Michaela School meeting raises odd questions

Janet Downs's picture
Do schools swap badly-behaved pupils for a day? And can Mr Gove appoint free school heads? These are just two of the many questions raised at a meeting on 18 July about the proposed Michaela School in Lambeth, but they may have been the oddest.

Ms Birbalsingh, proposer of the free school, claimed that schools routinely swap badly-behaved pupils for a day rather than excluding them. None of the teachers present had any knowledge of the practice (but to be fair there were only about 25 people at the meeting according to Lurker who observed proceedings). Is this practice really widespread?

The second question revealed a lack of understanding of how free schools appoint staff. Ms Birbalsingh responded to a question about free school freedoms. The exchange was recorded as follows:

KB: “I may not be the head of this school. It is proposed that I might be. It all depends on the Department for Education.'

Anna Tapsell: 'Can I ask whether it is the Department For Education that appoint the head?'

KB: 'From what I understand.'”

I thought the proposers of the school recruited, interviewed and appointed the staff, but Ms Birbalsingh seems to think the headship is in the gift of Mr Gove.

Ms Birbalsingh also seemed to be ignorant of the Extended Schools initiative established by the last government which allowed any school to extend their school day. Ms B maintains that only free schools and academies can do this, yet Extended Schools claims that 98% of schools offer this service.
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Vanessa Lizzy's picture
Sat, 06/08/2011 - 20:41

Some schools do swap badly behaved students for the day or more rather than exclude them. This sometimes happens during inspections etc. These are usually schools locally to each other.

As I recall, Ms Birbalsingh was Deputy Headteacher only for one term so automatic appointment to headteacher without the necessary experience would be a challenge.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 06/08/2011 - 22:24

For me the key issue is one of transparency for academies and free schools: there is no obligation upon these schools to be transparent about both the appointment of staff or exclusions. This is something we are campaigning to change.

Peter Smith's picture
Sun, 07/08/2011 - 06:52

I have never heard of schools swapping students for a day. What schools do organise are "managed moves" which last one or two terms or more. These continue the child's education but in an environment away from their original problems.

Vanessa Lizzy says that after only one term as a deputy Miss Birbalsingh is lacking experience. But "one term" would be over-generous as she completed only about 5 weeks in this role.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 07/08/2011 - 07:56

The Policy Exchange recently did exhaustive research into exclusions. Although I don’t agree with some of its conclusions (allowing academy chains to take over pupil referral units, for example) it did undertake a thorough examination of exclusions and alternatives over a few years. In its wide-ranging summary of alternatives to exclusions it did not mention a system of ad hoc, short-term “swaps” between schools. The only time “swapping” was mentioned was when the report discussed “managed moves”. These are not the same as sending a badly-behaved pupil to another school willing to manage the child for a day or two. It’s difficult to understand how this arrangement could satisfy the need for adequate provision for an excluded pupil if the child is shifted on such a casual basis. In any case, such a “swap” would seem to infringe the requirements that parents should be informed by letter about fixed term exclusions and that such pupils should remain at home and not be in a public place.

If such "swaps" do exist, these would not seem to be one of the approved substitutes for exclusion, of the Policy Exchange document would have discussed them as a possible suitable alternative.



Rosemary Mann's picture
Sun, 07/08/2011 - 10:15

I still fail to understand how and why some people involved in setting up free schools think they can just roll up at the door and everything will fall into place. You do need some modicum of skill and experience to run a school and to run it successfully. As a governor I know something about what goes into doing so ( I seem to have been a governor longer than Ms B has been in school management) and as a parent of a pre schooler I have some awareness of the concerns of parents for their childrens schooling. It would take an awful lot to make me want to jump ship from a local authority supported school into the unknown- you really do not want to experiment with your childs education like that. Yes there may well be something better out there but a new school of any kind will always have teething problems and combined with incredibly high set of expectations there is scope for a great deal of difficulty ahead. As a mature student I embarked on a postgrad course which was new and formed from the merger of two departments from two universities. The transition was poorly managed and the teaching and course structure shambolic. I was self financing and very disappointed by some of the rows and disagreements in respect of what the department was trying to achieve. It was a real lesson for me that the value of a stable learning environment even if less than perfect cannot be overestimated.

I find the whole free school initiative completely weird I have to say. I think people are seduced by the shiny and new and are losing sight of the value of the solid and the reliable. In practice, there is probably little that is 'new' in how children are taught, are disciplined, and how they learn.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 08/08/2011 - 14:59

If a school sends pupils to a nearby school for a day on an informal basis, then it could be breaking the law. The DfE makes this quite clear:

“Our latest exclusions guidance gives an unequivocal message that unofficial exclusions are illegal and should not take place.”


The DfE advises that head teachers contact parents/carers immediately if a child is to be excluded, by telephone if possible, and arrange for the child to be collected if appropriate. There is no provision in the fixed term exclusion flowchart for sending a child to another school:


Lambeth’s School Exclusions Scrutiny Commission (April 2010) stressed the illegality of informal exclusions and reminded Heads that all exclusions, however, short should be recorded.


So, if this ad-hoc arrangement is widespread in Lambeth, and Ms B named some schools, then there should be written evidence. Collaboration between schools, however, is only legitimate once exclusion has taken place. If it happens before formal exclusion proceedings then, again, it would appear to be breaking the law.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 08/08/2011 - 15:58

Dr Rob Higham has researched free school proposers and discovered that almost a quarter of proposals are from teachers of middle-rank who aspire to become the head of the school. This, he claimed, would be a rapid promotion.


This again raises the question of whether free school proposers should be able to appoint one of the team of proposers to be a head over other suitable candidates, and whether this goes against advice from the National College for School Leadership about transparency and fairness.


There is nothing on the DfE website about the DfE or Mr Gove being able to appoint headteachers. The information states that in Local Authority schools the head is employed by the LA who must have a representative present during interviews, and in schools not controlled by the LA, then the responsibility for recruitment is with the Governing Body. If proposers of a free school are also members of its Governing Body, then is it fair and open to appoint one of the school's Governors to be the head teacher?

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