OGAT, saviour of many schools in the north, can’t seem to shake criticism of its strict behaviour sanctions and their effect on vulnerable pupils. But are things changing? Martyn Oliver, its chief executive, speaks to John Dickens

 

Outwood Grange Academies Trust has built its reputation on being the turnaround trust. It takes on some of the worst-performing schools in the country, in some of the most deprived areas, and transforms them.

Search for one of its many Ofsted reports and have a read. Read too comments from ministers who say it is one of the best trusts in the country.

Not just this, but it’s also leading the system. It’s financial planning models are now used by the government to check whether other schools are running efficiently.

Elements of its consequence behaviour system have been taken on by hundreds of schools. The trust, which runs 31 schools across the north, is known for sharing most of its stuff free, too.

But there’s something the trust can’t seem to shake: criticism that its methods (strict behaviour sanctions, high numbers of suspensions) cause the most vulnerable pupils to leave – making turnarounds easier.

When I put this to Martyn Oliver, OGAT’s chief executive, his response is somewhere between frustration and slight bewilderment. But, as he does throughout our conversation, he responds steadily.

The change has come because of me. It reflects who I am and the people appointed around me

“When I choose to go to the most difficult schools, I would somehow want to exclude the most challenging pupils? I don’t get complaints on that. In many cases, 90 per cent of the pupils are vulnerable.”

Julie Slater, the trust’s chief executive principal, adds from across the table: “We have committed our professional lives to work in some of the worst schools of the country. We care about children.”

We’ve written about OGAT regularly: be it the “flattening the grass” assemblies, the high levels of fixed-term exclusions at some of its schools, its use of isolation booths.

This is why we’ve been invited to the trust’s purple-clad Institute of Education, based at the Outwood Academy Acklam in Middlesbrough, to talk about a new behaviour policy.

The change comes amid a legal threat over the trust’s use of isolation, with claims that one pupil spent a third of his year in one of its “consequence” booths.

The new policy will include more praise, a further safeguard to pick up – and provide support for – those pupils stuck on the “merry go round” of sanctions, and more teaching for pupils about how to behave.

While Oliver stresses this is not to “lower expectations”, he hopes fewer students will “require sanctions and suspensions”.

“This is not a deliberate attempt to reduce sanctions, it’s a deliberate attempt to help support pupils better – reducing behaviour that leads to sanctions.”

Are the changes in response to criticism? “The change has come because of me. It reflects who I am and the people appointed around me,” Oliver says, adding the move is on the back of a “strong position, but moving to where I want it after taking over in 2016”.

But that criticism just won’t shake.

A day after we meet OGAT’s leader, a lawyer looks at a strand of its new behaviour policy that states pupils who misbehave or don’t have a good attitude to learning will be made to repeat year 8.

The lawyer says that “keeping children down a year (or threatening to do so) is a very effective way of getting them to leave”.

Oliver, as covered this week, says on the “very rare occasion” pupils don’t graduate, they get intensive support to progress their learning.

He also provides a strong rebuttal to any accusations of “off-rolling”, telling me that if he wanted to have “overt preference on the type of child we have” then he would look at something such as fair banding – which the trust doesn’t use.

“Why would I go [to these communities]? Outwood doesn’t off-roll,” he adds, stating Ofsted inspectors have called the parents of pupils who’ve left the school to check they haven’t been off-rolled. “We have incredible growth for all our academies. Parental preference of first choice is phenomenal.”

When we later touch on the criticism, he adds: “If people think they can do it better, come and show me how.

“If behaviour is better and I can learn, I’ll change our policy overnight” – but only on the condition, he says, that he can check exclusions are recorded properly.

“We should be open to criticism and public scrutiny, but not create a system where I say ‘forget it, I’m not going to do it’. If that’s the climate, we’re not celebrating people going into challenging schools.”

We should be open to criticism and public scrutiny, but not create a system where I say ‘forget it, I’m not going to do it

Our attention turns to “flattening the grass”, a phrase coined by Sir Michael Wilkins, the trust’s founder, to describe how OGAT takes over schools – covering everything from implementing its new management information systems, to rolling assemblies where behaviour expectations are laid out.

Its association with the latter clearly pains Oliver.

A Schools Week story in February included testimony from four senior leaders about the conduct of senior staff during such assemblies, across OGAT and the Delta Academies Trust.

They claimed pupils were regularly screamed and shouted at, sometimes until they began to cry.

Oliver, as he did at the time, refutes the claims. He says that some staff raise their voices, but that this is part of a teacher’s “armoury”.

“Do we identify children, yes, those that are vulnerable and require teaching assistance? Do we identify to ritually humiliate and make them cry – never.

“I can’t say we’ve ever had a complaint from a parent, a staff member, or pupil. Ever.”

He says the reality is that “children have given us a round of applause in those assemblies”.

“One school in Worksop was so bad that teachers used to lock themselves in their classrooms. The headteacher was assaulted three times in their first week. Pupils ran across tables during a lesson while we were doing due diligence.”

He also adds the “only thing parents say to me is they think our policy should be tougher”.

But he does concede that parachuting in up to 20 extra staff  for an assembly “may feel oppressive”.

“We need to be more overt there’s a step change . . . I need to do more to say this is what you’re going to experience.”

Children have given us a round of applause in those assemblies

Oliver has worries too about social media, in particular Twitter. He’s concerned about the impact on pupils’ mental health – and on teachers.

“For some things Twitter has been brilliant . . .  [but] I do think there’s a danger some of the things are so unprofessional, and some of comments bordering on unprofessional. There’s a significant danger, a real danger, to recruitment and retention of staff.”

It’s clear some of the comments he’s thinking of were aimed at his staff. But he adds he would discipline any of his staff “if I thought they were talking in an unprofessional manner about people in other schools”.

I finish by asking him if he wants to talk about how the news stories on OGAT have affected him.

Characteristically, he talks about how it has upset his staff – highlighting that at the last count the trust’s turnover was just 7 per cent (he says he can’t find a national average, but reckons it could be about 25 per cent).

“All I can do is try and maintain our dignity and respond based on openness and honesty.”

Throughout our wide-ranging conversation, it’s fair to say he has done just that.