DfE failing to resource changes at troubled Kent school, says charity head

The founder of the academy trust in charge of a troubled secondary school on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent has defended his record in education and accused the government of failing to deliver the resources needed to turn the school around.

Staff at the Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey were out on strike for a second day on Tuesday in protest over threatening behaviour by pupils. However, according to the Oasis founder, Steve Chalke, the school has struggled for years against a backdrop of high deprivation, often associated with coastal locations.

The Oasis Charitable Trust, which runs more than 50 schools in some of the most deprived areas of England, was asked by the Department for Education (DfE) to take over the Sheppey school in 2014, after leading private school Dulwich College was forced to pull out as lead sponsor, admitting its staff were not equipped for the job.

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Chalke said Oasis only agreed to take over the beleaguered school on the basis of promises made by the Department for Education, but “none of that has ever really come through”, he told the Guardian.

The school, which finds itself at the centre of a national debate about deteriorating pupil behaviour, was judged inadequate by the schools inspectorate, Ofsted, in June 2022. It is now being taken away from Oasis and the plan is to create two new schools and transfer them in September 2024 to separate trusts, the Leigh and EKC Schools academy trusts.

“We were asked to step into the ring,” said Chalke. “We asked for a whole number of things that have not been supplied, in particular special educational needs provision and alternative provision.” That lack has made it difficult to support and remove children with challenging behaviour from the school, he said.

“The only schools Oasis has ever taken on, as the DfE will tell you, are in the toughest, hardest communities,” Chalke continued. “It’s our raison d’être. It’s our mission. But you get on frontline, and then the resourcing is not there for you. We went into it with our eyes open, but it was with the understanding that some of these things that you could broadly call levelling up would happen, which haven’t.”

Steve Chalke in a school corridor.
The Oasis founder, Steve Chalke, says the school has struggled for years against a backdrop of high deprivation. Photograph: Martin Godwin/The Guardian

A further problem particular to the area is Kent’s grammar school system which sees the highest achieving students travelling to grammar schools on the mainland after passing their 11-plus, while hundreds more travel to non-selective schools in Sittingbourne. Now, Chalke says plans to set up new schools and bring in new trusts are creating further uncertainty for children and exacerbating problems.

Members of the National Education Union (NEU) who work at the school have been calling for fixed exclusion tariffs of 10 days for assaults or threats of assaults against staff and pupils, but Chalke says the trust cannot agree to that. His view is that there are complex reasons why a child misbehaves.

“Every child who behaves badly, who is antisocial, who can’t self-regulate, do we send every one of those home? An easy thing to do is to exclude – the problem is off our hands. But if we exclude, that’s no good for the child. It flies in the face of Oasis values and ethos.”

NEU members will be out on strike again on Wednesday, and three further days next week if no agreement can be reached. Maria Fawcett, NEU regional secretary in the south east, called on Chalke to visit the school to talk to members. “Talks are ongoing,” she said. “We hope we can get a resolution before next week. That’s what we want.”

The 2022 Ofsted report’s findings make sobering reading. “Too many pupils feel unsafe at this school,” it says. “Leaders and staff do too little to challenge the foul, homophobic, racist and sexist language which is commonplace across both sites. Pupils have little confidence in leaders’ ability to deal with any concerns about bullying or discrimination.”

More than half of pupils do not come to school regularly, it says, and classes are frequently disrupted by unruly behaviour. Meanwhile, recruitment problems mean too many lessons are delivered by supply teachers.

“Pupils have no trust in, or respect for their school. Vandalism, including offensive graffiti, poor behaviour and bad language are rife. Pupils feel that leaders spend too much time checking that their uniform is smart rather than keeping them safe.”

A monitoring visit by Ofsted inspectors in July said progress had been made to improve the school, but it was still deemed “inadequate” and in need of special measures.

A report earlier this year by the Commission for Young Lives, chaired by former children’s commissioner for England Anne Longfield and supported by Oasis, highlighted high levels of disadvantage and vulnerability experienced by many children, young people and families on the Isle of Sheppey.

It concluded: “Inequalities run deep and they impact everyday life for thousands of families. Outcomes for children and young people here are very often poor and life chances are often diminished. There are communities on the island who have been truly left behind and ignored. Life is an ongoing struggle for some families and the journey towards a positive future barely ever starts and often feels unobtainable.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Councils are responsible for making sure there is appropriate education for all children in their area.

“The government’s Send and AP improvement plan outlines how the government plans to ensure children with special needs and disabilities receive the support they need, with earlier intervention, consistent high standards and less bureaucracy.

“A new Send free school will open on the Isle of Sheppey next year, and there’s an ongoing consultation to expand Leigh Academies Trust’s Snowfields Academy (for Send pupils) on to the Isle of Sheppey from September 2024.”