The boss of the trust tipped to take over troubled John Roan School has hit back at critics who oppose it becoming an academy – and has effectively accused them of intimidation and bullying.
Jon Coles, the chief executive of United Learning, challenged John Roan Resists to prove it was questioning Greenwich Council over the running of the Blackheath secondary school, which is being forced to become an academy after failing an Ofsted inspection last year.
The group challenged high pay at United Learning, branding the organisation “a wholly inappropriate sponsor for our school” and said : “We ask that you respect the views of the majority of parents and school staff at John Roan and withdraw your decision to impose your organisation on our community.”
But Coles claimed that most of the group were not connected with the school – or even the local area – and asked it about “incidents of individuals feeling personal and social pressure to continue supporting your group”.
The 300-year-old school has been repeatedly hit by strikes by teachers and support staff since Ofsted judged it to be “inadequate” in June 2018. Poplar-based University Schools Trust was originally lined up to take on the school, but dropped out in December, saying it did not have the resources to turn the school around.
Now United Learning, which runs Bacon’s College in Rotherhithe and Newstead Woods girls’ school in Orpington, has been tipped to take the school on. Campaign group John Roan Resists wrote to Coles earlier this month, questioning the group’s ability to run the school.
But Coles hit back with a five-page letter criticising the group’s assertions – questioning how accountable Greenwich Council was in running the school and suggesting that many of the 311 signatories to John Roan Resists’ letter had little idea of its contents.
The group did not make the signatories public – although it said on social media that it had been signed by “parents, children, families, former staff and students, Old Roans, other parent campaigners and union reps”, while Coles’ response was to an Adam Huggett.
The letter said: “We ask that you respect the views of the majority of parents and school staff at John Roan and withdraw your decision to impose your organisation on our community. The UST attempted to takeover our school but teachers, parents and the wider community united in opposition and through our own due diligence, exposed them as inappropriate and they withdrew.
‘Who has resigned over John Roan?’
“We would like the opportunity to meet you in person to discuss why we think you are a wholly inappropriate sponsor for our school. We believe you will not protect and defend our traditions, our staff, our rich diversity or our caring community ethos that genuinely puts our children first.”
But Mr Coles responded by claiming that “fewer than a third as many as you claim are identified as parents at the school” and noting “the large proportion of signatories who identify themselves as activists from other parts of the country with no connection to the school”.
He added: “You seem strongly convinced about the democratic accountability of the school through the local authority. Can I ask how parents have been able in practice to hold to account officers and members of the council?
“Who there has taken personal accountability for the failures at the school? Which councillor or senior officer has resigned, apologised, or accepted responsibility?
“In fact, councils have not run schools, even in theory, for the past 30 years… heads and governors of maintained schools run these schools. The idea that local authorities and their directors run maintained schools is simply inaccurate. By contrast, academy trusts do nothing but run schools, stand or fall on their success in doing so and are held accountable for it.”
‘Substantial government cuts’
Coles also countered a claim that United Learning had “a staggering £25m defecit in 2017”, saying having to reveal its accounts was “one part of our accountability”.
“With income of over £400m, we are a substantial and effective charity. By contrast, the accounts for Greenwich Council show a net deficit position on service provision of over £121m. Can you confirm that you are similarly challenging the council over its financial position?,” he asked.
“And in this context, how has the council reassured you that they have have the deep resources and expertise needed … to turn the school around, despite the substantial cuts in government funding?”
The group said: “We would like the opportunity to meet you in person to discuss why we think you are a wholly inappropriate sponsor for our school.” However, Coles, who ran the London Challenge scheme which is credited with improving schools in the capital during the 2000s, responded that as United Learning had not been confirmed as John Roan’s sponsor, “I see no point in meeting you so that you can tell me why you consider me ‘inappropriate’. You have explained that at length in your letter.”
The Roan campaign responded to Coles, with a letter from Huggett saying: “ I don’t know whether you were aware when you addressed me in your letter, but I am a Year 11 student at The John Roan school about to take my GCSEs.
“We disagree with much of the contents of your letter. We once again extend our willingness to meet with you to discuss our concerns about the impact that academisation will have on our school and our specific issues regarding the ULT that we raised in our letter,” he said.
“[Greenwich Council] leader Danny Thorpe and deputy leader David Gardner, alongside our council, are committed to supporting Greenwich children and have continued to offer both educational and financial support to our school. Greenwich have the capacity to offer a holistic approach involving multidisciplinary agencies, which the United Learning Trust with its single focus on academic education can not achieve.
“Our local authority schools are flourishing and recent Ofsted reports have commended our LA secondary schools and their fantastic work with young people. We are confident that under the experienced leadership of [John Roan head] Cath Smith with her team of dedicated teachers and support staff, we can continue to build on the improvements we have already seen this year.”
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