Claims that a multi-academy trust runs “flattening the grass” assemblies in which children are humiliated swarmed on Twitter last week. The frenzy was prompted by an anonymous blog that relayed an account of the practice, claiming children were the “grass” to be “flattened”. Schools Week investigates…
The term “flattening the grass” isn’t new. Schools Week understands it was coined by Sir Michael Wilkins, the Outwood Grange trust founder, to describe its management process for taking over new schools.
The idea, we’re told, is to create a level playing field by replacing the old systems that failed children. You have to flatten the grass – the bad practices – to pave a new way, a new vision.
This means setting out behaviour standards, sending trust subject advisers to work with heads of department, absorbing HR policies, and so on. It is not a term, Outwood says, to describe how children are like “grass” to be “flattened”.
We understand that Wilkins described the process – and used the term – during a school leadership training session last year.
The process also appears to have been rolled out at some schools under the Delta Academies Trust, another large chain that runs schools in some of the most deprived areas in the north of England. It was taken over by Paul Tarn, the former deputy chief executive at OGAT, in March 2016.
I’ve never seen anything like it. They were shouting in the faces of any children that were slouching
As part of the process, assemblies are held at new schools so the trust can set out its expectations, particularly on behaviour. Several trust staff run these assemblies or support school staff to run them.
But what really goes on?
Four staff, including senior team members at schools, spoke to Schools Week under the condition of anonymity. They all told a similar story.
They claimed pupils were regularly screamed and shouted at, sometimes until they began to cry.
Pupils were “marched” into the assemblies while staff lined up at the front. Our sources claimed they were encouraged to shout at pupils if they were found to be “disrupting” the assembly. This included pupils who were slouching, or not looking forward.
Youngsters called out for these misdemeanours were regularly excluded. One senior staff member told Schools Week around 20 pupils were told ‘you’re excluded’ after being kicked out of an assembly at an Outwood Grange school in 2016.
Schools Week provided both trusts with the anonymous testimony. When asked for a comment on whether its staff have shouted or screamed at pupils, an OGAT spokesperson said the trust didn’t recognise the actions described.
“Our staff act in the best interests of children at all times and remain professional, we do not recognise the actions being described.”
Delta did not respond to that specific allegation, but said the aim of the policy was to “ensure behaviours are dealt with reasonably, proportionately and fairly, with the ultimate goal of empowering young people to make positive choices about their actions”.
But a teacher who saw one of the assemblies, at Outwood Academy City Fields last year, claims they were “vicious”.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. They were shouting in the faces of any children that were slouching.
“Those first assemblies were very, very harsh… The atmosphere was poisonous… The people that were in there were just downright nasty towards the pupils.”
In response to the claims, OGAT released a statement by Liz Ford, City Fields’ principal, who says she does not “recognise my school” as described by the teacher.
She says the “message is clear” to pupils that they are “a part of our family of schools. They are all very clear that their future with Outwood is about students first: raising standards and transforming lives.”
She says pupils are told that the trust “will not let anyone jeopardise your chances of doing great things at school and in your life”.
“Students’ choice, and the benefits of making positive choices over poor ones, is very clear.”
Assemblies at some Delta schools have also worried staff.
Shortly after Tarn took over, assemblies were introduced at the South Leeds Academy. The school has since been rebrokered.
Employees told Schools Week how the assemblies were referred to as “flattening the grass”.
One employee said staff were told to “get in” pupils’ faces, and were warned that they were not “shouting loud enough”.
“We were told to make examples of pupils.”
Another staff member said they were directed to “just stand and stare” at youngsters. “They [trust staff] screamed at children they’d never met, shouted and bawled at them… They made lots of children cry.
“We were told to not have any rapport – just stand and stare at them and pick up any movement. [There were] kids with ADHD, it was awful. Some assemblies went on for 30-40 minutes.”
Staff also told of specific incidents, such as when a year 11 pupil’s phone rang after an assembly overran past school-leaving time.
“His mum was sat outside school calling him to ask ‘where are you’, but he still got bawled at. He was just distraught… I had to console him.
“That kid will remember that for the rest of his life. That child will remember his phone going off through no fault of his own, and he basically just fell to pieces crying.”
Another employee, who saw a “flattening the grass” assembly in 2016 at Danum Outwood academy, Doncaster, where Delta staff were present as part of a training day, said: “Pupils were screamed and shouted at. Any dissent and pupils were excluded.”
Our staff act in the best interests of children at all times and remain professional, we do not recognise the actions being described
They claimed around 20 pupils were excluded from the assembly. OGAT said this was exaggerated, as their systems show only eight pupils were excluded that day.
The behaviour policy is not limited to assemblies, we’ve been told. Staff pull children deemed to have misbehaved out of classrooms into corridors and, according to a staff member from Delta, “make examples of them until they cry”.
“There is constant humiliation when kids are getting it wrong, it doesn’t matter who – they still get screamed and shouted at. The whole approach is a culture of fear.”
Another Delta staff member claims they are told to “shout at them [pupils] as loud as we can so that everybody can hear”.
But a spokesperson for Delta says they receive positive feedback from staff, union representatives, pupils, students and parents about the policy’s impact, and the changes “brought to the learning environment”.
They highlighted an Ofsted monitoring visit at South Leeds in May 2017 that found the changes were having a “positive impact on pupils’ personal development, behaviour and welfare”.
The report said: “Indeed, the Year 11 pupils I spoke to were unequivocally positive about the difference these changes have made since the last inspection.”
In a detailed response, OGAT questioned why “disgruntled individuals [are] so keen to claim our pupils are unhappy when in inspection after inspection Ofsted is lavishing praise on our schools for their happy atmosphere and outstanding academic progress”.
It said current staff have been “dismayed and upset” about “such spiteful allegations”.
“And why would record numbers of parents be sending their children to our schools if there was this negative culture our critics pretend exists?”
The spokesperson said the trust has “countless examples of where pupils have told us that they immediately feel safer, free from often systemic bullying for the first time and are able to ask for help in their academic studies”.
Ofsted inspections should be “both [an] independent assurance to everyone and also celebration”.
“Almost all of Outwood’s academies were in Ofsted special measures or requires improvement before joining our trust and for them to now be outstanding and good schools in their communities, some for the first time, is great news. This should be the story.”
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