Academy trust accused of using assemblies to intimidate students

Concerns have been raised about discipline policies at one of the country’s biggest academy trusts, after teachers described assemblies in which pupils were routinely humiliated and made to cry.

In a letter passed to the Guardian, three former teachers at Outwood Grange academy trust (Ogat) confirmed reports that the chain staged “flattening the grass” assemblies, in which children were screamed at in order to establish discipline when the trust took over a new school.

The three teachers behind the letter, who asked not to be named, worked at Outwood academy Bishopsgarth in Stockton-on-Tees. The Guardian has also heard from other teachers that such assemblies took place at other schools in the trust, which runs 31 schools across the north of England and the east midlands.

The letter described how “members of the newly appointed trust executive team would appear and scream at the children, shouting in their faces in an intimidating fashion in an attempt to intimidate or to get a reaction, which would give a pretext to exclude the children.”

It added: “These assemblies were conducted on a rolling basis, with each year group involved in a separate assembly, and were clearly well planned in advance in terms of what took place and the way children were treated.

“This process of intimidation also continued outside of these assemblies. Children were targeted and shouted at in corridors by senior members of the trust leadership team.”

In the letter, the three teachers said the “culture of bullying and intimidation” they witnessed “eventually drove each of us to the conclusion that we could no longer continue working there due to the toxic nature of the atmosphere which was created”.

The trust said that its current staff “do not recognise the culture described in your anecdotes as having any basis in reality”.

Ogat has previously come under fire for its high level of exclusions. At Outwood academy Ormesby in Middlesbrough, 41% of pupils were given a fixed-term exclusion in the previous academic year, higher than any other school in the country. Outwood academy Bishopsgarth, a 10-minute drive away, had the second-highest rate, with 34%.

This year, one of the trust’s former pupils took legal action against it over the use of isolation booths to punish the breaking of school rules. He complained he had spent much of the school year, up to 35 days, in isolation, an experience his mother said devastated him.

Reports of “flattening the grass” assemblies have been circulating on social media and from sources in the education press ever since John Tomsett, the headteacher of Huntington school in York, wrote that he had heard about the practice being used by a multi-academy trust in a blogpost.

Martyn Oliver, the chief executive of Ogat, said: “Parents will be delighted that in a report Ofsted issued about Outwood academy Bishopsgarth this week, the inspectors found that ‘the school is being rapidly transformed through the highly effective actions of leaders, [and the] quality of teaching, learning and assessment is improving quickly’.

“The inspectors also said that ‘morale in the school has improved significantly since the sponsor took over the school in November 2016’, and that ‘pupils feel safe’,” he said. “They noted that exclusions were down two-thirds over the previous year.”

Oliver said the proportion of pupils passing GCSE English and maths at Bishopsgarth had risen from 38% to 52%, and Ofsted inspections of other Outwood schools were also positive.

“We recognise that it is disconcerting for teachers who leave underperforming schools to subsequently see pupils start to excel after years of failure,” he said. “The staff who are overseeing the current transformation do not recognise the culture described in your anecdotes as having any basis in reality.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said it did not support any behaviour management approaches that deliberately set out to upset children, but added: “Every child needs an education which is a safe and calm environment for teaching and with effective behaviour management policies and approaches that meet the needs of pupils.

“All schools are required to have a clear behaviour policy that sets boundaries and expectations for how pupils should behave in school, both inside and outside the classroom.

“And since 2010, we have given headteachers more powers to ensure their schools are a safe environment for their students and staff. We trust headteachers to develop their own behaviour management strategies to suit their schools, and provide advice and guidance about how to do this.”


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