Cuckoo Hall: VINDICATED! (or not, perhaps) Three letters and a clarification.

David Barry's picture
 17
On the 14 February my first posting on Cuckoo Hall appeared (I actually wrote it on the 13th, in this saga exact dating seems to matter) I wrote it based on press reports, and before the EFA report was published.

Then on the 16 February Janet Downs was able to post about the newly published EFA report.

In what follows I shall assume that either you have read the EFA report or Janet's account of it. So I won't quote from the EFA report. I have realised that part of my original post requires correction or clarification. My posting was based on press reports at the time, but I now have better information. I now have the text of the letter written to parents and carers announcing the lifting of the suspension of Patricia Sowter, CBE and Sharon Ahmet, obtained by google search, and it makes informative reading.

The passage from my posting that needs updating, in light of the letter, is this one:

"..the decision made by the Board to first suspend, and then remove the Chair and reinstate Patricia Sowter’s Husband as a member of the Board, was made BEFORE the DfE inquiry...was.. complete. This was then followed, it would seem, by a further meeting under the new chair which reinstated Ms Sowter and the Head of Cuckoo Hall School. Whether Mr Sowter participated in the meeting which decided to reinstate his wife is not clear. This does not ... exclude the possibility that advance information was given to the Board by the DfE which led them to act quickly to reverse the removed Chair’s decision, despite the DfE enquiry not being complete. "

This was based on the press reports. But now for the letter.

The letter is from Marino Charalambous described as "Chair" Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust. It is dated 14 January. I shall quote the relevant paragraphs only. And then comment on them.

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT

"Dear Parent or Carer,

I am writing to inform you of the outcome of a CHAT Board meeting held yesterday, Tuesday 13 January 2015.

At the conclusion of yesterday’s meeting the Board of the Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust (CHAT) voted unanimously to lift the suspensions of Patricia Sowter (Executive Head Teacher) and Sharon Ahmet (Head Teacher, Cuckoo Hall school). The suspension of Phill Sowter, Trustee, was also lifted on 8 January 2015, following a comprehensive review."

MY COMMENT

This confirms that there were at least three meetings in the process of reversing the decision by the (now former) Chair.

First, the meeting at which the Chair who had carried out the suspensions was removed both as Chair and a trustee was held before Christmas, as the letter announcing that action to parents was sent out on the 22 December 2014. Perhaps this was also the meeting at which Mr Charalambous was elected as chair.

Second, the meeting on 8 January 2015 at which the husband of Patricia Sowter CBE, was reinstated as a trustee following a "comprehensive review." However it is not clear what the "comprehensive review" carried out at that meeting consisted of, or what it was based on.

Third, the meeting of 13 January which reinstated the two teachers and with Mr Sowter again a member of the Board, which is what the letter is mainly about. Did he take part in the discussion and vote on re instating his wife?

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT CONTINUES

"Yesterday’s meeting took place after the Board had received the detailed findings of two external reports - one by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) and the other by an independent investigation commissioned by the Board."

MY COMMENT

This would appear to establish that the decision to reinstate at the 13 January meeting was, indeed, taken in part on foot of a pre publication version of the EFA report. Does this conflict with the later repeated statements by the DfE to the press that the investigation was still on going? This discrepancy might be resolved if the EFA report referred to was a draft, which would have been superseded by the published report.. (So was it different, and if so how?)

Of more interest, perhaps, is the reference to a second investigation - the "independent investigation commissioned by the Board" which has not been published. Were the DfE informed of the contents of this? Given that this report is quoted (together with the EFA report) in aid of "vindicating" the suspended persons, ought it not to be published? This would be all the more so if one felt the EFA report as published, taken by itself, did not vindicate.

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT CONTINUES

"The meeting included comprehensive interviews of Patricia Sowter and Sharon Ahmet with reference to the detailed findings of the two external reports and as a consequence of which the Board unanimously concluded that the evidence in support of earlier allegations did not support any charge of misconduct let alone gross misconduct."

MY COMMENT

A definite and categorical statement. "evidence...did not support any charge of misconduct" ANY charge? Nothing wrong at all? Not even an error of judgement for which excuse could be found? The evidence quoted includes the EFA report, which as it stands no reasonable person could regard as supporting this conclusion. So was it a different version of the EFA report? In which case re consideration would be required in light of the published version. What did the independent report say? And was a record kept of the interviews, the content of which appear to be important (as would be the usual practice)? Given the impact of the proceedings on the individuals concerned, if the second report and the interviews are of such force as to override the findings of the published EFA report surely they should be published? Did Mr Sowter take part in the interviews?

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT

" Therefore, the allegations should not be the subject of disciplinary proceedings against either Patricia Sowter or Sharon Ahmet. Both will shortly be returning to work."

MY COMMENT

Well the conclusion that no disciplinary proceedings against Patricia Sowter CBE, or Sharon Ahmet certainly does follow from the forgoing. However given the published EFA report it is reasonable to ask against whom ARE disciplinary proceedings going to be taken? It has been established by that report that misconduct by SOMEONE has occurred.

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT

"We will also pursue with vigour the completion of the £40m investment secured under the leadership of our Executive Head, Patricia Sowter, for the building of a much needed new secondary school for the area."

MY COMMENT

The TRUST has been issued with a Financial Notice to Improve. It is essentially required to put in place procedures for monitoring financial expenditure, that is the expending of public money, which were lacking. In those circumstances it might perhaps not be prudent to "pursue with vigour" a 40 million pound investment.

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT

(A).... Member of the Trust, Dr Donald Graham, took the opportunity, on behalf of the Board, “to record its appreciation for the outstanding contributions made by Patricia Sowter and Sharon Ahmet to the education of pupils at Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust. The Board recognises the regrettable damage that has been done at a very personal level to the reputations of these two senior teachers and academic leaders at the Trust who have been vindicated by this process."

MY COMMENT

I am a little surprised by this quote. Dr Donald Graham appears to be regarded as someone of some standing by the Trust and someone whose opinion we should take seriously (see addendum) but unfortunately I do not know who he is. I am intrigued and would welcome more information on this point. However for him to be quoted in a public letter conceding that "regrettable damage" has been done "to the reputations of these two senior teachers" seems to me to be unwise and makes me wonder whether proper legal advice was taken on the text of this letter. Presumably it was thought that this concession was overtaken by the categorical assertion that the individuals in question had been "vindicated by this process". But assertion is not argument. The process as described to us does not do this. Perhaps the contents of the interviews together with the contents of the independent report together with the contents of the pre publication draft of the EFA report DO vindicate. The published EFA report does not.

CUCKOO HALL LETTER TEXT CONCLUDES

"Finally, Professor Anthony O'Hear from the Board, said that both "Patricia Sowter and Sharon Ahmet have conducted themselves with great dignity" and conveyed his appreciation to them both."

I am also a little surprised by this quote. Professor Anthony O'Hear is also clearly regarded as someone of some standing by the Trust: and they have a good case for that. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham and a prominent Conservative Party supporter. (He favours school vouchers, top up fees and for profit schools and is a strong supporter of the Government's Free School policy, as far as it goes. His blog post on the "Riddle of the Voucher makes interesting reading

However while what he is quoted as saying at the meeting is the sort of thing one might say, at the end of a meeting at which two people you admire have been put through some sort of inquisitorial process, it lacks relevance to the matter at hand.

It is not the dignified bearing of the two teachers that is at issue, especially when they had grounds (the removal of the previous Chair and the reinstatement of Mr Sowter) to suppose that the environment they were in was not hostile.

Addendum

In the most recent letter to parents and carers, undated (only the month February, is given) but reported by the press to have been issued on the 13th of this month, the Trust writes:

"We have, and continue to act, on recommendations from the Education Funding Agency (EFA) report. There is now a new Chair of the Trust, Marino Charalambous, which will strengthen our governance. Marino has excellent knowledge of CHAT and its schools, and we will therefore be in the best possible place to move forward and successfully manage our future growth. He will be continued to be supported on the board by Dr Donald Graham and Professor Anthony O’Hear."

From this you will see the impression is given that the appointment of Marino Charalambous as chair is both really recent and on foot of a recommendation from the EFA, with a continuing role for Dr Graham and Prof O'Hear being highlighted. Interestingly this letter was signed by no less than seven individuals. The Chair, Mr Charalambous, Patricia Sowter, CBE, the four headteachers of the schools run by the Trust, and intriguingly, Martin Hesketh. " Director of Finance and Operations CHAT"

This would seem to imply that despite the "Financial Notice to Improve" the "Director of Finance" along with Patricia Sowter bears no responsibility for the state of affairs that brought the notice to improve about.
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David Barry's picture
Thu, 19/02/2015 - 23:03

A further point of clarification. I have been trying to get a clearer picture of the events surrounding the removal of the Chair of Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust, Andry Efthymiou. When I say "removal" this is based, as readers of the Cuckoo Hall posts will realize, both on letters issued by the Trust to parents and carers and statements made to the press to the effect that she was removed, and removed "unanimously." Which would indicate a pretty severe repudiation of her decision to suspend the two teachers and Mr Sowter.

However it turns out that Ms Efthymiou has a different version of events reported in the local press thus:

(I am only quoting the most relevant paragraphs.)

"The former chairwoman of the board of trustees of Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust who suspended three senior leaders of the free school chain has insisted she stepped down voluntarily, the Advertiser can reveal.


She said: “I would like to make it clear that I stood down from my position voluntarily after I was advised to do so by lawyers leading the investigation into the allegations of gross misconduct.”

She explained that she had been advised to do so as disciplinary action taken against her former partner, who is site manager for Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust, formed an element of the investigation into the gross misconduct allegations.

She added: “There was a clear conflict of interest and I stepped down".

http://www.northlondon-today.co.uk/news.cfm?id=19711

The one really definite conclusion one can draw from this is that SOMEONE is not telling the truth.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 20/02/2015 - 10:02

But we still have the little matters of a Financial Notice to Improve, a threat to terminate the Funding Agreement, the alteration of the Single Central Register to make it appear staff started work after DBS checks had been received, the allegations of bullying (to be investigated by the Trust, ha!), the investigation into possible exam malpractice, the slack monitoring of credit card spending under the Governors' noses and the undeclared conflicts of interest which, again, were unnoticed or unchallenged by the Trustees.


Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 20/02/2015 - 10:08

There's also the question about how far the Trustees were complicit in maintaining the fiction that Cuckoo Hall had been in Special Measures, or just emerged from Special Measures, when Sowter arrived in 2002, and that she had turned the school round.

The 1999 Ofsted for Cuckoo Hall (now removed from Ofsted's website but I have a copy) took the school out of special measures. It says:

'...the school is well managed; the headteacher provides a clear vision of how the school should develop. He is ably supported by the deputy headteacher, and together they have encouraged effective team-work among the staff. Systematic monitoring of teachers' planning and practice by the headteacher, the deputy headteacher and the link adviser, has helped to improve the quality of teaching and raise standards. Effective leadership of the teaching team has enabled the school to overcome most of its weaknesses.'

The 2001 Ofsted (again, missing from Ofsted's website), when the same headteacher, Mr Allen, was in charge, said:

'This is a very effective school. Pupils enter the school with standards well below
expectations and by the end of Year 6, their standards have risen to be at least in line with those in similar schools. Teaching is good and leadership and management are very good. Pupils make good progress. The school is providing good value for money.'

A school described as 'very effective' and with good teaching and leadership is not failing. It didn't need 'turning around'. Yet that is the fiction promoted by the school and ex-Education Secretary Michael Gove.

Cuckoo in the nest's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 01:14

You make some good points and ask all the questions we need answers to, but why are the DfE not listening?

When the Trust says the board voted 'unanimously' just who do they mean? A full board or just the 3 members you mention above (yes, perhaps four once the husband had been voted back). Is it true that Mr Charalambous resigned from the board in writing at the beginning of November, only to return to support the three? Why the sudden interest when the 2013 financial report shows that he only attended 2 out of the 6 possible meetings? The same report declares his interest in a company with a tie to the Trust, so perhaps he should have stood down with Andry Efthymiou (the former chair) as he had an interest? Mind you, if husbands are allowed to support wives, and parents are allowed to employ children without advertisement or interview (the deputy head at Kingfisher, just one of the two Sowter sons employed by CHAT) then it would appear that anything goes... Except this isn't a family business but a school spending taxpayers money.

The EFA saw sufficient evidence to include bullying and exam fixing in their report, but how they think that a board who had already exonerated the three of any wrongdoing (despite the damning report) would conduct a fair and independent enquiry is beyond me. Just who did conduct it, what was the scope and remit of the report, and what evidence did they consider? People who gave evidence to the EFA were not asked to contribute to the enquiry, and of course the three would deny any allegations against them.

Meanwhile, let's spare a thought for the whistleblowers who put their faith in the system and in justice. It would appear that the witch hunt has begun, with staff being asked by senior leaders, under duress, to sign a petition stating how happy they are to work there, and how distressed they are to hear the comments in the press and the actions of the former chair in speaking to parents. (What rot. It's interesting to note that during the suspensions staff weren't motivated to call for any reinstatements.) If any are brave enough to refuse to sign, they will be identified as among the 75% of staff who spoke to the DfE about experiencing or witnessing bullying, and what will then happen to them? Will the board reassure them that any grievance will be investigated fairly and impartially by the members who have clearly and publicly come out in full support of the leadership?

If there's any doubt in your mind, look at the Guardian report in 2013 (and comments) which details the mass exodus of staff and drop in exam results. This isn't the first time that allegations of bullying have come up and it won't be the last. If they had any integrity, the three would resign before any further damage is done and all the good teachers leave again. It's already started: the Head at Heron left at Christmas.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 09:00

Perhaps it's embarrassment. Sowter strongly supported Gove and he spread the story that Sowter had turned Cuckoo Hall from a failing school in Special Measures to one that was Outstanding. But this wasn't true as can be seen in the Ofsted reports I quote above.

Gove visited Cuckoo Hall several times and praised Sowter in speeches. She was one of his 'Magnificent Seven' along with Greg Wallace, who has since left his headship under a cloud, and Peter Birkett, later knighted for services to further education, whose Federation claimed £1m for non-existent students and who received a golden handshake when he left.

These, together with the ongoing farce at Durand Academy Trust which is led by another Gove favourite Sir Greg Martin, knighted for services to education, suggest Gove's judgement may not have been reliable.






David Barry's picture
Tue, 03/03/2015 - 17:34

Just to reinforce your point Janet about "embarressment" here are some relevant quoyes from prof Joh Howson's blog.


"Cuckoo Hall Academy Trust was one of Gove’s flagship convertor schools and an early sponsor of ‘free schools’ in parts of Enfield, the North London borough.

Indeed, Gove visited the school and the head teacher was on the panel set up by Gove as Secretary of State to review teaching standards. As a result, the investigations of the goings-on at the Trust makes uncomfortable reading in what must been seen as a Tory flagship Trust.

As Cuckoo Hall has also been at the forefront of some of the school-led innovations in teacher training the findings regarding the approach to employing staff without current DBS checks has hopefully also been investigated by the NCTL to ensure that the same shortcomings haven’t been happening with respect to those taken onto teacher preparation courses and not shown as employees by the Trust."

This is the link to the full post:

https://johnohowson.wordpress.com/2015/02/15/burying-bad-news-a-dishonou...

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 11:09

Here is Sowter in her own words telling the House of Commons Bill Committee during debate on the Education Bill in March 2011 that Cuckoo Hall was in special measures when it wasn't:

'My school was in special measures 10 years ago and it became outstanding,' (In answer to question 24).

10 years before would have been 2001. But the school came out of special measures in 1999 (see Ofsted report quoted above).

Later in the same evidence-gathering session she said (Column 18):

'...it was in special measures and was very undersubscribed and we could not fill places. I knew that the answer was to raise standards and to make that school a happy, safe place where children wanted to be...The school improved quite rapidly and I gained the trust of the local community, so they have been right behind me.'

But the Ofsted inspection which took place in 1999 when Mr R Allen was head says local community support was already present:

'There are 477 pupils on roll, a figure that has been steadily rising over the past two years, through the demand for school places in this part of Enfield and continuing support from the local community.'

The 2001 Ofsted inspection (Mr Allen was still head) said:

'Well-forged links with the local community are established...',

'The school has good links with parents and provides them with very good information, particularly about their children's welfare and progress.'

'Parents report their children are happy to come to school and enjoy the activities.'

Cuckoo Hall doesn't appear to be the failing, troubled school that it was made out to be.



David Barry's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 19:36

Janet:

You have made a good case -actually pretty irrefutable on the face of it - for Patricia Sowter haveing mislead parliament. Should not this point be made to the Speaker?

David Barry's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 15:40

Janet (no reply button)

My point about a possible contempt of parliament was a rather more limited one.

Mrs Sowter was giving evidence to a bill committee, so she was giving evidence to parliament. Her evidence is recorded in Hansard, and its long past the time in which it could have been revised so that now stands as the record (The definitive version).

You have shown how, by quoting OfSted records that what she said was false. This is easy to demonstrate. Misleading parliament, is, as far as I know, a contempt.

The person who could rule on that is the Speaker. It it were to be a contempt in the Speaker's view it is then it is probably up to parliament (the committee of priviledges?) to decide if indeed it is, and if so, what penalty should be imposed.

It seems to me a question worth asking.

Regarding Mr Gove's press release, well I think THAT was a contempt of the electorate! (and so not a matter for parliament, but for all of us)

David Barry's picture
Sun, 22/02/2015 - 19:42

(The Speaker could be asked whether or not on the facts presented there is a contempt of parliament.)


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 10:45

David - interesting point re contempt of Parliament. Could this accusation be made re Gove re deceiving the electorate? A DfE press release said Gove wrote in the Evening Standard:

'Patricia Sowter took over her first school, Cuckoo Hall, when it was in special measures and risked closure because it was so bad. Now it is one of England’s best, doing far better than the national average.'

This states clearly that Cuckoo Hall WAS in special measures when Sowter took over. But we know that isn't true. Not only that, but is is libel against the previous head, Mr R Allen.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 17:49

David - it appears 'Giving false evidence to a Committee, whether or not an oath had been administered, would be a contempt of the House.'

From: 'Select Committees: evidence and witnesses Standard Note: SN/PC/06208 Last updated: 29 January 2013' (can't provide a link - but Google should find it).

However, whether Sowter's evidence would be seen as a breach serious enough to take action is unclear. It's unlikely.


David Barry's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 18:55

Janet - thanks for doing this research which I am gratified to see confirms my opinion.
It really looks that there is an unaswerable case for saying a contempt occurred. Howver one can never be sure of these things until the relevant authority rules. Ehich in this case will either be the Speaker or at least he will know to whom to refer the matter if need be.

I also agree that there is most unlikely to be a substantive penalty, but the reason I think the application is worth it, is if it suceeds it establishes absolutely on the record that a falsehood was uttered. There could be no argument about that.

It would be a start towards getting SOME accountability back into the argument.

John Mountford's picture
Mon, 23/02/2015 - 22:17

David, I have followed this story from its origins with mounting incredulity. It is clear that contempt occurred on a scale that should shock the public. Not only is taxpayers money being used to fund the growing number of academies but the capacity of the DfE to monitor and police the expanding network properly is seriously questioned by parliament.

I went back to read the report of the Commons Select Committee - Schools oversight and intervention report published on 30 January this year.

http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-sele...

The report pulls no punches in describing the education department's 'weak oversight', 'gaps in knowledge of performance of individual schools' and its over-reliance on 'performance as measured by exam results and Ofsted inspections'.

"The Department has increased the autonomy of schools and oversight bodies. It has done so without an overall strategy, leading to confusion about the roles and responsibilities of the Department, the Agency, local authorities and academy sponsors, and allowing schools to fall through gaps in the system."

"The Rt Hon Margaret Hodge MP, Chair of the Committee of Public Accounts, (today) said:

“The Department for Education has focused on increasing schools’ autonomy but it has done so without a proper strategy for overseeing the system. Its light touch approach means that problems in some schools can go undetected until serious damage has been done."

"The Department does not know enough about the effectiveness of the sponsors who are supposed to improve schools through the Academies Programme."

At the end of the report, this is how Margaret Hodge sums up:

"We hope that the Department will respond to our recommendations fully in order to reduce the likelihood of further unforeseen school scandals,"

If all the Chairman of a Parliamentary Committee can do in the face of such damning evidence against a government department responsible for spending millions of pounds of public money is to HOPE the Department will respond to the recommendation, then something is broken and needs fixing pretty damn fast!!!

What hope is there for the reform of education under the present system of governance? Why is the official opposition ineffective in holding the government to account in the face of such obvious incompetency? How is it that the media is not pouncing on reports like this to increase public awareness and accountability? How can politicians of all parties, including 'good' lords like Michael Heseltine, sleep at night when they know they choose to misinform their constituents? HOW MUCH LONGER MUST WE ENDURE THIS CATALOGUE OF DECEIT AND THE BLATANT DENIAL THAT WRONGDOING IS RIFE?

This has to change and it can begin here -
www.ordinaryvoices.org.uk

David P's picture
Tue, 24/02/2015 - 21:08

The staff at the school need serious help. Bullying and harassment continue now that the suspensions have been overturned. They are untouchable with the support of a corrupt board and only action from government can stop this being a complete disaster for the children at the schools. It is clear that they are being forgotten in all of this while vendettas against ex and current members of staff are being pursued.


Guest's picture
Tue, 24/02/2015 - 23:06

It would appear that the named senior leaders at the academy could well be in breach of the following articles of the national standards for teachers:

Part Two: Personal and professional conduct
A teacher is expected to demonstrate consistently high standards of personal and
professional conduct. The following statements define the behaviour and attitudes which
set the required standard for conduct throughout a teacher’s career.

Teachers uphold public trust in the profession and maintain high standards of
ethics and behaviour, within and outside school, by:

having regard for the need to safeguard pupils’ well-being, in accordance
with statutory provisions

showing tolerance of and respect for the rights of others [whistleblowers?]

not undermining fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule
of law, individual liberty and mutual respect, and tolerance of those with
different faiths and beliefs [following prescribed regulations pertaining to the running of the academy]

ensuring that personal beliefs are not expressed in ways which exploit
pupils’ vulnerability or might lead them to break the law. [SATs, examples of financial irregularity etc]

Teachers must have proper and professional regard for the ethos, policies and
practices of the school in which they teach, and maintain high standards in their
own attendance and punctuality. [treatment of whistleblowers, bullying staff, SATs, financial procedures]

Teachers must have an understanding of, and always act within, the statutory
frameworks which set out their professional duties and responsibilities.

The different reports (e.g. EFA safeguarding, financial irregularities, bullying of staff) point to breaches of the national standards. That being the case, it strikes me that if a parent or other member of the public were to raise the matter with NCTL under the Teacher Misconduct framework, then, there is very likely to be a case to be answered.

https://www.gov.uk/teacher-misconduct-referring-a-case

https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/fil...

See more at: http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/02/efa-takes-action-at-high-p...

David Barry's picture
Tue, 24/02/2015 - 23:35

David P

As an outsider I can only suggest that people need to start to organise themselves.

Andry Efthymiou truly HAS been vindicated and as she has organised one public meeting already maybe she is a person who could act, perhaps with some others, as a rallying point. The NUT must also have concerns about their members.

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