DfE signs off Holland Park move to United Learning despite legal battle

The scandal-hit standalone academy will join the country's largest trust, but a union vowed to continue its legal battle

The scandal-hit standalone academy will join the country's largest trust, but a union vowed to continue its legal battle

23 Aug 2022, 9:16

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The government has signed off the transfer of high-profile standalone academy Holland Park to United Learning, despite a local campaign, legal battle and strike action against the move.

Dame Kath Dethridge, south-east regional director at the Department for Education, said England’s biggest multi-academy trust would “bring to bear significant resource and capacity” to support the troubled west London school.

She said United Learning would put the secondary on a “stable footing” after a “turbulent year”, but a union, the local council and parent campaigners condemned the decision as a “disgrace”.

Her letter to parents and staff this week, seen by Schools Week, said academies minister Baroness Barran gave the transfer the green light after reviewing “all three shortlisted trusts”, with nearby Kensington Aldridge Academy and reportedly the Harris Federation also considered.

A DfE spokesperson later confirmed the sign-off, saying “strong, experienced” UL could deliver rapid improvements – but a legal battle looks set to continue.

‘More stable’ future after scandal and fallout

Holland Park has been repeatedly in the headlines since staff and students went public over allegations of a “toxic” culture and widespread problems last summer, sparking a board shakeup, government intervention and damning independent probe.

A transfer to United Learning was part of the reformed board’s proposed solution, but their approach sparked a vocal campaign by many parents, several staff walkouts and opposition from the local council.

Parents and teachers’ union NEU have attempted three rounds of legal action in the past four months, targeting the board and government over alleged failures in consultation and Ofsted for recently downgrading the school to “inadequate”.

The inspection rating made the transfer easier to force through, but Ofsted has said it was a “routine” inspection despite campaigners’ suspicions about its timing.

The local council, Kensington and Chelsea, also offered to lend KAA, which it co-sponsors, £1 million for its own takeover bid, in an attempt to rival the resources of Harris and United Learning. The larger MATs reportedly said they could mobilise 15 staff to help improve the school.

But Dethridge wrote that KAA “does not currently have experience of improving a school with an ‘inadequate’ Ofsted judgment”, despite its “excellent” current work supporting Holland Park. Her letter does not spell out the date for the UL transfer, but says the trust will provide support from September.

A spokesperson for Holland Park School said: “United Learning is a strong and experienced academy trust with an excellent track record in turning around schools. We are confident this decision is the right one to take the school forward.

“Although we understand that some stakeholders will be disappointed by this decision, we hope that all can now come together to support the school in the best interests of the students.”

A United Learning spokesperson said it looked forward to a more “stable and consistent year ahead”, supporting Holland Park to again become “one of London’s flagship schools”.

‘Frustrating local views counted so little’

But Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the NEU, said the process had been a “disgrace”, as the trust board and government have “ridden roughshod” over staff and parent concerns.

She said the union’s latest judicial review application remained live, alleging parts of the decision were “unlawful”.

Catherine Faulks, Kensington and Chelsea’s lead member for children’s services, said it was “frustrating that local opinion counted for so little”. 

She voiced her “admiration” of residents’ campaigning, but pledged to work cooperatively with the school’s recently appointed headteacher to start a “new, recuperative chapter”.

Jennifer Oukherfalla, part of the Holland Park School Parent Collective, which campaigned against the transfer, attacked the lack of “democracy” in the decision.

Responding on Twitter, she sarcastically thanked the minister for teaching children that “the expansionist ambitions of a mega MAT take priority over the will of their teachers, parents and wider community and that Ofsted is a weapon to be used by the DfE”.

A spokesperson for the campaign group also said recent A-level results showed the secondary was “far from a failing school”. It secured a 100 per cent pass rate, with a quarter of all grades at A*.

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