“Welcome to Colditz Academy” was The Times Magazine headline introducing a four page article praising the principal, Alison Colwell, for her hard-nosed approach to discipline which earned the school its nickname.
Ebbsfleet Academy, previously Swan Valley Community School, was anarchic before Colwell took over in 2012 alleges The Times. The long-serving and popular previous head, Nigel Jones, was, according to the paper, leading a school which was a bit too liberal – well-meaning but ineffective. Enter Cowell who joined the school in 2012 and two months later was appointed principal in a process which even the Times agrees “sounds as though…[it] lacked transparency”.
There followed a period of “intense turmoil” and “morale hit an all-time low”. Colwell cut the number of staff from 100 to 66*: two-thirds of the teaching assistants lost their jobs; Teach First graduates, in post for only a short time, were promoted; the school counsellor was sacked because s/he was “pandering” to the students who don’t need such molly-coddling but “a string of A and A* grades”.
Ebbsfleet Academy’s principal told The Times there had been “no focus on teaching and learning and attainment” at the predecessor school. But is this quite true?
In 2006 Ofsted inspectors saw problems in behaviour at Swan Valley but noted the head had established a new behaviour policy. Jones had “set about tackling the significant weaknesses in the school's situation with bold and ambitious plans which have been successful”.
Inspectors returned in 2009 and judged Swan Valley as Satisfactory. Inspectors said Jones was providing “dynamic leadership”; the school was “improving rapidly”; pupils made “better-than-expected” progress and staff endorsed the “headteacher’s drive to raise standards still further”.
A monitoring visit in 2011 found the behaviour system introduced at Swan Valley was bearing fruit – there was a “positive learning climate” with pupils “eager to learn”. Jones was “passionate about obtaining the best for his students”. Staff morale was “high”.
Was Ofsted fooled? Not just once but three times? But if inspectors were correct in 2006, 2009 and 2011, what caused the rapid deterioration in behaviour portrayed by The Times?
Kent Independent Education Advice (KIEA) describes the uncertainty caused by the protracted process of academization which he describes as a “debacle”. Nigel Jones had transformed the school after his appointment in 2003 when Swan Valley had a “shocking reputation”, KIEA said. But his efforts weren’t enough, apparently. KIEA reported allegations that the Acting Head was appointed while Jones was still head - he resigned with immediate effect in November 2012 despite being principal-designate of the proposed academy. This appointment, KIEA believed, would have undermined Jones and placed him in an intolerable position. The Times appears to confirm this. Colwell was appointed “at a clandestine meeting at a hotel bar just off the M20” and became head in October 2012.
When Jones left, Swan Valley governor David Mote said:
“I have no idea why he has gone, but he will [be] a very difficult act to replace. He was an exemplary character. I am absolutely gob-smacked he is going.”
KIEA, writing after the school had “disposed” of Jones, said Swan Valley’s requirement for parents to sign a home-school agreement as a requirement for admission was not legal. Such agreements are an excellent idea, KIEA wrote, but parents cannot be forced to sign them. This was an example of the “heavy-handed” approach adopted at the school, KIEA said, which had angered so many parents.
Ofsted** had praised Nigel Jones, the previous head, on three separate occasions over five years. But his contribution to Swan Valley was ignored by The Times – instead it implied the school was rotten and could only be saved by rapidly-promoted Teach Firsters and a ruthless principal appointed in unusual circumstances.
This, The Times said, was the legacy of Michael Gove.
NOTES: Number of pupils on roll has fallen from 635 in October 2013 when Swan Valley was closed to 565 in 2014 (Edubase). The number entering Year 7 in September 2013 was 82, 33 fewer than in September 2012 when 121 pupils began (Edubase).
Swan Valley's prospectus for 2008/9 is available here. This shows the school already had a uniform policy which it expected pupil to follow. The school's "moral statement" was "We aim to develop an orderly environment, based upon mutual respect, where students and teachers can learn and make progress together."
*Oddly, school performance tables don’t bear this out: in 2011 there were 90 staff (teachers, TAs and support). In December 2013 staff numbers were still 90.
**Ofsted reports for Swan Valley Community School can be downloaded here.
CORRECTION: The original article gave the head's name as Cowell. It should have been Colwell.