Exclusive: Flattening the grass ‘frightening to watch’, say new sources

Outwood Grange Academy Trust alleged to have shown staff how to shout at pupils during ‘learning walks’ at other schools

Will Hazell

Flattening the grass Outwood Grange

‘Flattening the grass’ at Outwood Grange Academy Trust schools was “frightening to watch” and “overkill”, new sources have told Tes.

Earlier this month, Tes reported claims that staff from Outwood Grange Academies Trust and Delta Academies Trust aggressively shouted at pupils as part of a “ritual humiliation” and “public shaming” to instil discipline.

After Tes published its stories, more sources revealed concerns.

The accounts describe flattening the grass as a process that happens when Outwood takes over a new school. They say the trust would flood the academy with executives during a series of “rolling assemblies”.

They also say the trust had a deliberate policy to “pick on” pupils, with “intense shouting” in their faces for minor transgressions. This was said to continue for weeks afterwards, with executives pulling children out of their classes and “screaming” at them.

Today Outwood Grange hit back at the flattening the grass accounts, publishing three testimonials from leaders at two academies taken over by the trust year, which it said contradicted the claims.

But further teachers have come forward with descriptions of the practice at other schools in the chain.  

How the story broke: Outwood Grange uses crisis managers to explain ‘flattening the grass’ 

Investigation: Insiders allege Outwood Grange ‘ritually humiliated’ pupils

Read: Teaching at 'flattening the grass' school 'felt like being a prison warden’ 

One leader – who asked not to be named – observed flattening the grass when the trust took over a secondary in Middlesbrough.

“There is like a date that they say: ‘Right, from this point on, it is the flattening the grass,’” Tes was told.

The leader said that staff were taught how to shout at pupils by being taken on “learning walks” at other schools in the chain.

“I’d never been used to speaking to children in that way, occasionally you did shout at a child, but it was something very, very rare. But it literally just became part and parcel of what you did…they send you to other schools so you can go round with their senior leadership and they literally show you how it’s done.”

“It was quite frightening to watch, but then also you don’t realise that after a few years you become that person.”

The leader backed up previous accounts from Outwood staff given to Tes about how flattening the grass works.

“They just send in loads of other senior leaders from schools all around both the central and the northern region,” the leader said.

“They just walk around the school, pull children out of lessons, obviously shout at them, everything that you put about the assemblies…all of those things are true.”

They said Outwood had “someone on standby to do exclusions” during the rolling assemblies. “If a child does anything wrong or answers back…they’re just excluded on the spot, so your exclusions go up massively.”

A senior school leader who currently works at one of Outwood’s academies on Teesside – and who asked not to be named – also corroborated the reports. “Everything you’ve written about flattening the grass is absolutely true,” they said. However, the source said that the rolling assemblies were not referred to as flattening the grass, but as “warning assemblies”.

They added: “Endemic in the organisation is a culture of bullying; you’re made to feel watched all the time, the stakes of accountability are really high.”

A third source – another school leader – said they were briefed about flattening the grass when the chain was poised to take over Outwood Academy Easingwold in North Yorkshire in late 2016.

“The principle of the assemblies was outlined, we were told what was going to happen. We were told what our part would be in that and what we had to do, the fact that the school would be flooded with their team, and that we would have to arrange for the [year] groups to be brought down in silence at certain times during the day.”

The briefing included a reference to “screaming at students”, the source said.

The senior leader said that staff were asked to produce lists of pupils – such as those with SEND – who would be “seated appropriately” so they could leave if they were “disturbed” by the process. Staff were also asked to identify their “worst year group” so they could be “targeted first”.

The fact that Outwood sequences its rolling assemblies to start with the year group with the most challenging behaviour is corroborated by a slide deck produced by Sir Michael Wilkins, the trust’s former chief executive.

The slides outline what Outwood does in the seven weeks after it takes over a school, and lists in week one: “Rolling assemblies – share expectations and begin Consequences of Behaviour with the year group the staff identify to be the most difficult; this is important!”

In the event, the assemblies at Easingwold were put on hold – along with Outwood’s takeover of the school – with the chain saying it needed to address a number of problems with the building before it could sponsor it.

Outwood was finally confirmed as the sponsor in 2017, and the senior leader said they witnessed the assemblies taking place when the trust returned. Year 7 students behaved “perfectly” as they were led into the hall, but were then “berated” once inside, they said.

“It felt like overkill for our school’s context,” the source said.

A spokesperson for Outwood said: “We categorically deny that the trust and its hard-working staff have a policy of humiliating children or deliberately causing them upset. 

“All of our staff are performing a service to the country in transforming schools which have been failing, often for many, many years, into 'good' and 'outstanding' schools. 

“Those who have actually visited our academies and seen the transformation for themselves are impressed by the happy, calm schools, which is why they are so popular with our hard-working parents.”

The spokesperson dismissed the claim that Outwood had a culture of bullying as “complete nonsense”. 

“We make no apologies for having high standards and our staff hold themselves to account because they acknowledge the critical job that they do in supporting some of the most vulnerable children in our society,” they said. 

“The trust has an exceptionally low turnover rate of staff and almost all of them (98 per cent), in a recent trust-wide survey stated that they are proud to be a member of staff at their academy”.

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Will Hazell

Will Hazell

Will Hazell is a reporter at Tes

Find me on Twitter @whazell

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