Governors take the rap

14th July 2006 at 01:00
A Fenland school's entire governing body has been replaced after a devastating Ofsted inspection many knew nothing of, Michael Shaw reports

When a school is accused of suffering bullying, racism and doing too little to care for its pupils, you might expect its governors would be among the first to be told.

But things work differently at the Queen's school in Wisbech, in the heart of the Fens. Many of its governors say they were among the last to learn the school had failed an Ofsted inspection, and this week all 20 were replaced by Cambridgeshire council.

Although Wisbech appears to be a genteel Georgian town, and has been used as a location for television costume dramas, it has some of the most deprived electoral wards in Europe.

Councillors said they had been concerned about the education and welfare of pupils at Queen's for several months but found it difficult to intervene sooner because it has foundation status.

Staff who have complained about the school include supply teacher Stanley Eastol, who had to go to hospital earlier this year after pupils threw a chessboard which hit him in the eye.

Staff morale is low and more than a quarter of its teachers have left in the past two years. Attendance and test results have also been poor, with only around one in four pupils getting five A* to C grades at GCSE. But Stephen McKenna, headteacher, has consistently rejected criticism and gave the school a positive self-evaluation report in November 2005.

Cambridgeshire council was unconvinced and wrote to Andrew Pallant, chair of governors, in January 2006 raising the possibility of intervention unless the school brought in outside help.

This letter, however, was allegedly not shown to the rest of the governing body until a governor learned of it four months later.

Governors said they were also told late about the findings of an inspection by Ofsted in May, which placed the school in special measures.

The inspectors' report, published last week, described 20 of the 25 graded areas at the school as inadequate, including its leadership, teaching, results, and care for its pupils.

Although its students are predominantly white British, the inspectors found "an escalation in racist bullying which the school has failed to resolve".

Parents believe this may relate to victimisation of children whose families are Travellers or who are immigrants from Portugal or Eastern Europe. Many such families come to Wisbech to do casual work such as picking fruit and vegetables and preparing packaged salads.

The inspectors said lessons at the school were also significantly disrupted by poor behaviour and that teachers failed to deal adequately with bullying.

The findings have come as no surprise to Christie O'Neill, aged 16, who set up a lottery-funded anti-bullying website called Bullystop with her father, Hugh, because of her experiences of being victimised at Queen's. Mr O'Neill said they had received dozens of complaints about pupils who had been verbally or physically bullied at the school.

Cambridgeshire council has drafted in an interim executive board led by a councillor to oversee the school until 2008 and plans for Mr McKenna to be supported part-time by another headteacher.

Simon Cobby, council spokesman, said: "The Queen's school is letting its community down. Despite continued attempts at intervention, we have become concerned about many aspects, including standards and achievement, the effectiveness of the governing body, staff morale and student welfare."

The National Union of Teachers said it was investigating many complaints from teachers about Queen's.

Alan Williams, NUT officer for the eastern region, said the case raised questions about the accountability of headteachers at foundation schools and at the growing number of other schools which are independent of local authorities. "Where misconduct or malpractice occurs, the headteachers are accountable only to a governing body, and they can be ill-informed or lacking the skills to tackle the problems head-on," he said.

Shona Johnstone, Cambridgeshire cabinet councillor for children and young people, said that the council had found it frustrating that it could intervene fully only when the Queen's school was placed in special measures. However, she was hopeful that the Government would fulfil its promise to give local authorities more power to tackle schools causing concern.

Martin Williams, who was a parent governor until this week, said it was right for the governing body to be replaced because it was not informed of crucial problems.

He insisted his three children would still attend Queen's. "The school is not a basket-case," he said. "If the governing body had been aware of the complaints about racism, we would have tried to tackle it, but we found out too late."

Mr McKenna and Mr Pallant refused to comment.


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