An HPS Parent's Thoughts on the United Learning Q&A
Updated: May 30, 2022
This evening I attended the first open Q&A evening between United Learning and current Holland Park School parents.
The meeting was set up by United Learning and was led by their CEO, Jon Coles and Director of Secondary Academies, Dame Sally Coates, with the Holland Park School interim head, Arwel Jones, managing the meeting.
Although like many Holland Park School parents I am not happy about the way that the governing board have behaved up to and including the selection of United Learning as the MAT (Multi-Academy Trust) HPS should join, I wanted to attend open minded and hear what they had to say.
Following this meeting, this is what I have understood:
United Learning allow each of their schools autonomy unless there are clear issues that need to be addressed, so ultimately the school ethos, rules, standards and community engagement are determined by the head. This is what they said at the meeting, but the reports about 'mental health challenging' behaviour policies at their schools are fairly consistent and I find this worrying.
United Learning expects the governing body of each of their schools to have control and responsibility - it wasn't stated overtly but ultimately the power lies with the executives of United Learning and it's central governing body, which is unaccountable and makes all the big decisions on funding and strategy.
United Learning will be there to centralise technology, data management, financial management, human resources and otherwise oversee the school to ensure it is meeting the legal requirements and teaching standards, including safe guarding, by conducting annual reviews.
United Learning will also be a resource hub for the school in terms of providing training and development, subject advisors, staff expertise and special programmes to enhance student education beyond the classroom.
So according it UL, ultimately it is still the head and governing body that determine how the school is run. The governing body will be made up of United Learning chosen appointees, so actually UL will be the ones determining how the school is run then.
They would "reset" the governing body as soon as they take over, so the current Holland Park governing body members would all be removed. Jon Coles says they will put in their own governors (these will no doubt instal the UL ethos and policies) and "probably" keep any recently elected parent governors. (Usually UL governing bodies have 10-12 people, including two parent governors and one UL staff member.)
We are stuck with the new head, Steven Parsons, whom this current "foreign" governing body have appointed in the face of clear opposition from parents, students and teachers present at his interview. He is a head teacher coming from an all boys school that does not achieve nearly the results our Holland Park students achieve. United Learning say they have not been involved with his appointment and he has no links to them in any way.
It seems to me that our biggest concern - beyond the loss of our status as a legal entity that being absorbed into United Learning would bring - should be this new head teacher. From what UL were saying they sound more like caretakers and overseers, a combination of Ofsted (without the impartiality) and a central hub for resources and behind the scenes management. Please note that currently MATs are not inspected by Ofsted as they are supposed to "self-evaluate" - when did self-evaluation ever work?
Current Governing Body & Process
A number of parents separately raised their fury at the process that the governing body had gone through to arrive at the finalised decision that HPS would join a MAT and that MAT would be UL. Jon Coles consistently said that he understood parents weren't happy, and it was nothing to do with UL, however, the process the governing body had gone through was standard and happened in many governing bodies throughout the country. He did not believe it would be practical to have parents vote about joining a MAT or not. The impression I had was that he thought the process was normal and right. I was left concerned about how much parental influence would be allowed in any UL school given his attitude, but then again "it would be up to our head as each school is distinctive".
A parent made the point that in any business deal, contractors would submit their tenders together and allow shareholders to vote for the best candidate, but that we had not been able to do this and were presented with only one contractor who was effectively submitting their tender without competition. UL said the process was not their choice.
A few parents suggested UL would earn brownie points with the angry masses if they asked the governing body to pause the process so we could review things. Jon Coles said he thought the process should be escalated due to the state the school was currently in.
Other parents made the point that due to the way the governing body had managed the process UL would be taking over a very angry group of stakeholders. Jon Coles responded they'd taken oven many schools in much worse states and that it would be fine in the end.
United Learning's benefit of providing centralised resources allows them, in theory, to save the school money and for the money saved to be "recycled into the classroom". How many non-teaching staff at Holland Park could lose their jobs in this situation? We forgot to ask that question. Please see the HPSPC article that goes into deeper insights into this issue.
One point they made is that the management team at Holland Park are paid much higher salaries than is normal in schools (£1.4 million pa) and that this needs to be addressed, so to "save money" for the school, will they encourage these leaders to leave? They have committed to keeping staff on their current contracts, however, any new staff joining might feel quite uncomfortable working with contemporaries who are receiving much higher salaries than they are. They are keen for teachers and staff to come and talk to them.
Serious Issues at Holland Park
United Learning's due diligence is continuing at HPS, but so far they already feel the school needs oversight and change immediately, as they have already observed
lots of low level disruption and behaviour issues amongst the students - this has arisen from the lack of staff visibly present currently and that in turn is because we are short staffed currently. Adequate staffing should resolve this issue.
young teachers lacking control and some teachers chasing truants around the school - this should be resolved with adequate staffing as above.
inadequate quality of teaching and learning - we need specifics on this. Previously the leadership team were very good at helping teachers improve, and I can't see why that can't happen again.
only 78 staff - 12 to 17 fewer than there should be in a school the size of HPS - the point was made that many had left because of the problems in the school and three members of the leadership team were not at the school currently (Mr Chappell, Mr Wilson and Mr Robson) significantly reducing capacity.
poor structure in terms of staff, no real middle leadership, no heads of year or heads of department - Arwel Jones appointed the first Head of Year this week, Miss Potts for Y11.
pastoral care is inadequate in terms of managing student well being and managing student behaviour - Arwel Jones indicated this will be helped enormously by introduction of heads of year, which he is currently working on.
rigid banding system across multiple subjects is poor practice, research has shown banding based on subject is more effective and moving between bands needs to be easier - personally I agree with this point, no doubt a new head and adequate staffing can sort this out given a chance.
shocking that only 70 out of 240 students go from Y11 into 6th form - entry requirements are poor and what's on offer in sixth forms inadequate - need to check these figures, it is likely this was what happened in the last academic year due to the allegations from former students. Prior to that at least half the GCSE cohort would continue on to A-levels at the school. Having had one of my children go through the A-level programme, I agree that the A-level programme needs to be looked at and improved, especially the overall growth of the students into adults who can handle the self-management of university life effectively, and the widening of the options of subjects.
admission to schools disadvantages some families, and the school has a poor inclusion practice - this was refuted by a number of parents in the room, who highlighted their disadvantaged status, kids who joined via the art aptitude programme and how the success of the school was why the catchment area had become so small.
It was pointed out that the school had not had this list of issues up until September 2021, and in fact with some security and a strong, supportive head, the staff would pick up the reins again and continue their excellent work.
Current Safety of Children at HPS
Some parents were concerned about the safety of their children, especially in relation to last Friday's incident in Notting Hill Gate, Dame Sally Coates reassured them saying children were safeguarded at the school and behaviour levels were generally low-level. Arwel Jones said the incident in Notting Hill happened around the time they were putting Mr Chappell in an ambulance, but still 9 staff including himself rushed to the scene.
(FYI The police are involved and the two students concerned have been appropriately dealt with. There was no knife on any of the children and it wasn't a bottle of bleach, but rather a big bottle of water with a bit of bleach in it that has been left in a local disabled toilet.)
When asked what policies United Learning would put in place to address the behaviour issues she said that more staff were needed in the corridors and visiting classrooms, and a clear consistent behaviour policy was needed. For example, a verbal warning to a child, second warning was name on a board and third sent them to a "reflection" room where they would continue with their class work on their own and the teacher would then come and speak to them about why they were being disruptive. A parent with a special needs child who would be traumatised by this style of management expressed her concern. Jon Coles said special needs kids would be treated differently and staff would work closely with child and parents to ensure child felt safe. Dame Sally re-iterated that was one way of handling the situation, but each head would ultimately decided their own. They weren't concerned as long as the system worked. "They weren't concerned as long as the system worked"?? This bothered me enormously. My greatest concern is our children's mental wellbeing. Surely they should be looking at each system and ensuring that it was not just working but working in a way that was not detrimental to the children's mental health
Some parents are very concerned about Holland Park School being a greater part of the community and allowing for the use of the facilities and participating more in community needs. Jon Coles said that ultimately that would be up to the new head, however, many of the UL schools did share their facilities and get involved with communities so he would welcome that.
I'm sure there were other issues raised, but these were the ones that I thought were important and worth remembering. Feel free to let me know what I forgot!
Stakeholders are generally anti-UL given the governing body's process, so you'd think they'd do what they could to show their concern and sensitivity to issues affecting us. It's Ramadan and they scheduled this meeting at a time observant Muslim parents could not attend. We requested they postpone this meeting out of respect for David Chappell's collapse and how that has affected everyone who knows him. Their response was to add in another meeting for those who couldn't attend this evening - apparently a handful of parents present did not see the value in postponing the meeting.
I was left with an overall impression of wondering what the point was of UL other than allowing the current governing body and DfE to wash their hands of the problems at HPS. I can see having experienced people around might help get HPS back on track more quickly initially, but really, if it is all up to the head of the school then it seems finding the right head, as the governing body should have started to do in September 2021 instead of focusing on shoving us into a MAT (driven by DfE), is what is most important.
The other thing that has been bugging me following this meeting is how how United Learning does not seem to prioritise mental health, beyond the need for 'pastoral care'. Personally I feel that every policy introduced in a school should consider how that policy impacts our children's mental health. Research shows that in our teenage years our brains are still 'elastic', still developing and thus any mental impact during this time is particularly influential throughout our lives.
Furthermore, we are meeting the two top leaders at UL, masters of their pitch and handling objections with political skill. These are people our school are unlikely to see again as they go off to absorb the next school. Our head will be overseen by one of UL's 5 regional directors, who will be responsible for their 9 current schools in London including HPS, Hurlingham Academy (Fulham) and Paddington Academy (Maida Vale). Maybe we should be meeting that regional director instead? But who will that be? Do they know?
Finally, my biggest takeaway from the evening was that Jon Coles acknowledged our frustration with the process the interim governors used to recommend the United Learning MAT, however, he didn't seem to care how we'd been completely erased from the process, nor was he willing to assist us in pausing the process so we could be part of the discussion, in fact he clearly stated he didn't think it was our right to have a say in the matter, which raises two questions in my mind:
If UL takeover HPS, will they ever care about how us parents feel about any choices they make on our children's behalf? Will we ever have any say?
Why exactly is Jon Coles so secure in UL taking over HPS? What has he been promised and by whom?
You can read about these issues more in-depth via the HPSPC Insights on the United Learning Q&A here.