Fear and loathing in Enfield: The Cuckoo Hall story continues

David Barry's picture
 6
I happen to live near Crouch End; as usual on Thursdays I was there this morning as I teach an adult education class on Philosophy. And on Thursdays a local-ish free paper, The "Enfield Advertiser" is available from a tray outside Tesco's. Being a sucker for a bargain, I am in the habit of picking it up. And it does have some local news. Lately it has had a couple of news stories about Cuckoo Hall. Constant readers of this site will be aware that the Trust has featured on this site before. The Head, Patricia Sowter, has been much praised by Mr Gove. (In 2013 he said she runs schools "better than the local authority" and has a "luminous intelligence"). However Janet Downs of LSN has been less than convinced. These three postings by her give the flavour:

In which Cuckoo Hall is given as an example of a school found in breach of the Admissions code, and, in an aside, subject to an adverse ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority. This last issue being that the school was described falsely as being in "special measures" when Ms Sowter arrived and turned the school around. Could this be the age old game where a new appointee to an organisation is argued to have improved it greatly on the basis of falsely denigrating its performance before the new appointee arrived?

This was then followed by another posting, just over three months later suggesting that not all was going as well as might have been hoped: not only it would seem had the improvement not been, in reality as good as originally reported, the improvement there had been was not actually been sustained. But this was all the fault of staff. Not the Head.

Then, at the end of 2014 came this in which it was reported Patricia Sowter, "executive principal of Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust (CHAT) which has four free schools in Enfield," had been suspended while investigations began into claims of gross misconduct. The Head of Cuckoo Hall Primary Academy, Sharon Ahmet, and Ms Sowter’s husband, Phil Sowter, who is a CHAT trustee, had also been suspended. It was understood that the allegations related to concerns about irregularities in examinations.. The suspension was carried out by the Chair of Governors.

It was also reported in The Enfield Independent (Thursday 11 December 2014)

"Department of Education investigates Cuckoo Hall Academy after teacher suspensions

The Department of Education has launched an investigation into allegations of gross misconduct at a free school...."

and went on to write that Ms Sowter had been praised in the past by Michael Gove as a "Superhead" and then quoted the secretary of Enfield NUT thus:-

""I'm very pleased that the chairman of governors has shown such brave leadership in addressing these serious concerns and used their legal powers to suspend those accused, pending an investigation.

“Suspension is of course a neutral act and these are at this point only allegations so a proper and thorough investigation does need to take place before any conclusions can be reached as to what has gone on. I trust that the DfE and the Education Funding Agency will also fulfil their duties by assisting with any investigation."

Following the suspension of these three individuals the Chair is reported to have written to parents thus:-

" Ms Efthymiou (Chair of Governors) said the management team were working with the Department for Education, school inspectors Ofsted and Enfield council whilst the suspensions were in place."

A week later she announced one of the existing deputy headteachers, David Penkert, was covering the role of headteacher and was working closely with the other deputy, Phillip Pearce, and the senior management team “to ensure the normal smooth running of the academy.”

But then

"Parents were informed in a letter on Friday (19th December 2014) that the board of the Edmonton-based Cuckoo Hall Academies Trust had unanimously agreed that Andry Efthymiou would “no longer be involved” in the trust or any of its schools until the current investigation by the Department of Education into allegations of Gross misconduct is concluded."

In the letter... the trust board's interim chief (sic) Marino Charalambous said: “Despite recent difficulties, we all remain completely committed to providing the best possible education for your children across our five academies and will do everything we can to minimise any disruption caused.”

A spokesman for the Trust added: “The board will continue to assist the investigation until it is completed in the new year.”

It was also decided either at this meeting, or the next - it's not clear - to reinstate Ms Sowter's husband as a member of the Board.

This was followed by a further story on 15 January 2015

"Three (sic) senior teachers welcomed back to board of trustees at Cuckoo Hall Academy following suspension for "gross misconduct" last month."

The story describes how there was a "six hour" Board meeting by the end of which it was, it appears, "unanimously" concluded that the current chair, who had carried out the suspensions, (and was now suspended) be removed from the Chairmanship completely and from the Board and the people she had suspended be reinstated.

The Board made a statement:

"The board was entirely satisfied .. and concluded with a unanimous vote, that the evidence provided in support of the allegations did not support any charge of misconduct let alone gross misconduct.

The allegations will not therefore be the subject of disciplinary proceedings against either Patricia Sowter or Sharon Ahmet and both will be returning to work shortly.”

The Enfield Independent article includes the somewhat dry comment:

"The Department of Education is yet to publish its report into the allegations of gross misconduct and is continuing to investigate the trust. "

In short 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 is complete. Which, at time of writing, it still is not. 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, of course 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.

But it would seem that the sacked Chair is not prepared to go quietly.

The latest story in the press was in the paper I picked up today, Thursday, 12 February 2015 (edited clipping)

"A FORMER chairwoman of a board of trustees at a free school empire has called on parents to contact the Department for Education to demand publication of a government report into the running of the school.

Andry Efthymiou called a meeting on Saturday when parents and interested parties could discuss any queries they had regarding recent events at Cuckoo Hall Primary Academy, in Cuckoo Hall Lane, Edmonton...

Addressing the group, Ms Efthymiou said: “I have been a governor here for nearly 16 years. At the end of the day I am concerned about children’s education. I am not here to put anybody down. I want everybody to work together and get the school to where it should be.”

The Advertiser reported that the Board had responded to Ms Efthymiou's initiative (It was announced in the press) by writing a letter to parents, which indicated that parents could expose themselves to the threat of legal action if they attended.

The Advertiser wrote:

"one of the parents present showed this newspaper and others a photograph of a letter sent home with pupils at Cuckoo Hall Academy saying it was aware that despite being removed from the CHAT board Ms Efthymiou had contacted parents to arrange meetings.

The letter contained a warning that should parents attending view or photograph confidential documentation it alleged she had in her possession they would be acting unlawfully."

It also said

"“We are aware that Andry Efthymiou, whose time as chair of the board ended before Christmas following a unanimous vote by the board, staged a ‘meeting’ on Saturday with a reporter from the Enfield Advertiser and around half a dozen parents – a tiny proportion of the parents and carers of the more than 1,400 pupils at our five schools.

This is the latest failed attempt by the former chair to discredit the trust and the work we are doing to provide the highest quality of education to children in our community, who remain our absolute focus......

Responding to calls from parents over what had prompted the recent series of events, Ms Efthymiou urged the parents present to write and contact Andrew Fraser at Enfield Council and also to lobby Ofsted and the Department for Education as a collective group.

The Department for Education, which is responsible for the Education Funding Agency, has told the Advertiser on a number of occasions that its investigation is ongoing...."

And so, there the matter rests. For now.

Some thoughts that occur to me.

This tale is obviously full of particularities, many of which we do not know. But it does stand as an illustration of the very great authority and discretion vested in an Academy Trust Board. You will note that whatever the merits of the Chair's decision to suspend it was certainly taken with the knowledge of the Local Authority and the DfE. It would seem that it was also taken with the Local Authorities' advice.

However the Trust Board are free to act without reference to the Local Authority of the DfE and have done so. It is, of course impossible to say whether they are right or wrong in what they have done. We just do not have the information.

Finally, it does not look well to see parents threatened with legal action by a school.

POST SCRIPT by Janet Downs. David's article was written yesterday. It crossed with a Guardian article headed 'Academy Trust praised by Michael Gove put on final warning'. It refers to the DfE report mentioned by David above and which has now been published. I have not read the report yet and will post a thread shortly.
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Guest's picture
Sat, 14/02/2015 - 13:59

A visit to the academy’s website reveals that:

1. The statement on pupil premium (PP) and how it is spent warrants deeper scrutiny:

a.The document appears to indicate that PP is not being focused on those pupils that attract the funding. That is to say, it is being used to support all pupils’ not disadvantaged pupils’.
b.Approx. 20% (£65,000) is being used in a relatively unfocused way e.g. CG & SO, School Counsellor, EWO, Breakfast club)
c.The published attainment of PP pupils does not appear to be reflected in either the DFE performance tables (see http://www.education.gov.uk/cgi-bin/schools/performance/school.pl?urn=13...) or Ofsted Data dashboard, which make interesting reading/comparison ( see http://dashboard.ofsted.gov.uk/dash.php?urn=136284). RoL could make an interesting read on this regarding overall pupil progress.

2.The safeguarding policy is focused exclusively on keeping pupils safe and makes no reference to keeping staff safe. This is compounded by the fact that there is no reference on the site to a ‘whistleblowing policy’. The latter is a statutory requirement for all schools. Over recent months many schools have incorporated the latter within the former but based on the website - perused this afternoon - Cuckoo Hall appears not to have one.
3.Information on the curriculum does not appear to contain any reference to PSHE, SRE or Citizenship. This begs the question regarding teaching British Values and preparing children for life in a diverse multicultural nation.

Not exhaustive but perhaps give rise to sufficient topics to warrant an Ofsted visit; after all they ‘outstanding’ status was gained under the 2012 Section 5 regime which is somewhat different to the 2013/14 handbook.

What concerns me is that for a DFE investigation to order the academy to completely overhaul its safeguarding activities, the SoS Educ has not requested Ofsted to undertake either a section 8 or even full section 5 inspection. If any other state funded school was found not to meet the statutory requirements for safeguarding they would have be found to be inadequate and placed in Serious Weaknesses or Special Measures; in view of the questions involving the senior leadership I suspect special measures would have been more appropriate.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/02/2015 - 08:30

Thanks Guest. Three of CHAT's academies have been inspected since January 2013. One that hasn't is Heron Hall, the secondary free school which only opened in September 2013. It's due for inspection this academic year. The other, Enfield Heights, was inspected when it was with another academy trust, CfBT, and judged RI. It was taken over by CHAT in September 2014.

The three that were inspected are:

(a) Woodpecker Hall (January 2013, Good) and Kingfisher Hall (June 2014 Outstanding). Safeguarding met statutory requirements in both these schools.

(b) Cuckoo Hall (June 2014, downgraded to Good from Outstanding, report not published until November 2014 which raises the question, 'Why?'). Inspectors noted 'some administrative errors in safeguarding procedures require correction' and said the governors and head 'must ensure' these errors are put right. Inspectors noted 'substantial improvements were made to these procedures' which took place 'during the inspection'.

The Education Funding Agency report on Cuckoo Hall criticised safeguarding at the academy. It was alleged by whistleblowers that documents were changed after the first day of the Ofsted inspection in order to ensure the Single Central Register (SCR) showed Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks had all taken place before staff started work. The EFA found discrepancies between the SCR and payroll data which showed staff had started work before DBS checks had been received.

The EFA report is here. I will be posting about it shortly.


David Barry's picture
Mon, 16/02/2015 - 10:43

Clearly I submitted my post at the psychological moment. And my thanks to Janet for tidying it up from the original. Looking at the Guardian story I was struck by their quote from a report from the EFA:

“We noticed credit card statements in the name of staff that left several months ago, high credit limits and some credit card spend without supporting documents or inadequate supporting documents."

Surely this is very concerning as it amounts to public money being spent without evidence as to who was doing the spending, who was authorising the spending, or what the money was being spent on.

It gets worse:

“There was insufficient consideration of value for money involved when using credit cards – for example, there was a high amount of purchases from Ikea and high-end supermarkets.”

Well expenditure in IKE could be for office furniture, or the staff common room, but exactly how often (and how much) does a school in the ordinary course of events buy from high end supermarkets?

David Barry's picture
Mon, 16/02/2015 - 17:50

And Janet, as she promised to do, has now posted the next part of this story here:

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

David Barry's picture
Mon, 16/02/2015 - 18:45

And the local press coverage continues here:-

http://www.northlondon-today.co.uk/News.cfm?id=24563&headline=Report%20i...

Its an account of the report and the CHAT response to it.

David Barry's picture
Fri, 20/02/2015 - 15:53

I have written another post in what is turning into a series. It follows on directly from this one, but also assumes that you have read Janet's post about the EFA report.

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2015/02/cuckoo-hall-vindicated-or-...

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