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Exclusive: MPs demand answers from Outwood Grange about ‘flattening the grass’

MPs say it is 'deeply concerning' MAT used services of crisis management firm and did not provide 'clear explanation'

Martyn Oliver, of Outwood Grange Academies Trust

MPs say it is 'deeply concerning' MAT used services of crisis management firm and did not provide 'clear explanation'

Two MPs have written to Outwood Grange multi-academy trust about “incredibly concerning” suggestions that it pursued a controversial behaviour policy known as “flattening the grass” to make pupils cry.

The MPs said that if these allegations were correct, it would “raise serious ethical questions”.

On Friday, Tes revealed that Outwood Grange used the services of a crisis management firm to respond to allegations about a policy known as “flattening the grass”.

The controversy started when prominent headteacher John Tomsett, who leads Huntingdon School in York, wrote a blog about behaviour management.

Read: Outwood Grange uses crisis managers to explain ‘flattening the grass’ 

Profile: Martyn Oliver, the chief executive of Outwood Grange

Read: Ofsted ‘discussed’ off-rolling with Outwood Grange

In the blog, Mr Tomsett referred to an anonymous MAT using a behaviour policy called "flattening the grass", which involved MAT executives visiting the school “en masse”, standing around the edge of the room during assemblies, and singling out pupils “in front of their peers until they cry”.

The blog does not name the MAT that was using the policy. However, board minutes from Outwood Grange published in June 2016 refer to a policy of “flattening the grass”, though they do not explain what this means.

Outwood Grange under scrutiny over 'flattening the grass'

When Tes approached Outwood Grange to ask what "flattening the grass" meant, the trust did not address this, and neither confirmed nor denied that it aimed to make pupils cry.

The trust also used the services of a crisis management firm called Abzed to respond to allegations about "flattening the grass". Abzed's other clients include the fracking company Cuadrilla, grouse moors and the e-cigarette industry.

Two Labour MPs have today written to Martyn Oliver, the chief executive of Outwood Grange, demanding answers about the policy. The letter is from Stephanie Peacock, the MP for Barnsley East, and Louise Haigh, the MP for Sheffield East.

The letter – which has been shared with Tes – says: “It is deeply concerning that Outwood has felt the need to hire a PR firm specialising in crisis management, Abzed, rather than responding to these concerns directly, and that neither the trust nor Abzed has provided a clear explanation of what ‘flattening the grass’ means."

Quoting from the response which was provided to Tes on behalf of Outwood Grange, the MPs criticise the chain for not giving a straight answer about what "flattening the grass" means.

“Indeed, your response appears to be nothing more than an attempt to deflect attention away from such concerning allegations by talking about ‘ideologists… [twisting] anything we say with their own pretend interpretations… because they can’t cope with the extraordinary success of our children and teachers’,” the letter says.

“This is simply not good enough, and implies that any issues raised about Outwood’s working practices are born out of jealousy, rather than addressing the genuine concerns raised.”

The letter goes on: “Similarly, Abzed’s response, focusing on a technical point regarding the dates certain phrases were recorded in the minutes, does not provide a satisfactory answer to such a concerning allegation.”

The MPs say that the allegations about "flattening the grass" are “incredibly concerning”, and that if it “resembles the description Mr Tomsett has provided, it would raise serious ethical questions regarding the school’s working practices”.

The letter finishes: “Please could you, therefore, provide an urgent response to the concerns raised in our letter.

“Please could you provide a clear response to the allegations raised, outlining the exact meaning of the phrase ‘flattening the grass’, and providing a precise explanation of what this practice involves at Outwood Academy.”

Tes has contacted Outwood Grange for a response.

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