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Concerned parents hold meeting after Stowupland High School brings in controversial educator Barry Smith to improve behaviour

Some parents are contemplating taking their children out of a Suffolk high school after it hired a controversial educator who is working on improving behaviour.

A group of parents held a meeting in Stowmarket to discuss their concerns after leaders of Stowupland High School brought in education consultant Barry Smith, of Barry Smith Education, dubbed ‘the toughest teacher in the land’ according to his own podcast page.

Parents shared their worries over the impact on students with additional needs following a toughening up over behaviour at Stowupland High, saying ‘it’s not a military school’.

Barry Smith. Picture: Norfolk Now
Barry Smith. Picture: Norfolk Now

The John Milton Academy Trust, which runs the school, said Mr Smith was one of a number of external parties whose expertise they were drawing on to address issues raised by Ofsted, which recently said Stowupland High still ‘requires improvement’.

The trust stressed the school hadn’t changed its policy on behaviour, but this programme of improvement was about implementing the current policy.

The trust said the main focus of Mr Smith’s support was in the training of school staff. SuffolkNews has attempted to speak with him.

Parents spoke of the impact on their children of the focus on behaviour at Stowupland High School. Picture: Mariam Ghaemi
Parents spoke of the impact on their children of the focus on behaviour at Stowupland High School. Picture: Mariam Ghaemi

According to student accounts, they are being asked to shake hands with Mr Smith, make eye contact and say ‘Sir’ – with stories of suspension or detention following interactions with him. SuffolkNews asked the trust about this, but it declined to comment.

Parents are concerned reasonable adjustments are not being made for children with SEND (special educational needs and/or disabilities) or extra needs, who may struggle, for example, with making eye contact.

However, the trust told SuffolkNews that ‘great care’ was being taken to ensure these children would not be impacted negatively by the school’s efforts for improvement.

At the meeting, some parents said they were seriously considering removing their children from the school over fears for their wellbeing.

Kyra Ashton has three children with SEND, one of whom attends Stowupland High, and said “I want to take my child out [of the school]’.

She said their behaviour had become ‘very erratic’, almost an instant change.

Stowupland High School
Stowupland High School

“It isn’t a military school. It’s a mainstream school in the middle of Stowupland.

“You don’t improve behaviour by berating people, but meeting their needs, making them feel safe and speaking to them in an appropriate manner,” said Kyra, who works as an autism peer support trainer.

Sharon Cooper said her daughter suffers with anxiety and is now becoming more anxious.

“Obviously I don’t want that because it’s her exam year now. It’s just an added pressure really,” said Sharon.

Parent Sharon Cooper attended the meeting. Picture: Mariam Ghaemi
Parent Sharon Cooper attended the meeting. Picture: Mariam Ghaemi

Wendy Hill also spoke of the change in her child, who she believes has ADD (attention deficit disorder), following the focus on behaviour. “Normally he’s happy and engaged. Now he’s shut off and withdrawn,” she said, adding: “Right now I’m considering homeschool. It feels like it’s more damaging to leave him there than to remove him.”

Wendy, who has worked as one-to-one support for children with SEND, added: “It’s not just SEND. He’s [Mr Smith] creating anxiety in children who don’t suffer with anxiety.”

Carmen Smith said: “They are not going to learn if they are not mentally happy. It’s not a military school. This is a parent’s choice, surely you have a choice as to how they are disciplining in a way.”

She added: “It makes homelife harder. You don’t get that time as a family, to have a laugh and a joke, because he’s had a day at school with Barry Smith.”

A parent, who asked to be anonymous, said both she and her daughter, who suffers with bad anxiety, were ‘really, really concerned’ about Mr Smith.

She said: “The first time I heard about Barry Smith was when my daughter came home and said ‘there’s a strange-looking man walking around making people say ‘good morning Sir’ and my daughter is quite polite anyway and walked past and said ‘good morning’ and he said ‘no, not good morning, good morning Sir’.

“She’s quite timid.”

Toni Wasag at the meeting in Stowmarket where parents shared their concerns. Picture: Mariam Ghaemi
Toni Wasag at the meeting in Stowmarket where parents shared their concerns. Picture: Mariam Ghaemi

Organiser of the meeting Toni Wasag said she was ‘deeply concerned’ about what she’s hearing on Mr Smith’s podcasts, one of which says: “I think reasonable adjustment often is a mother coming in ranting saying her child has special needs. The child doesn’t have special needs, the child has been let down by bad parenting and by the adults in their lives from 0 to 11 to 16. Teacher inconsistency, poorly led schools, awful school culture…”

Toni said: “There cannot be a one-size fits all. Children aren’t like that. They have different needs.”

She raised the question of whether the school had produced a quality impact assessment, which would need to look at how SEN children would be affected and how to manage that.

“At the moment, I would say they are verging on discrimination,” she added.

While accepting that the school felt it needed to work on improving behaviour, she believes there are many other problems to be focusing on.

A school bulletin said Mr Smith was working with them as part of its drive to improve behaviour in school and ensure all students were maximising their learning opportunities.

It reads: “He will continue to be working in school for the next couple of terms.

“Mr Smith is very knowledgeable and a vastly experienced behaviour specialist and we can already see a difference in the school.

“The students have responded positively, they have been very attentive in assemblies and the school has a buzz about it.”

The spokesman for the trust said: “The school’s programme for improvement is being carried out to advance the learning experience for all students across the school, including students with additional needs.

“If parents or carers have any concerns, please contact the school and we will be happy to discuss.”