Zero tolerance policy, backed by Gove, turns Colditz Academy around, says Times, but was the previous school really as bad as claimed?

Janet Downs's picture

“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.

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Sarah's picture
Mon, 28/07/2014 - 15:25

This appears to be part of a new narrative being peddled by DfE that Academies and Free Schools have better behaved pupils. An article with that title appeared in the Telegraph yesterday
There is no reference back to a specific report and it left me wondering whether this was yet another example of cherry-picked statistics being used by DfE for political ends. Specifically I wondered whether the comparison had been between all academies (the majority of which are converters which were already good or outstanding so likely to be sitting on strong judgements around behaviour) and maintained schools in general. Perhaps an FOI to ask for the data used to arrive at this judgement would be illuminating! This seems to be an attempt to counter the negative publicity on Academies and Free Schools lately (Trojan Horse, financial mismanagement, collapsing academy sponsors etc) in the run up to the next election.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/07/2014 - 17:02

sarah - FoI request on its way.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 28/07/2014 - 17:18

sarah - I expect we'll see more of this positive propaganda re academies, the "Gove legacy" etc in sections of the media. The Times is particularly gushing with its frequent editorials (which I jokingly said might have been written by Gove himself), double-page spreads and the latest four page glossy hymn of praise which I discuss above.

And it's not the first time it's been claimed that academization "turned round" failing schools. But many, like Downhills, were already improving so they were ripe for taking over.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Mon, 28/07/2014 - 19:59

Janet - Judging pupil behaviour is very subjective. I spent a major part of my teaching career in a large Leicestershire 14-18 Upper School. There was no uniform (except a sea of denim in early 1970s) and students called the teachers by their first names, including the Principal. I have a lot of criticism of the failings of such schools at that time, but unruly behaviour and disruption of lessons was extremely rare. I also taught in a prestigious City of Leicester grammar school and learned a lot there from excellent colleagues so I am not going to knock it. However there was more disorder and disruption of SOME lessons than ever occurred in my trendy comp.

As I have frequently asserted I don't think Ofsted can now inspect pupil behaviour and/or lesson quality with any degree of reliability because too little time is spent in the process and these things are subtle and not always as they appear on the basis of shallow observation. I believe that inspectors tailor their judgements from conclusions already reached from the 'data dashboard'.

If this is true for Ofsted then how likely is it that Times journalists will do any better?

My post

has some relevance.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 11:44

Roger - the Times journalist quoted a teacher at length who described appalling behaviour eg head butting, being sworn at etc. This was contrasted with the orderly environment said to have arisen after the zero-tolerance and exclusions brought in in 2013 by the academy principal.

No teacher should be subjected to such behaviour but the article implied the school was anarchic before the Gove-approved policies were put in place. But the principal was head from October 2012, nearly a year before the zero-tolerance was introduced causing such resentment among many parents.

I don't think for one moment that the principal would have allowed such behaviour to continue until she put in place a tougher behaviour policy. Steps would surely have been taken before September 2013 to deal with it? If so, why introduce a tougher policy than one used before?

I, too, have experienced appalling behaviour but, and here's the important point, it was not standard behaviour. I've stopped fights - but they were extremely rare. And my 4th year set 4 boys would tell me to F off during my second year of teaching (under the old adage about giving raw recruits the worst class in order to see if they survived, no doubt). But by the time they left they were calling me Mum.

That said, during my last year of teaching the amount of swearing increased. But the school was then led by a career head already on his way to pastures new. A bit of support and back-up would have been far more beneficial than a draconian, "send them home if their black shoes show the tiniest bit of colour" regime.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 12:38

Janet - The link you provide includes this gem.

“She came home with a slip of paper saying she wasn’t allowed the eyebrow pencil. She draws them on because she doesn’t have any eyebrows.

“She has her tongue pierced and had an earring – despite allowing it last term.

“A girl of her age doesn’t want to walk around without any eyebrows."

It reminds me of some of the rich comedy incidents that illuminate the memories of teachers. If only I had kept a diary. Here is an example.

During afternoon lessons two students were seen approaching the rear of the school building carrying branches of bushes that had clearly been torn away from the perimeter hedge. They were accosted by a member of the Senior Management Team. In responding to the challenge, one of the students replied, "It's for drama". The teacher's face lit up with sudden understanding - "Ah, Burnham Woods", he exclaimed, to which the puzzled reply was, "No D****** C******" (The name of the drama teacher).

But seriously, a culture of an orderly school, free of tensions and distractions in which students treat each other and their teachers with calm, comfortable and easy respect, is very hard to create but easy to destroy. 'Zero-tolerance' policies are laden with elephant traps and perverse outcomes.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 29/07/2014 - 12:52

Roger - when I read about the girl with no eyebrows I was reminded of the girl on Educating Yorkshire who wore very heavy make-up. Turned out she'd had some sort of accident when she was smaller which left her with a blemished face - the make-up was to cover it up and give her self-confidence. I wonder how she'd have coped in the "zero-tolerance" school.

I, too, could write a book about incidents that occurred at school - the time I got locked in the cupboard (the infamous 4th Year Set 4 again - I never left the keys in the door again); the time my classroom (the hut on the edge of the field) got broken into and the condoms from sex education were hung around the room like balloons (the money in the drawer was still there - the police found it hard to keep straight faces), the School Traffic Education Project (STEP) boys who always guided their one-eyed teacher into the side of my hut; the boy (yes, from the same 4th Year Set 4) who asked me to marry him (I was a lot younger then), the school leaver who tried to look hard by lighting up outside the school front entrance and was faced with putting his motorcycle helmet over a lighted cigarette - he went off coughing and wobbling all over the place...

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 30/07/2014 - 07:15

Just stumbled on this: "...a person not involved in teaching will get an unbalanced picture of what goes on in most classrooms. The voices that suceed in making themselves heard - and that, commercially, are worth encouraging - are rarely exponents of any golden mean but rather apostles of salvation, or prophets of doom."

Although the Times article above was based on a particular school, it was definitely on the side of "apostles of salvation" - salvation in this instant coming from Gove's "legacy". And we don't have to search long before we find several media examples of the "prophets of doom".

The author's use of "commercially" is prescient. The global education market is worth billions and is under attack from GERM.

So, who was the author and when was the passage written? It was J W Creber of Exeter University writing in 1968.

Peter from KIEA's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 00:06

Kent Independent Education Advice:
Oddly, although the Reporter from The Times spent a great deal of my time talking with me, and quoting my website articles on Ebbsfleet Academy, she makes no mention of the extensive information provided verbally or on the website. Nor did she come back and discuss the article, or send me a copy as promised! Perhaps she mislaid my contribution.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 13/11/2014 - 13:31

Peter - could it be that your comments might have contradicted the glossy puff piece for Ebbsfleet's 'zero tolerance' head in the Times magazine?

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