Ofsted has rated Holland Park School ‘inadequate’ after whistleblowers exposed wide-ranging failures including bullying and discrimination, two years after giving it a clean bill of health.
The inspectorate said “mistrust and disharmony” between stakeholders, amid a battle over its plans to join a multi-academy trust, were impeding improvement.
It said behaviour had worsened “considerably” since the high-profile academy was rated “outstanding” in 2014.
Cramming content typically taken from years 7 to 11 into three years, with some GCSEs taken in year 9 to boost pass numbers, “narrows pupils’ education”. It is “not in pupils’ best interests”.
‘A long way to go’ – but questions for Ofsted
The inspection comes hot on the heels of a damning separate investigation report commissioned by new governors, highlighting ineffective leadership, bullying, discrimination and safeguarding failures involving students and staff, with complaints dating back to 2004.
A new board and interim head were installed after staff and student whistleblowers went public last year. Ofsted say they have started to tackle problems, but have “a very long way to go”.
Yet Ofsted’s latest report is likely to raise fresh questions over the robustness of its four inspections of the school since 2007.
They include three “outstanding” and “good” ratings, and a 2020 no-notice visit – explicitly intended to probe concerns over leadership, management, safeguarding and pupil development.
The 2020 visit, likely to have been triggered by an earlier group of staff whistleblowers, heaped praised on the school.
It highlighted leaders’ “sense of social justice”, “uncompromising” commitment to a well-rounded education, pupils with SEND receiving the “right levels of support”, behaviour, mental health support and safeguarding arrangements.
Staff were said to have expressed “respect for the school leaders’ professionalism, expertise and empathy”.
But the school’s investigation found Ofsted was “misled” – with some staff questionnaires “destroyed” and some students taken or told to stay off site during the visit. A whistleblower said they notified government of problems at the time, but “nothing was done”.
But last month Ofsted stood by its inspectors, saying it was “confident” in their judgements and that they had taken ex-staff correspondence into account.
‘Vacuum’ after governors ditch past behaviour strategies
While Ofsted’s latest report highlights some past issues, it links others to more recent developments since its previous inspection.
It says turbulence in leadership and governance have “destabilised the school”, and poor behaviour partly reflects “uncertainty and discord in the community about the future direction of the school”.
It also criticises a “vacuum” on behaviour policy caused by new governors stopping strategies “that they deemed unacceptable” without empowering staff with training and clear new approaches.
The school’s probe said behaviour policy previously amounted to “shouting…combined with public humiliation”.
Ofsted said staff and pupils were now “confused about how unacceptable behaviour should be dealt with”, with some pupils behaving “in a way that they would not normally do”. But it acknowledges staff and pupils welcomed governors’ intervention.
‘Mutual distrust’ amid MAT battle
Holland Park governors are currently embroiled in a dispute with parents and staff over plans to transfer the standalone academy into England’s biggest trust, United Learning.
A High Court bid to block the move was filed last week, backed by the NEU, and staff walked out this week, with both claiming the consultation was flawed.
Ofsted’s verdict could dent campaigners’ hopes of stopping the transfer, as “inadequate” ratings allow regional schools commissioners to order rebrokering to a new trust.
Governors finalised their decision, which now requires government sign-off, this week too. The trust has also announced its chair Jane Farrell will soon step down.
Ofsted’s latest report lays bare the impact of such tensions, saying there is “mutual distrust” between governors, the council, stakeholders including parents and carers.
Communication has “largely broken down”, and some stakeholders “appear to be pushing their own agendas”.
Governors are told to “continue to seek ways to communicate more effectively”, while leaders should “play their part in behaving professionally and calming matters”.
But Ofsted’s verdict could dent campaigners’ hopes of stopping the transfer, as “inadequate” ratings allow regional schools commissioners to order rebrokering to a new trust.
A spokesperson for the school said Ofsted had identified many “long-term, historical weaknesses” governors were already concerned about and trying to address with leaders and staff.
He said Ofsted recognised new leadership and governors “quickly got to grips” with issues, but governors acknowledged there is “more to do” .
They have recommended the school join a strong multi-academy trust to ensure a “positive future”, and asked for “the whole school community” to come together around a strategy to improve standards.