School federations: New head claims ministerial meddling at heart of Richard Rose crisis

9th October 2009 at 01:00
Political pressure to rush into federation led to fury among teachers, pupils and parents

Original paper headline: Ministerial meddling at heart of Richard Rose crisis, new head claims

One of the worst crises to hit a government-backed school federation was caused by political pressure to rush through new arrangements, according to the superhead charged with turning it round.

Earlier this year a wave of protests by staff, children and parents hit the Richard Rose Federation in Carlisle led by Peter Noble, the first school leader with no classroom experience.

New head Mike Gibbons said the schools were forced to join together. In addition, then schools minister Lord Adonis demanded that the new federation was set up much more quickly than planned.

Mr Gibbons claims that Jim Knight, also a schools minister at the time, had to be "hustled away for his own safety" when he visited Richard Rose at the height of its problems.

At the end of last month, Schools Secretary Ed Balls said he wanted more schools to federate as a way of saving costs on senior staff.

Mr Gibbons has revealed that 54 of the 448 federation staff have left this year. The head says he asked some of those he believed were not up scratch to go.

Speaking at a conference of special needs organisation Nasen, Mr Gibbons said teachers had federated "unwillingly". Further problems arose when Lord Adonis then asked for progress to be accelerated, he said.

Because of the speed, 1,600 pupils from three schools were moved to a site suitable for 800.

"You then had working-class parents who had never protested at anything in their life demanding action," Mr Gibbons said.

"Jim Knight was hustled away for his own safety when he came to visit."

Mr Gibbons was formerly chief executive of the Government's Innovations Unit. On his arrival, he suspended plans that would have seen some experienced teachers take pay cuts of up to pound;10,000 a year and the possibility of 49 staff redundancies.

However, with the increase in the number of academies and federations he believes many schools could share expertise - for example, in shortage subjects. "It's never been more important for us to collaborate," he said.

But he also criticised pressure put on schools by the Government.

"We basically still have a Victorian education system and we put layer and layer of expectation on it, and it just means teachers are working harder and harder," he said.

"We need to work in a different way together. We can't isolate ourselves from each other and we have to put the right talent in the right place as well as taking no prisoners to solve problems."

The problems emerged at one of the federation's schools, Richard Rose Central Academy, which opened last September. It became only the second academy to be put into special measures after being heavily criticised by inspectors. Chief executive Peter Noble and Mark Yearsley, the school's headteacher, both left immediately.

A spokesman for the Department of Children, Schools and Families said: "We know it has been a challenging time for the academy. The plans to fast tack the opening of the academy were made with the agreement of local partners.

"Other accelerated academy projects are progressing well. We continue to develop and improve the design of the programme, and we will learn the lessons from Carlisle."

Countdown to chaos

  • November 2007: Plans for a new federation in Carlisle, including North Cumbria Technology College and St Aidan's County High School brought forward by a year.
  • April 2008: St Aidan's pupils transferred to the much smaller technology college when Central Academy opens; 38 temporary classrooms installed.
  • May 2008: Former NHS manager Peter Noble (left) appointed to head the Richard Rose Federation.
  • September 2008: Richard Rose Federation opens. High level of long-term sickness among teaching staff. New Central Academy building planned for 2010 delayed by over a year.
  • December 2008: Emergency Ofsted inspection finds "significant unrest" and says senior leaders "underestimated" challenge of joining together schools serving two communities.

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