DfE distances itself from withdrawn tweet re “underperforming” teachers but still links to DT article about “hostile” unions

Janet Downs's picture

“Many teachers were chronically under-performing. So we developed those teachers who wanted to improve via @Telegraph fw.to/UsBP1Dm”

Department for Education (DfE) tweet 21 February, withdrawn but available here.

“To clarify, the former tweet is not our position. It’s the position of the executive principal of Farnley Academy: ow.ly/tRLTh”

DfE tweet 21 February

So, what’s behind these two tweets and why is the DfE so keen to link to a Telegraph article about a school in Leeds?

Farnley Academy was judged Outstanding* in December 2013. Its executive principal, John Townsley, claimed he was only able to turn the school from inadequate to outstanding because he took on the unions.

Wonderful news for the Telegraph’s education editor who used Townsley’s article, in which he claimed that Farnley’s Outstanding Ofsted vindicated the Coalition’s education policies, to write about how education reform is being held up by “hostile teachers”.

The implication was that Farnley Academy’s predecessor school, Farnley Park, was Inadequate when Townsley arrived and he had to take drastic action immediately. This impression was confirmed on Radio 4’s Today programme** yesterday when Townsley said he’d experienced hostility from teaching unions since Day One.

But Farnley Park wasn’t Inadequate when Townsley arrived – Ofsted said it required significant improvement two terms after Townsley had become its executive head.

Farnley Park had been judged Satisfactory in 2006. A monitoring report in 2008 said the school had made good progress to improve teaching quality. The proportion of good or better teaching had increased “considerably”.

In 2009, Farnley joined a Federation with Morley High School. Its head, John Townsley, became executive head of Farnley. Farnley’s headteacher, Dr Pullen, had died after a short illness a few weeks before. It must have been difficult for Townsley, taking over a school shortly after the death of a popular head.

When Ofsted* visited Farnley Park in April 2010, inspectors said the school required significant improvement. Despite the Inadequate judgement, however, inspectors praised Townsley for identifying weaknesses, targeting support and putting in place appropriate systems and personnel. Staff shared a “sense” that things were getting better, Ofsted wrote, and staff morale was improving.

Ofsted made no mention of staff difficulties in April 2010 – the opposite appeared to be the case. Yet staff went on strike in July 2010 claiming Townsley was bullying them. In June 2011, a former PE teacher at Townsley’s other school, Morley High School, won the right to claim compensation when a court ruled she had been the victim of a “deliberate campaign to persuade her to give up her job”. She claimed she had been put on Townsley’s “hit list”.

Townsley asserts in the Telegraph it was only because he stood up to unions that he was able to ensure Farnley became Outstanding. And he claims that it’s only by becoming an academy and grabbing “freedom” that schools will improve.

But also on Today was Mary Sparrow, head of Wexham School, a local authority maintained secondary school in Slough. Her school was upgraded from Satisfactory to Good in September 2013. She described teacher unions as being “very supportive” – any staffing issues were dealt with in partnership through professional dialogue. Ofsted praised her for leading by example and attributed the rapid improvements in teaching and achievement to her strong leadership.

So it's possible to improve a school without treating unions as the enemy.

This isn’t to detract from the good work going on at Farnley Academy. Townsley writes about how Farnley’s teachers innovate, analyse, collaborate, share good ideas and mark work quickly so it can be used to plan future lessons and personalise teaching. This is excellent practice.

These, Townsley says, are “the fundamental characteristics of a high-performing academy.”

No. They are the fundamental characteristics of a good school.

It’s a pity a school’s pride in being judged Outstanding has been turned into a puff for the Government’s education reforms and sponsored academies.

ADDENDUM Henry Stewart’s analysis shows pupils in sponsored academies are less likely to take Gove’s preferred EBacc subjects than pupils in similar non-academies and are more likely to take equivalent exams.

*citing Ofsted judgements does not imply agreement

**The Radio 4 Today interview is available here for 6 more days. It starts at 1.11:39.

AMENDMENT: The original sentence 'Ofsted said it required improvement two terms after Townsley had become its executive head' was amended to read 'Ofsted said it required significant improvement two terms after Townsley had become its executive head.'  This was to clear up confusion between the Ofsted grade 'requires improvement' and the Inadequate judgement. 

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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 23/02/2014 - 13:53

UPDATE The Farnley story also appears in the following papers:

"Hostile teachers promote mediocrity says Head": The Times.

"Top marks for 'flop' school after head's war on union militants": The Sun

Conservative Home linked to The Sun's story.

I haven't noticed any headlines summarising Mary Sparrow's comments on Today such as:

"Head turned round school with help from unions."


"Unions very supportive, says head of improving school".

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 24/02/2014 - 14:39

IS it possible that MAry Sparrow had Union Reps in her staff who were well- informed and pragmatic and welcomed effective and equitable mediation and negotiation? Is it possible that John Townsley had representatives from the same Union who thrived on the " help help we're being oppressed " mindset and spreading dissent , truculence and reactivity throughout other staff.
Surely it's all down to spin and personalities not to mention the politics of the Union representatives in the end.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 25/02/2014 - 09:24

Rosie - Mary Sparrow made that point on Radio 4 - it's down to personalities. However, it's odd that Ofsted didn't pick up staff difficulties at Farnley in April 2010. Inspectors said staff morale was improving. It wasn't until after the Inadequate ruling in April 2010 that relationships between the head and his staff deteriorated.

It should be remembered that a former teacher at one of John Townsley's schools won the right to claim compensation after being subject to a campaign to make her leave her job. And the Farnley strike was supported by members of the ATL, a moderate union, not the usual suspects NASUWT/NUT.

However, you're right about spin - the spin (two stories in the Telegraph, one in the Times, one in the Sun linked by Conservative Home; the Telegraph story being repeated on other websites) is all about "hostile teachers" and "union militants". No one as far as I'm aware have published Mary Sparrow's alternative viewpoint.

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