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'Lessons learnt' following Samuel Ward Academy exams scandal, says Tim Coulson, chief executive of Unity Schools Partnership

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The current chief executive of a schools trust which was embroiled in an ‘off-rolling’ and exam malpractice scandal says lessons have been learnt.

At a Teaching Regulation Agency (TRA) hearing in Coventry last month, former teachers at Samuel Ward Academy, in Haverhill, Andrew Prestoe, Pat Stalker and Howard Lay were questioned over allegations of coursework malpractice, ‘off-rolling’ (the practice of removing low-achieving students from the school register) and safeguarding issues at the school between 2012-2016.

The panel found Mr Lay failed to act after learning that off-rolling was taking place at Samuel Ward, but that he had not been its ‘architect’.

Dr Tim Coulson.
Dr Tim Coulson.

It also found that Mr Prestoe and Ms Stalker were actively involved in off-rolling and had ‘breached ethical standards’ through failures linked to coursework ‘malpractice’. Mr Lay was cleared of three charges relating to coursework malpractice.

Last week, the TRA announced none of the three teachers would face teaching bans or face further sanctions.

Tim Coulson, CEO of Unity Schools Partnership, formerly the Samuel Ward Trust, which oversees Samuel Ward, and Sybil Andrews in Bury St Edmunds, took over the trust in July 2017, and has been in the post since.

Andrew Prestoe and Howard Lay. Picture: Mecha Morton.
Andrew Prestoe and Howard Lay. Picture: Mecha Morton.

With the TRA hearing reaching its conclusion, Mr Coulson said he was pleased it was over.

“We’re pleased we’ve got to the end of it,” he said. “We had some allegations three and a half years ago. We investigated them. We passed on the investigations to the TRA, I think it’s taken a long time to get to this.

“Covid I think, probably slowed down the hearings. I think we’re pleased it’s finished and that we can put it behind us because we’ve been waiting a long time.”

Mr Coulson said following the allegations, the trust took steps to ensure similar practices did not happen again.

Howard Lay, ex headteacher of Samuel Ward Academy, in Haverhill.
Howard Lay, ex headteacher of Samuel Ward Academy, in Haverhill.

“There was an allegation about safeguarding not being secure enough in the school and we’ve done a huge amount on safeguarding, in terms of training staff, upping our policy, reviewing it, checking it, all those sorts of things,” he said.

“There were then allegations about exam practice and we’ve done a lot with our schools.

“First of all, to set out, in a sense, a set of values that we basically keep rules, and then in terms of doing a lot to check that that is the case.

Pat Stalker.
Pat Stalker.

“The third issue was around whether data returns were always made accurately.

“We now do data returns centrally so we can absolutely check that they are done appropriately.”

He added: “And I think the most important thing we did was in a sense just draw attention to every school in the trust that these allegations had been made and that it was practice that if it had taken place anywhere it wasn’t go to be anything we were going to accept.

“By the time I came into the trust, whatever had been alleged had been stopped.”

On whether the whisteblowing came out in 2018 because staff felt comfortable enough to do so with Mr Coulson as chief executive of the trust, he said: “I don’t know is the honest answer. They obviously felt at that time they could come and whistleblow. We never really got into why then and not any other time.”

The TRA panel last month heard evidence from a former staff member at Samuel Ward Academy who alleged Mr Lay said results at the school had to stay high otherwise prospective students would choose Stour Valley instead, and staff could lose their jobs.

The panel also heard how it was ‘results at all costs’ at the school, according to the same staff member.

When asked what he thought about ‘results-driven’ cultures at school, and across the Unity Schools Partnership less broadly, Mr Coulson said: “I think everyone in schools knows that they are under a duty to do their best by the children. Children’s results matter.

“They also know school’s get judged on their results, so there’s a pressure, but that’s the pressure in any job, to do your job well.”

On school’s being under pressure to have good Ofsted ratings, Mr Coulson said: “There’s plenty of people in schools just out there doing their best every day. Everyone know’s Ofsted’s around the corner.”

He added: “Of course you feel the pressure of external accountability, but then everyone in life’s got a line manager.

“Everyone’s got someone checking up on them somewhere.

“So I suppose I don’t use the term target driven culture, but I sort of get where that’s coming from when people say that.”

News from our universities, local primary and secondary schools including Ofsted inspections and league tables can be found here.

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