Trust behind crisis-hit Hitchin primary school moves to provide answers

Significant concerns have been found regarding historical practice at Our Lady Catholic Primary Scho

Significant concerns have been found regarding historical practice at Our Lady Catholic Primary School in Hitchin. File photo. - Credit: Archant

The academy trust behind a crisis-hit Hitchin primary school has moved to clarify matters as parents demand answers.

The Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust has released a list of frequently asked questions and answers regarding Our Lady Catholic Primary School, where an investigation has uncovered “significant concerns” over assessment, testing and reporting of pupil progress in past years.

The academy trust has said the investigation came about after concerns were raised by Stevenage’s John Henry Newman School, among others, querying an apparent gulf between grades achieved by Our Lady pupils and their ability once they moved up for secondary education.

The trust and governors at the school are considering the full implications of the findings. Trust chair Kate Griffin has written to parents to say that “appropriate action has been taken, but for legal reasons, at this stage I cannot share the details with you”.

She said the trust expected the next stage of the process to be over by Easter, at which time she intended to hold a meeting with parents, supported by Our Lady headteacher Ciara Nicholson and chair of governors Neil Adams.

Sources have alleged to the Comet that the issues go beyond Our Lady and affect schools such as John Henry Newman – but the trust did not address these claims when asked by this paper.

There has been widespread confusion among parents of pupils at Our Lady, where the Comet understands several teachers have been suspended – something the academy trust has neither confirmed nor denied.

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One parent, who did not wish to be named, told the Comet: “We get a letter each week with the names of the supply teachers covering each year. Some children have had seven different teachers in a few weeks. We are in chaos at the moment and it is the young children who are suffering.”

Mrs Nicholson wrote to parents before half term to tell them three additional deputy headteachers were now working in the school, and that retired head Suzanne Summerhayes would be coming in three days a week to help.

In the letter, seen by the Comet, Mrs Nicholson wrote that at an assembly last month she had told the pupils their teachers were “working from home”.

She continued: “At this stage, many children are questioning where their teachers are. I suggest you explain in broad terms that your child’s teacher needs time away from school and that there are many adults remaining who can support them.”

She added that she had commissioned Herts County Council assessors to conduct a three-day exercise moderating assessments of every child at the school.

Sources have told the Comet that two Our Lady governors stepped down before half term. The academy trust has not confirmed or denied this.

Our Lady was last inspected by Ofsted in 2009, when it received ‘outstanding’ ratings across the board. Its latest key stage 2 results data, from 2017, shows it to be about average for reading and writing, and below average for maths.

Below are the FAQs and answers released by the Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust yesterday. They are unedited and as the Comet received them.

Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust

Our Lady School, Hitchin

Investigation into Historic Teacher Assessment and Pupil Testing

Frequently Asked Questions

The following FAQs have been prepared in order to provide further information and answers to specific concerns that have been raised.

Questions are grouped for ease of reference.

A Background

1. Who is responsible for the School?

Our Lady Catholic Primary School is part of the Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust,a high performing Catholic multi academy trust. The School belongs to the Westminster Diocese family of Catholic schools.

2. What is the role of the Trust Board?

The Board of Directors of the Diocese of Westminster Academy Trust is accountable for all decisions and actions of the Trust and its Schools. Any decision taken in respect of Our Lady School has been taken in the knowledge and understanding of the Trust Board. More details about the Trust are available on its website and those of the Schools.

3. What is the role of the Governing Body?

The Trust Board has delegated certain decision making responsibility to the “Local Governing Body” who oversee the day to day running of the School and provide support and challenge to the Headteacher. In most cases, communication with parents and carers will either be by the Headteacher or the Chair of the Governing Body.

4. What is the role of the Chair of the Governing Body?

The Chair is expected to provide leadership to the Governing Body and support to the Headteacher. The Chair has authority to initiate any investigation into any matter concerning the School and to support any external investigator appointed to carry out an independent investigation. The Chair of the Governing Body reports to the Trust Board and is answerable to the Chair of the Trust.

5. Who is in charge of the School?

The Headteacher, Ciara Nicholson, is responsible for the day to day running of the School.

B Safeguarding Teaching & Learning

1. How can you guarantee that my child’s education will not be impacted by this investigation and its findings?

The Trust, the Governing Body and the Headteacher have the safety, education and well being of pupils at the School as their highest priority. The Headteacher, Ciara Nicholson, has gone to great lengths to ensure that there is minimal disruption in School and to maintain a high standard of teaching, notwithstanding the continued absence of some staff. The School is also being supported by experienced teachers from other schools in the Trust. Mrs Nicholson has written to parents on a number of separate occasions and offered to meet with parents concerned about their child to provide reassurance and to confirm in detail the safeguards that have been put in place. Regular updates and any changes in the arrangements are also being shared with parents. These safeguards will remain in place as long as necessary.

2. Will the School be the subject of an Ofsted inspection?

It is not anticipated that Ofsted will be seeking to inspect the School following the investigation but in common with all Ofsted inspections now, if the School is inspected, it is anticipated that any notice period will be short. The School remains prepared to receive any inspector. The Trust and the School continue to liaise closely with the appropriate bodies.

3. Can you assure us that there will be no problems in future?

The School currently complies with all regulations and guidance concerning teacher assessments, reporting of pupil progress and the carrying out of statutory testing. Previous external reviews of Safeguarding and SEN in Spring 2017 have ensured the School is now meeting its statutory requirements in respect of those areas.

4. My child was a past pupil of the School, are they affected?

The investigation sought to look at historic practices and the pervading culture in the School at the time. No investigation has been undertaken to assess any specific pupil assessment or test.

5. I recently received a report informing me about my child’s progress. How can I be sure that my child’s predicted attainment levels are secure and their learning is on track?

The School strives to maintain the highest standards of teaching and learning. The Trust is confident that the measures being taken by Mrs Nicholson to safeguard teaching and to ensure the well-being of pupils will have a positive impact on the outcomes for our children.

C Investigation

1. What were the findings of the investigation?

The Trust appointed an external investigator to carry out an investigation into historic practices at the School, following concerns being raised about anomalies in pupil progress scores. The investigator examined the School’s records and interviewed relevant staff. Previous members of staff were also invited to speak with the investigator as were relevant individuals working at other schools. The investigator shared her findings with the Trust Chair and the Diocese of Westminster and appropriate action is being taken. The Trust has also undertaken a review of its Examination Protocol for statutory testing across all Trust schools and will be commissioning additional training for staff. The investigation found there had been wrongdoing in respect of teacher assessments, progress tracking and pupil testing. The Trust and the School are taking these matters very seriously.

2. Who undertook the investigation?

The decision to commission an investigation was taken by the Trust Board who delegated responsibility to the Trust Chair to appoint a suitably qualified and experienced investigator who had no previous dealings with the Trust or the School. The investigator was accompanied in meetings with staff by the Chair of the Governing Body, to provide context and practical support.

3. Why was the investigation commissioned now?

Following initial concerns being raised, an internal review was carried out by the Headteacher to establish if there was any substance to those concerns. This review led to the conclusion that a full external investigation would be needed to establish the facts of what may have transpired. The Trust acted swiftly given the seriousness of the concerns being raised and whilst every effort has been made to minimise any disruption, inevitably these matters take time.

4. When were concerns first raised?

Initial concerns were raised in the summer of 2017.

5. Is any further investigation likely?

No, not at this time.

6. Will the Trust be carrying out any investigations at other Trust schools?

The Trust has no plans to and is not aware of any circumstances which would give rise to a need for an investigation. The Trust takes all allegations of wrongdoing seriously and would investigate if any need arose.

7. Did the investigator conclude that any action should be taken in respect of governance?

This was outside of the remit of the investigator. The Trust expects all Governing Bodies to regularly review its effectiveness and learn from its own experiences and those of other schools in the Trust and the Diocese more widely. The Governing Body plays a crucial part in holding leadership to account and overseeing standards. In June 2017 an external review of Governance took place and the current Governing Body is fully aware of and is meeting all of the statutory requirements placed on Governors. The Trust fully supports the current Governing Body and the Headteacher in their leadership and management of the School and recognises this is a difficult time for all. The Trust expects the highest standards of integrity from both current and past Governors and staff. If any behaviour falls short of this, the Trust will take action.

D Staff

1. Have any School staff been suspended and/or disciplined? Why are some staff not in School?

In accordance with its normal policy and in recognition of the Trust’s duty of care to staff, the Trust provides no comment on any individual who is either currently or has been in the past a member of staff, nor will it comment on any action that might be taken in respect of a member of staff, which is properly a confidential matter. Parents seeking any reassurance about the arrangements for their child should make contact with the Headteacher. Parents and cares will be notified of any temporary or permanent changes to classroom teaching and any such changes will always be made with the view to maintaining the highest standards and to ensuring the needs and well-being of pupils is paramount.

E Ongoing Communication/Complaints

1. Does the Trust have a complaints policy?

Yes, this can be found on the Trust’s website and mirrors the approach taken by the Schools.

2. What will happen next?

A legal process is underway to address the findings of the investigation. This is a confidential matter and no details can be provided. The School will continue to provide updates and make the usual announcements. Parents and carers will be invited to a meeting to discuss their concerns. Any parent who has concerns about their child or is seeking any reassurances about arrangements for their child should contact the Headteacher, who will be happy to meet with them to discuss those concerns.

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