Westminster free school requires improvement

Janet Downs's picture
CET Primary School Westminster, a free school run by Constable Educational Trust, was judged “Requires Improvement” in all four categories by Ofsted last month.

Leaders and governors had an “over-rosy” view of the school, inspectors wrote. They said lessons were “planned thoroughly” but insufficient attention was given to ensure they were sufficiently challenging. The school, which received £375,034* in post-opening funding and which is currently being funded for 112 pupils when the school census shows it had 84** pupils on roll, did not have enough good quality reading books, classrooms were untidy and cluttered, and teachers overused worksheets which were stuffed into “scruffy” books.

Concerns had been expressed in Parliament last November about an unnamed school which was later revealed to be CET Westminster. Dr John Pugh MP had read out an email from a parent who complained about an apparent lack of knowledge of statutory responsibilities by the school’s trustees. The email described a parents’ forum at the school which had descended into chaos with the trustees unable to cope. However, inspectors found parents were supportive of the school and said governors ensured statutory duties such as safeguarding were met.

Dr Pugh had used the email to highlight the frustration felt by parents who found complaining about free schools difficult because they were not under the stewardship of local authorities.

Inspectors found the executive head and the deputy had started work in September 2013 at a time when most of the staff were also new. It appears, then, the head appointed in September 2012 when the school opened has already left. This appears to be becoming a pattern in free schools: Thomas Packer, West London Free School, was head for just four terms before becoming Education Director of West London Free School Trust. He left the Trust on 31 August 2013. Lee Faith, the head of Greenwich Free School left after just one year. Andrew Cutts-McKay left Al-Madinah after threats were made against him – he blew the whistle on school which was later judged by inspectors to be “dysfunctional”. Sherry Zand left IES Breckland at the start of her second year. The principal of Krishna-Avanti Free School left after six terms. Hadlow Rural Community School, a free school which opened in September 2013, placed an advert in TES on 6 December for a head to start in April 2014 in TES. It’s unclear what happened to Steve Davies who was head when the school opened. And Annaliese Briggs left Pimlico Free School when the school had only been opened for a few weeks.

The chairman of CET Primary Schools left a message on West End Extra website on 14 February, the day the Ofsted report was published. He said “I believe that any fair appraisal of the education, business and professional experience of our board would conclude that it is impressive.”

But Ofsted doesn’t appear to have been impressed with the governance: it has recommended an external review to find out how it could be improved.

*Spreadsheet showing pre- and post-opening costs for first- and second-wave free schools found by Google search but I’m unable to provide a link.

**The chair of governors says there are 94 pupils on roll.

Note: citing Ofsted judgements does not imply agreement.
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 11:14

Ofsted also noted the CET Westminster uses associate teachers. These are people, often graduates, who teach but are not required to have any knowledge of curriculum development or delivery. They don't often prepare their own materials and often teach from packs (see info below).


David Barry's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 11:27

Do the rules allow the posting of the entry from Hansard regarding Dr Pugh's account of the email about a Free School? I have the text and could post it easily.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 11:31

David - Dr Pugh's statement is linked in the thread. However, there's no reason why you shouldn't post it here - it's on public record.

johnebolt's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 13:13

The reference to associate teachers in the Ofsted report should I think be taken to mean the normal teaching assistants. The link to the excellence gateway article is about the FE sector and doesn't apply to schools. There isn't evidence that teachers are not fully qualified - tho' it would seem a significant number are inexperienced.

None of which takes away from the fact that this is another free school not hacking it.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 14:59

I see it as referenced rather than linked, maybe I am missing it but I will go ahead and post it anyway, as I do think it makes an interesting read.

David Barry's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 15:02

Extract from Hansard.(19 Nov 2013 : Column 265WH) Dr Pugh is speaking.

On the positive side, the argument for free schools is that they are set up by parental demand. That partly explains the good results. The biggest factor correlating with educational success is parental support. Enthusiastic parents produce enthusiastic kids, who get good results. We should not be surprised if free schools achieve marginal educational improvements. The key selling point for the Government has always been that free schools are innovative and diverse, in a way that state schools seem not to be expected to be.

I wonder whether, twenty years on, a free school will have settled down to a clear recipe that it understands, and will be producing clear results that it understands. Even if that does not happen, why should not the innovation and flexibility that free schools are given be on the menu for all schools? If they are good things, they should be given to schools regardless of their structure or character—to LEA schools as well as free schools.

The LEA’s role is extraordinarily helpful, and has been mentioned by the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson). It does not spend most of its time interfering with schools and telling them exactly how and what to teach; we can safely allow the Secretary of State and Ofsted to do that. By and large, its job is to advise, support and co-ordinate, and to step in when difficulties arise. That brings me to my main point.

By serendipity—it is a fine thing—I was contacted a few days ago, not knowing that the hon. Member for Gateshead would suggest this debate in such a timely way, by someone who had a problem with a free school. I shall not name the school, except to say that it is not in my constituency; it is a lot nearer to where we are today than to my constituency. However, the problem that is described tells us something about what is wrong with governance in free schools, and about what may be going wrong with the experiment. It results from some straightforward playground bullying, and parents getting involved, as they often do, in defence of their child—both the bully and the one being bullied. The issue spiralled alarmingly, because after a while parents became aggressive towards one another.

My e-mail came from a mother, who sent her child to a free school because she believed that such a school was a wholly good idea—she had no problem with that—and because she had had difficulty getting her child into other schools in the area:

“It was reported to us that at the Parents Forum Meeting…parents not present when the assault took place were openly discussing the incident”—

between two parents and two children—

“whilst the representatives of the school sat and said nothing. The Parents Forum Meeting then descended into chaos. A small number of aggressive parents hijacked the meeting and began shouting and yelling…Eventually the Chairman asked one of the most aggressive and disruptive parents to leave”

but that parent refused. The e-mail says:

19 Nov 2013 : Column 266WH

“The Chairman, Head Teacher and Deputy Head, were speechless in their shock”

and did nothing to try to change events. Parents

“apparently left the meeting in distress, whilst others felt for their safety. The meeting was…abandoned. The Chairman has also since told me that the only reason he was chairing the meeting…was because no one else would do it, that he’d had to cancel a dental appointment to be able to attend and that after what happened he really wished he’d gone to the dentist.”

Subsequently, the parent who contacted me spoke to the deputy head.

“He had no words. He was completely speechless and could not give me any guidance or assurance that the school had the matter under control.”

My correspondent tells me

“We feel that this situation should never have been allowed to get to this point and believe it has, simply because some parents have been allowed to feel for far too long, that they are in charge and that the school answers to them. This I feel is partly because Free Schools appear to request parental involvement in the way the school is guided, and the schools appear not to be adequately equipped to deal with situations when they become difficult, and have”—

this is a key point—

“no higher level of management to turn to for support, other than perhaps their own boards of trustees who, in this case, appear not to be professionally experienced in the education sector.”

The e-mail continues:

“I am unsure whether or not the school were aware of their legal footing, but I do know that a number of parents, including myself, sent them links and documents to various websites including the Department of Education guidelines with regards to bullying outside of school, and how to manage anti social parents behaviour. They seemed uninterested in this and told me that they had consulted a lawyer and there was nothing more they could do with regards the aggressive and intimidating behaviour of parents.

What struck me as most concerning was that the management of the school appeared to have no idea as to their legal rights, or what they could or could not do to address the situation. The Head Teacher appeared to need to consult the Chairman of the school trust for guidance and in turn the chairman had to seek independent legal advice on what action he could tell the Head Teacher to take.”

The writer—someone who chose to send her child to a free school—concludes:

“We feel that our children have become part of a wider social experiment; new schools are clearly needed but why largely rely on people with little or no experience of running schools to set them up and manage them? We now believe this is a dangerous experiment...Free schools are a tempting option when so many state schools are either over subscribed or failing to offer a decent level of education. It is apparent that no guidance is being given by the State, nor is anyone monitoring what is going on”.

Nia Griffith: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the whole point of local authority intervention was that it could so often help the inexperienced head teacher or governing body, and pre-empt that type of situation? His correspondent has pinpointed the complete lack of anyone to turn to when things get difficult.

John Pugh: The hon. Lady is spot on. I have another, briefer e-mail from another parent at the same school, about the children’s day-to-day circumstances. The school is in an office block.

Mr James Gray (in the Chair): Order. “Erskine May” makes it plain that hon. Members should not use extensive quotations from documents in speeches, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman would summarise the e-mail rather than reading it out.

19 Nov 2013 : Column 267WH

John Pugh: Certainly, Mr Gray. The parent contacted the New Schools Network and the Department for Education à propos the children’s circumstances—the lack of play space, and so on. She got no advice that was of any use to her, and what she says complements and adds to the points of the previous correspondent. I apologise, Mr Gray, for reading out that e-mail so fully, but it is important to say that those are not my sentiments, but those of someone who had a child at a free school, but who had to withdraw them.

Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): The hon. Gentleman gave a litany of complaints, and it sounded like an extreme instance. How extreme does he think it was? Does he think it may have been replicated elsewhere?

John Pugh: I simply do not know, but I agree with the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) that if there are extreme cases it is not obvious how they are to be dealt with. It is obvious that there is not the institutional back-up to assist with difficulties whether they are extreme or not.

There is a solution. It would be possible to set up a local body to advise and support such schools to set standards and possibly provide some democratic accountability: we could call it an LEA.

Hansard 19 Nov 2013 : Column 265WH

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 15:18

johnebolt - the CET website makes it clear it's recruiting graduates to become "teaching associates". The job description is more than would normally be expected from classroom assistants.


The Guardian had an advert for teaching associate vacancies (now expired) at CET primary schools in Westminster and Tower Hamlets. The pay offered was £20,000 pa.


This is £7,000 less than the pay for a qualified teacher at scale 1 in London.


There's nothing necessarily wrong with using teaching associates (or associate teachers) if their numbers are in proportion to the number of qualified and experienced teachers to supervise them. It could be a way into teaching. Concerns arise, however, if the number of associate teachers equals or exceeds the number of qualified and experienced teachers or if there's any suspicion they're being used to save money.

Chris Manners's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 16:59

Thanks for the full text, David.

I note the parent whistleblower said that she'd had problems getting her kid into other schools.
The conduct of some parents sounds pretty awful. I wonder if the school might have been forced to take some kids who other free schools would avoid?

David Barry's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 17:58

The full coverage from West End Extra is interesting, find it here:-


Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 18:32

This just confirms that there are no limits to the ignorance of MPs when it comes to education and how to run schools.

Also the idea that anybody can open and run a school without the necessary knowledge, experience and professional ability has always been ridiculous. That the government is willing to support such ventures with £millions of taxpayers' money beggars belief and tells us a lot including the very low regard the government must have for the experienced teachers and headteachers of state schools in which this kind of chaos and disfunctionality is unimaginable.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 20:54

I'm going to make a sweeping judgement and comment parents who have paid £35 for their receptions childs blazer, are unlikely to have much resilience when faced with rowdy parent behaviour in the playground.
Is the parent who is so articulately, not to mention successfully, lobbying MP's to highlight their concerns ,being objective ;or are they merely disturbed that the free school , that they expected to meet their quasi-prep school expectations, is falling so far below the mark ?

Chris Manners comment inadvertently suggests that there are some parent snobs in action decrying the behaviour of volatile parents as somehow being the fault of the school?
And is the school being criticised by Ofsted because they are letting the "free school" agenda down by failing to pander to the middle class parents?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 18/02/2014 - 21:14

cont...the school is nearly 60% free school meals, highly unusual in England (less than 1% of primaries) and virtually unheard of for a free school; at the time of the incident in the playground the school appears to have had just 3 teachers including the head teacher.
Staff in schools of this context need comprehensive skills in collaborating on safeguarding, child protection, differentiation to serve a huge range in age related expectations, behaviour management ( both pupils and parents) and just general amazingness. If the school doesn't have enough experienced staff with time to mentor new teachers and assistants towards this level of expertise then catastrophe looms.

I imagine a few disgruntled parents, upset that this new school isn't Westminster's answer to the West london free school, would just be the icing on the cake for the headteacher.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 07:57

Rosie - it's unwise to try and guess the motivation of the parents who complained.

That said, you are correct that schools need sufficient qualified and experienced staff who have the skills to manage pupils and monitor/mentor less experienced colleagues.

Where did you get the free school data from? Ofsted only says the proportion eligible for pupil premium is well above average. CET Westminster's data is not available in the DfE school performance tables. However, the figures show that all state primaries in Westminster exceed the national average (31%). Westminster Primary has the highest proportion (76%); the lowest proportion St Matthew's VA with 45%.


agov's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 11:02

The Ofsted report says

"The governing body is a small group of highly skilled members who bring with them a range of experience."

Just the sort of thing I thought Gove and Wilshaw wanted. Let me guess - business types who thought they knew what governors should be doing so didn't get around to being aware of the full range of demands upon governors?

Can only guess as I couldn't find any mention of them on the school's website.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 13:35

agov - see link below for governors. They include Dr Sheila Lawlor, founder of Politeia which, according to ex schools minister Nick Gibb, has "been and remain hugely influential in steering public policy debate gently in a right of centre direction, particularly in social policy areas such as education."

As far as I can tell, only one of the governors has experience of teaching in the English state education system: George Donaldson, retired deputy head of Latymer Grammar School, a selective school in Edmonton.



Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 15:45

Janet, I don't, think that reading between the lines is guessing. What I,m trying to point out that criticism of a free school shouldn't be assumed to be valid simply because it serves a forum's overriding political purpose. The aggrieved parent cites that their children are ' part of a social experiment' clearly indicating a dissatisfaction with their child's peer group ( I think you'll agree free schools have never been referred to as a "social experiment' before). The parent referred to ' speechless governors and staff at the meeting'. In my experience being rendered speechless is due to shock and disbelief causing an inability to articulate a diplomatic answer I.e you know what you would like to say but you know you'll be censured for saying it.
With no details of the agenda for the parents forum it is conjecture but my analysis of disgruntled middle class parents unhappy with the, to them unexpected and unwanted, school context fits very well .

Schools of this context need a close and constant relationship with children's services and a headteacher and staff unused to the extreme context are likely to come a safeguarding cropper.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 15:51

Janet... If you look up Cet primary school Westminster you will find it in the performance tables

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 17:15

Thanks. There's an odd thing. When I checked this morning I got to a table which bears no relation to the one I've just checked (link below). And the link I gave doesn't work now.

However, I've had a look at the Westminster spreadsheet and it says there's no data for CET primary Westminster under cohort info re disadvantaged pupils. However, if you look at the school's individual page the info is there ( didn't check that this morning).

So why isn't it in the spreadsheet?

I notice that the LA average is 60% so CET primary has the average for the area. The highest proportion is 85% at Hallfield Primary and not at the school I mentioned this morning.


Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/02/2014 - 17:17

Rosie - I didn't quote the complaint because it suited this "forum's overriding political purpose". I actually made it clear that Ofsted did not uphold the complaint about safeguarding.

agov's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 12:37

Thanks Janet.

Don't know how I could have missed that.

Seems to demonstrate the point though. Wonderful Gove/Wilshaw idea to have tiny GB full of really wonderful people but then find they have difficulty coping even with a difficult parents meeting (not to mention the other things concerning Ofsted). My HT would have easily sorted it out even without governor assistance and we would normally have two or three governors at a parents forum as well as staff).

agov's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 12:50

"free schools have never been referred to as a “social experiment’ before "

Not entirely true Rosie. (Google is your friend.) I've seen it said fairly often albeit not necessarily by anyone famous or important. Tristram Hunt has referred to it as a 'dangerous ideological experiment', presumably on one of the days when he wasn't praising it.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 14:40


I think the " cohort data" in the DoE PErformance Tables refers to the Year 6 e.g the % of low, middle and high attainers are those in the SATS cohort.

The new primary won't do SATS KS2 for 5 years yet so the table isn't populated. .The Whole school FSM is on the school's indivdual page but is also on the " School Characteristics" tab.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/02/2014 - 15:15

Rosie - thanks, that explains it. The info I found was just for the Y6 cohort and CET Westminster had no pupils in the 2012/13 cohort. That rather obvious point didn't occur to me. Duh.

Chris Manners's picture
Fri, 28/02/2014 - 19:26

I didn't suggest there were "parent snobs" in action.
I said it sounded like there were some less than well-behaved parents who other parents found intimidating.
Central London generally has very good schools. This school isnt' full.
I inferred that it might have had to take a few kids whose parents it would wish to avoid.

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