More than 100 former students at a troubled London academy have published an open letter to its governors, Ofsted and the government alleging a catalogue of serious failings in pastoral care and safeguarding of pupils, including “off-rolling” of some students and failure to act appropriately in peer-on-peer sexual assault.
The letter from former students at Holland Park school, which is judged “outstanding” by Ofsted and boasts the Cabinet Office minister, Michael Gove, and former Commons speaker John Bercow among parents, comes only a month after the Guardian revealed that an independent inquiry into alleged bullying and intimidation of staff, and the withholding of staff questionnaires from school inspectors, had been commissioned by the governing body.
Signatories to the ex-student letter, most of whom are named and left the school in the past four years, claim that they experienced a “toxic and abusive” environment in which some pupils’ emotional and psychiatric needs were neglected, that difficult pupils were taken out of school during Ofsted inspections, and that the school’s leadership encouraged excessive use of shouting as a form of discipline, which left young people feeling “anxious and unsafe”.
They allege that young people were also publicly shamed and humiliated. In one instance they say students’ photos were displayed on plasma screens around school to highlight their behavioural or academic failings.
A 25-page appendix including personal testimonies has been sent to the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, and the Education and Skills Funding Agency, which oversees academies. The letter’s co-author Zahra Enver, who has been collecting signatures online and via social media, said: “The toxic and often abusive environment characterised by teachers also existed for students. This is an indictment of Holland Park’s leadership and governance, as well as of the two Ofsted inspections that found safeguarding to be effective. We are going public with our concerns now for the sake of the current student body.”
Since the staff concerns were reported by the Guardian last month, more than 30 ex-students have come forward to tell their stories. Several raise a lack of support for pupils who have experienced mental health problems or peer-on-peer sexual abuse, leading in some cases to pupils being effectively “off-rolled”, which the Department for Education describes as removing a pupil from the school roll without a formal exclusion process, or encouraging a parent to remove their child when the move benefits the school rather than the family.
One ex-pupil, Obai Ermak, describes his time at the school as “brutal”. Following a mental health breakdown halfway through year 12, and despite a psychiatrist’s report stating that he should return to school, he says the school called him and said he wasn’t allowed on the premises. Ermak, who says he was doing well academically and was an active member of the school community until his illness, said: “I was scared to go back in case the school security barred my entry, and I was worried it would unsettle my mental health again.”
Ermak alleges the school failed to provide him with any work for months until his mother threatened legal action, after which the school funded a short period of private tuition, which coincided with the first Covid lockdown. When this finished, the family say that Holland Park failed to attend any of Ermak’s reviews, and it was suggested in a phone call that he find a new school. “My parents and I tried but failed to contact the school countless times, specifically the headteacher, to further inquire about the situation and the plan for my return. No one would respond. We felt we were being avoided as if we were ‘blacklisted’,” he said.
He was later accepted to re-start his studies at the Oasis South Bank Academy, where he says teachers have nurtured his recovery. “They have been able to manage me even during moments of crisis. I have never felt as if I was not part of their community. Without their continuous support, I would probably be in an awful place now,” he said.
Ermak says he was never given a written reason why he was not allowed on Holland Park’s premises. “I was technically excluded from school without being excluded. I want to share my story so that other people do not go through the same thing.”
The mother of another signatory to the letter agreed to speak to the Guardian anonymously about her daughter’s experience: “Following a period of ill health Amy (not her real name) was verbally told that she shouldn’t come to school because Holland Park did not have adequate safeguarding resources,” she said.
“The school failed to provide any work for her at home, consistently failed to respond to our letters or attend meetings with her health team or contribute to her education and health care plan. We went for months without any communication from the relevant staff. When we eventually agreed that she could go to a hospital school temporarily, Holland Park failed to engage in any discussion regarding her reintegration.”
The parent has kept detailed notes of all her correspondence with the school. She says the family was made to feel their concerns were imaginary or not serious. Her daughter subsequently did her GCSEs at the hospital school while still on the roll at Holland Park, completed a pre-university qualification independently and is starting in higher education this autumn.
“She is doing well now and to some extent has regained her confidence but I believe the school effectively excluded her by stealth. Teachers were not informed of her needs. My daughter just vanished, and no one knew why. Children like this are ghosted.”
Holland Park is one of the most celebrated academies in the country, having been turned around over the last 20 years by Colin Hall, one of the most highly paid heads in England. But in recent years there have been a string of negative stories about Hall’s pay and the school’s expenditure.
Two former teachers have been investigated for inappropriate relationships with pupils. One was struck off from teaching and another sent to prison and the ex-students’ letter alleges there was no attempt to discuss what had happened after these cases, to provide emotional support to students or investigate whether other students had been affected by sexual misconduct.
The chair of governors, Anne Marie Carrie, who last month announced an independent inquiry into the claims of a toxic working environment, said: “The wellbeing of our pupils and staff is, and always will be, our foremost priority and we take these matters very seriously. All safeguarding concerns should be raised with the designated safeguarding lead in the school and with the local authority designated officer.”
On behalf of the governors and the headteacher, she declined to respond in detail to the students’ allegations.
Another former student, who has also asked for her identity to be withheld, claims that when she raised a serious safeguarding concern about peer-on-peer sexual abuse, the school failed to deal appropriately with her case. Rachel (not her real name) was 15 when she reported a three-month period of daily sexual assaults that she had suffered a year earlier.
“By this time, I had developed severe anxieties and depression, and had experienced self-harm and suicidal thoughts so dangerous, as a result of the attacks, that I had been admitted to A&E the day before I came forward to the school,” she said.
“For the first 10 days, no meeting took place between my parents and I and the school, we were then informed that the abuser would be removed from my class, but when I returned to school the next day, this was not the case, which was a terrifying experience.
“I was then told to sit alone in the library for all of the lessons that I had with the perpetrator.” This amounted to 60% of her time in school, she says. “I did this for a full week, during which time I was isolated, without support. Moreover, I had to enter my class with my abuser sitting there at every lesson to take my course work.
“There was also no additional help with my mental health, which declined rapidly during this traumatic process. An environment of guilt and shame was perpetuated rather than taking a victim-centred approach.”
Eventually the school decided it would remain “neutral” about whether the abuse took place and implemented what the girl describes as a “twisted” solution that involved switching several children between classes to return her to her original timetable.
“The school did not ensure confidentiality, and I was explicitly blamed for the change by students. Despite my parents expressing anger and frustration about how I had been treated, we felt we were being ignored and I had to make the decision to leave the school to protect myself. The headteacher’s failure to ensure his school responded to my circumstances appropriately and quickly inflicted severe trauma that continues to stay with me.”
Government guidance on safeguarding states clearly that all children should feel safe and protected in school, that children with medical conditions should be fully supported with their education and that the alleged perpetrator in cases of peer-on-peer abuse should be removed from any classes they share with the victim, who should be supported, not isolated, and protected from bullying or harassment as a result of coming forward.
The school’s governors have said students will be able to give evidence to the inquiry already announced into the working culture at the school. But the authors of the ex-students’ letter are asking for their own inquiry.
One of the signatories, Star Gaze, said: “Holland Park school created a culture of fear wherein some students who finished their education several years ago are still afraid to speak out about the mistreatment they experienced. We urge the governors to respect these students’ bravery by organising a parallel independent external inquiry into the student experience.”