When history is rewritten, school myths obscure the truth

Janet Downs's picture

Magna Academy in Poole, part of the Aspirations Academies Trust, has been transformed in just two years – that’s what the papers say:

‘…the academy, formally Ashdown Technology College…has gone from being in special measures to an outstanding Ofsted rating in less than two years…’ (Telegraph September 2015)

‘A turnaround Poole school now rated as Outstanding…two years ago the then Ashdown Technology College was in special measures’ (Bournemouth Echo, July 2015)

“It’s incredible the work that you and your staff have put in to turn a failing school into such a successful academy in just over a year – truly inspiring and an example for all schools.’ (David Cameron, quoted in Bournemouth Echo, January 2015)

The academy put this on its website to celebrate being judged Outstanding in June 2015:

‘This time two years ago Ashdown was still in special measures …That has all changed now, with Ofsted heaping praise on the Academy, describing it as outstanding in every area.’

Strictly speaking, Ashdown was in special measures two years before in June 2013. But what is missing from these eulogies is that Ofsted took Ashdown OUT of special measures in July 2013 and rated the school Good.

The school has improved dramatically since its previous inspection, as a result of strong leadership,’ Ofsted wrote.

The dramatic turnaround from Inadequate (2012) to Good in less than two years, then, didn’t take place after Aspirations took over Ashdown but before.

It isn’t the first time schools have claimed to have been turned around from special measures when it wasn’t the case (see here). It’s a disturbing trend.

Burlington Danes, a much-praised ARK academy, says on its website:

‘Placed in special measures in 2006 and made the first ARK academy the same year, the school has experienced a dramatic turnaround.’

A DfE case study described Burlington Danes as being the ‘first ARK school… previously in special measures…’ implying Burlington was Inadequate when ARK took it over.

But Burlington Danes wasn’t put in special measures in 2006 – the predecessor school, Burlington Danes Church of England School, came OUT of special measures and was judged Satisfactory in 2006 shortly before being taken over by ARK. This is what the 2006 inspection said:

When the school was inspected in May 2004, it was judged to require special measures. Following two years of renewal and focused effort by staff, governors, the local authority and the London Diocesan Board, the school is now providing a satisfactory and improving standard of education...’

It appears, then, ARK took a Satisfactory and improving school and turned it into Outstanding. Achievement enough, surely, without the need to rewrite history and imply the predecessor school was worse than it actually was.

But the most well-known and oft-quoted transformation isn’t a little-known academy in Dorset or even a better-known on in the ARK chain. It’s the myth of Mossbourne.

‘Mossbourne transformed the predecessor school - Hackney Downs School - from being one of the worst schools in the country to one of the best after it became an academy in 2004.’ (Department of Education press release December 2013).

There’s no doubt Mossbourne is a successful school but it didn’t transform an existing school. Hackney Downs did not become an academy. It would have been impossible. It was closed in 1995 and demolished. The only connection between Mossbourne and Hackney Downs is the site. And while it’s true the media dubbed Hackney Downs as ‘one of the worst schools’, it was allowed to fail (even encouraged, perhaps) due to lack of investment, a succession of temporary heads, inexperienced staff and an intake described by Ofsted as more akin to a special school.

The most disturbing aspect of these distortions of history is the way they are promoted by Government politicians from the Prime Minister downwards. And though it’s true that politicians aren’t regarded as trustworthy, schools should and must be. Rewriting the past, implying success was greater than it was, claiming transformations where there was none should have no place in an education system. If schools are viewed as being economical with the truth this could result in a profound loss of trust and respect.

NOTES. Ofsted reports are on Ofsted's website here except for Burlington Danes Church of England School in May 2006 and 2003 (not 2004 as Ofsted mistakenly said in its 2006 report quoted above). I have copies of these. Ofsted will provide them on request.

The Trustees' report for Aspirations Academies Trust said there were 'significant weaknesses' in teaching when it took over Ashdown in September 2013. But Ofsted, which judged Ashdown to be Good at the end of the summer term (July 2013) judged teaching to be Good. Inspectors said teaching had 'improved dramatically' and much teaching in a wide range of subjects was 'consistently good and sometimes outstanding'.

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