking system, which they say the council exaggerated to describe as “false imprisonment of pupils”, despite having approved its inclusion in the school’s designs.
The school’s former chairman of governors, Howard Needham, and former parent governor, Matt Porter, have raised concerns that the council “engineered” problems to enable their political agenda of turning the school into an academy.
Mr Porter said: “They made a load of allegations around safeguarding of children and ended up suspending three members of the senior leadership team.
“The council used their investigation into those staff as a confidentiality defence to hinder reporting and stop anyone asking questions.”
Both former governors moved away from Suffolk, they say, due to the council’s behaviour.
They claim the council’s actions brought chaos to the school and treated families with “contempt”.
Andy Chattell, whose son has attended The Bridge for 10 years, said he had been pleased with the school’s staff and leadership.
But he said SCC’s intervention had been “disastrous”.
“The huge changes at the school as a consequence of SCC’s actions had a massive impact on the children,” he added.
Liz Gerrie, a governor with more than 20 years’ prior experience as a headteacher, said she was “astonished” by the council’s response, as the issues around behaviour management had never been apparent in her visits to the school.
The SCC spokesman acknowledged there were “lessons to learn” from The Bridge School and “certain relationships became very challenging”. He said the “local authority was not as good as it should have been at times” but added: “The process of improvement at this school is now going from strength to strength.”
Over just a few weeks in autumn 2017, three senior staff were suspended, an interim leadership team was parachuted in and a warning letter issued to governors and the secretary of state for education about the school’s performance. It is believed one of the staff members’ case was dropped, while two remain ongoing.
After months of high staff turnover, a damning Ofsted inspection and repeated attempts by the council to convert the school into an academy the Department for Education (DfE) finally approved the move last year.
Governors said they had already been looking into suitable academy trusts but felt the council was trying to “force” its conversion quickly to save money, without considering pupils’ best interests.
Meanwhile, SCC’s cabinet member for education, Gordon Jones is a director for the Unity Schools Partnership (USP), which was eventually chosen as the academy trust to takeover running the school from summer 2019.
SCC said that while Mr Jones was “rightly involved” in the work to drive improvements at the school, he had always been clear about his role at USP and there was no conflict of interest.
The council said the selection of a sponsor academy was run solely by the DfE and SCC had no role in the process.
The USP is expected to takeover the school this summer.
Mr Needham said he believed SCC used the reported problems at the school “as a mechanism to force academisation on the Bridge”.
“As a consequence of this, the Bridge was thrown into complete disarray,” he added.
Jack Abbott, Labour’s education spokesman at SCC, said the council have consistently failed to answer fundamental questions, leaving children, parents and staff in limbo.
“This whole debacle has exposed a failure of leadership and this ‘report’ is, frankly, an insult.
“If this is the level of care and attention that is given to such a major issue then it brings into question whether this authority has the ability or desire to run education in our county any longer.”
Teaching unions have also criticised the review.
A statement from Suffolk NEU and Voice said: “SCC has been aware of many of these issues but has not acted as promptly or as helpfully as we would wish.
“Recent meetings have been more positive; however there are still unresolved issues.
“The investigation, whilst welcome, has not come up with as detailed an analysis of what went wrong, how we resolve these issues and how we prevent another situation developing elsewhere in the future.”
The safeguarding allegations
Prior to SCC’s intervention, the school had a favourable reputation. Under the 20-year leadership of its former headteacher, Odran Doran, the school’s five Ofsted inspections were all rated “good”.
Mr Doran announced in March 2017 he would retire at the end of that academic year, but returned part-time in September of that year.
The first mention of troubles came in October 2017, just weeks into the new term.
SCC’s review says information from the new acting head’s first meeting with an SCC officer “raised concerns that required urgent investigation”. The report gives no details about the concerns in question.
Mr Needham was first made aware of these concerns at a meeting with council officers at SCC headquarters on October 16, 2017.
Meeting minutes show the concerns related to the use of a security system for “unlawful imprisonment of pupils”. Mr Needham explained the new school building, which opened in July 2016, featured a computerised system configured so only staff could open doors, in order to ensure pupil safety.
He said the locks were part of SCC approved designs for the school and council officers, including head of children’s services Sue Cook and head of inclusive services Judith Mobbs, as well as councillors including Mr Jones had seen the system in use.
He questioned why no concerns were raised at the time and yet later used to justify a staff overhaul.
Jeremy Watt, who became parent representative on the school’s Interim Executive Board (IEB) in April, said he had not seen any evidence to justify the accusations.
“Perhaps there were isolated incidents where behaviour management left something to be desired, but did it really necessitate staff suspensions?” he asked. “No, it was blown out of all proportion. The council could have approached this in a completely different way.”
During the October meeting when Mr Needham was told of the safeguarding concerns, officers asked him to suspend Mr Doran over the allegations, while new senior leadership would be drafted in.
Mr Needham refused and resigned as governor after the meeting. He warned SCC’s measures would be “disruptive and damaging”.
SCC appointed an interim leadership team that week and issued a warning notice to the remaining governors, copying in the secretary of state for education and regional schools commissioner, claiming the “safety of pupils or staff at the school is threatened”.
Governors were given 15 school days to provide a detailed action plan addressing the concerns and provide evidence of “rapid improvements”.
The letter also said governors “should now be proactive in seeking an academy solution” – a requirement governors said was unusual and an indication of the council’s true motivations.
Three more governors resigned in protest over the warning letter and Mr Doran’s suspension.
Within weeks, a new interim executive headteacher had been appointed, who was already head at Riverwalk special school in Bury St Edmunds, the assistant headteacher and deputy head were suspended and the remaining governing body was disbanded.
In a letter to a senior council officer, Mr Needham said the action was “neither justified nor necessary” and had a “disastrous impact” on staff, pupils and parents.
One parent, speaking anonymously, said: “The emotional rollercoaster this has been for our families is an utter disgrace.
“We received gravely worded communications to imply our children weren’t safe, to then be told at meetings they are safe, for Ofsted to then say they’re not safe. Who are we supposed to believe when our children can’t answer the question ‘How was school today?’.”
A new academy is found
Meanwhile, SCC continued to seek academy sponsors. However, its initial bid for academisation was rejected by the secretary of state for education in February because the school was not in special measures.
Just weeks later the school was placed in special measures, after a March Ofsted inspection found it “inadequate” in every category.
The report noted a “serious decline in standards” and found safeguarding systems “woefully ineffective”.
Inspectors said SCC and the school’s interim leadership had failed to tackle the weaknesses identified in October’s warning letter.
The scene was then set for the school’s academy conversion.
The DfE approved an application for a sponsor academy in May, with an announcement made in December that USP would take over in the summer term, 2019.
Trust chief executive Tim Coulson said USP was delighted to have been chosen by the DfE to work with The Bridge School. He said he was confident the school would return to the “very strong reputation that it has had for many years”.
This newspaper attempted to contact Mr Doran but was told he could not comment due to the ongoing investigation.