Parents rebuke Ofsted for failing to inspect St Olave’s pupil welfare
Parents of sixth-form pupils still suffering mental distress after being illegally kicked out of St Olave’s grammar school, have turned their anger on Ofsted, accusing school inspectors of failing to intervene despite multiple complaints for being dazzled by the school’s academic record.
The selective boys’ school in Orpington, south-east London, which achieves some of the highest A-level results in the country, was judged outstanding when Ofsted inspectors visited in 2014.
But parents accused the inspectorate of “failing to look under the bonnet” to find out what was going on beyond the results, and of ignoring their subsequent complaints.
A damning report commissioned by the local authority published on Tuesday found thatacademic prowess came at the cost of student welfare, with pupils ejected midway through their A-level studies if there were concerns that they would under-achieve in their final exams.
One mother, who felt the report did not go far enough, said her son had a breakdown, almost a year after he was told he was to lose his place at the school. “My son is still suffering from what they did. I’m frightened every time he leaves the house.”
The families have reacted with fury at attempts by the local authority to “draw a line” under events at the school, which hit the headlines last summer after a Guardian investigation into the illegal exclusions.
They are demanding a full apology and a number are considering legal action to recoup private school fees incurred after their sons were forced to leave midway through A-levels.
Others are hoping to retrieve voluntary monthly payments of £50 they made to the school because of its supposedly dire financial situation; the report has since revealed that this was not the case.
Andrew Gebbett, who has two sons at the school, said he was shocked by the scale of illegal practice revealed in the report. “Where were Ofsted in all of this? Many complaints were submitted to them over the years but they were ignored. Should they not be reviewing their procedures to ensure complaints can be escalated even if a school has been judged as outstanding, particularly when it concerns student welfare?”
There were also concerns that a school with an outstanding judgment might not be inspected for years – some have not been visited for more than 10 years – causing a lack of regular scrutiny.
One parent, Tony Wright-Jones, a former governor, accused the local authority, Bromley council, and the Department for Education of failing to address complaints received from parents, staff and former governors. “They were passed from pillar to post. No one took responsibility because this school was seen as the jewel in the crown – ‘there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with this school, look at the results’. ”
An Ofsted spokesperson said it would be inappropriate to comment about complaints received about individual schools. “All complaints about schools are reviewed and any concerns taken seriously. Parental complaints can lead to an immediate inspection. However, even where complaints are not serious enough to trigger an immediate inspection they are considered as part of our ongoing risk assessment and, importantly, as part of the next inspection.”
Parents have spent hours poring over the 150-page report, which reveals how the school’s leadership consistently misled them about the state of its finances, alleging that the school’s funding had been cut by up to a million pounds, while seeking to hide the truth of its considerable financial reserves by keeping the funds in different accounts and separately audited.
According to the investigator, the school’s leadership strove to give a pessimistic view of the school’s finances by forecasting future deficits that never appeared, and later had to be badgered by the local authority to explain why its surpluses were so high.
In 2012 the school claimed its local authority funding was being cut by £500,000, and encouraged parents to lobby the council in protest. That caused the council’s director of children’s services to reply that “the figure by which the St Olave’s budget stands to be reduced by the LA funding is £40,000 not £500,000,” and were due to national changes that the school was aware of. That did not deter the school from setting up a big fundraising drive aimed at parents, called Ensuring Excellence, which raised more than £500,000 in 2012 and 2013.
Despite their considerable donations parents were rarely given details about how the money was to be spent. One parent governor said “the head was constantly telling parents who were active in fundraising that it was their job to raise the money, not to tell him how it should be spent”.
Meanwhile, the cuts were used to justify closing a number of courses, including Spanish and drama, and hiring cheaper trainee teachers, while not replacing older, qualified, staff who had left. Staff reported an atmosphere where any requests for spending were turned down, so that buckets to catch leaks from the roofs were a common sight.
The school also received hundreds of thousands of pounds from its related charitable foundation. By the time of the resignation in 2017 Aydin Önaç, the headteacher – who said he did not know the exclusions were potentially illegal – the school’s accounts showed it had unrestricted reserves worth nearly £2m.
To keep up the appearances of “doom and gloom,” in the investigator’s words, the governors later decided to record the foundation’s contributions separately.
“Perhaps it was as simple as a fear that parents and charitable foundations would be less likely to give if they knew that the level of reserves was so high,” the investigator notes. By 2016, in a letter to parents, Önaç was claiming that the school had had £1m “slashed from an already tight budget” due to cuts.
Önaç wrote: “The school budget now depends on voluntary contributions from parents. We are not just talking about smallish items that may be on a departmental ‘wish list’. We are talking about five or six teachers whose employment depends on your contributions.
“I know of independent schools whose budgets are 10 times that of St Olave’s but whose prowess does not come anywhere near to ours. Some of you may have previously educated your child privately or considered private education had they not secured a place at St Olave’s. In such cases you would have been paying anything between £15,000 and £40,000 per annum.”
The local authority gave evidence to the inquiry showing that far from being cut by £1m, St Olave’s state funding actually increased by nearly £300,000.
The financial claims were also used to justify one of the most bizarre episodes recalled in the report, which show Onac’s grandiose plans to open private schools in China or in the UK for Chinese students.
For the plan Önaç and Alan Wooley, the school’s business manager, set up limited companies in their own names, and licensed the school’s intellectual property for use on education material and boarding schools, as well as entered a partnership called St Olave’s Management Services (China) Limited with two people not connected to the school.
Önaç visited China to explore possible partnerships, which the investigator concluded would be highly problematic for a state school. The “China project” as it was hailed was also kept away from consideration by many of the governors.
“There is no reference in the minutes of any full governing body meeting to the governors being asked to approve the setting up of any companies. Several governors remarked that the first they knew about it was when the story broke in the press,” the report states.
A DfE spokesperson said: “The law is clear that it is illegal for schools to exclude pupils based on academic ability. We reminded all secondary schools of this when we wrote to them in September following suggestions of illegal exclusions. We welcome this report from Bromley county council and will read it carefully.”