Strikes, fights and sackings: Five years of chaos at Liverpool's most prestigious school

The Blue Coat school in Wavertree
The Blue Coat school in Wavertree -Credit:Liverpool Echo

"The Blue Coat School is a unique school", reads the message on the website on one of Liverpool's most famous educational establishments.

"For over 300 years we have played a vital role in shaping the lives of Liverpool boys and girls," it adds.

This may well be true - and the consistently high exam results and league table standings suggest that it is - but for the past five of those three hundred years, all has not been rosy at arguably Liverpool's most prestigious school.

In 2019, The Blue Coat became embroiled in a very explosive public row with a long-serving and popular former senior teacher. That man was John Lamb.

Mr Lamb had worked at the Wavertree school for 25 years, serving the final 15 as head of Geography. In 2018 he was dismissed from his job for what was deemed as 'gross misconduct' by school bosses at the time. For Mr Lamb's part, he is very clear that he was bullied out of a job and a career that he loved.

The row between the school and Mr Lamb exploded into public consciousness a year after the sacking as Mr Lamb penned an extraordinary 47-page 'leaving speech' which fired a wide-range of accusations at school bosses. The excoriating missive was shared widely with parents, staff and pupils from the school - and was reported on by the Liverpool ECHO at the time.

MORE: Staff to walk out on strike at one of Liverpool's most prestigious schools

MORE: Headteacher of crisis-hit Blue Coat School resigns

In his letter, Mr Lamb claimed he was targeted by then headteacher of the school Mike Pennington and his assistant headteacher and sports teacher Nick Barends.

In his letter - which received support from many pupils and former staff members - Mr Lamb said: "I have had my job, a large part of my self-esteem (since regained), my livelihood, stable family life, my pension and future job prospects basically stolen from me after 25 years loyal and outstanding service to The Blue Coat School."

This dramatic moment in the history of one this famous city school would have wide-ranging ramifications that would continue for the next five years and beyond and would contribute to several sudden changes of leadership, multiple investigations and a vote for strike action amongst remaining staff members.

Here we take a look at the key events and the major players involved in the turmoil at The Blue Coat School.

Nick Barends

Blue Coat teacher Nick Barends (pictured here in an old photograph) was dismissed after an investigation
Blue Coat teacher Nick Barends (pictured here in an old photograph) was dismissed after an investigation -Credit:Liverpool Echo

Nick Barends' role in this story is a key one - dating back to nine years before Mr Lamb's explosive letter was issued. In 2010, Mr Barends was dismissed from his role at the grammar school over his conduct with an A-Level student.

It was reported by the ECHO at the time that the PE teacher, who had taught at the school for 18 years at that stage, was sacked over his behaviour surrounding the girl and a perceived close relationship between the two.

But maintaining his innocence, his union, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), supported Mr Barends during a two-day appeal. A three-person panel of governors decided that while Mr Barends had been guilty of gross misconduct, his punishment should be reduced from dismissal to a final written warning. He was free to teach at the school again.

Fast-forward 14 years, to the summer of July 2023 and Mr Barends would find himself once again being dismissed from his role at The Blue Coat. Earlier in the year, the ECHO had revealed that Mr Barends had been suspended by school bosses over an 'historic' allegation from over a decade earlier. We were told that this allegation involved a separate matter to the one he was previously suspended for.

The new allegation prompted an investigation by the school, while evidence supplied by Mr Lamb, had also prompted a probe by the Teacher Regulation Agency - the regulator for the teaching profession.

While that investigation continues at a pretty glacial pace, the Blue Coat's concluded last summer and resulted in Mr Barends being dismissed, with no prospect of being reinstated this time around.

Mike Pennington

The Blue Coat School's former headteacher Mike Pennington
The Blue Coat School's former headteacher Mike Pennington -Credit:The Blue Coat School

Mr Pennington was one of the key figures mentioned in John Lamb's fiery leaving speech. He was headteacher at the school from 2015 to 2020. The former Geography teacher accused Mr Pennington, along with Mr Barends and others, of overseeing a bullying culture at the school and of specifically targeting Mr Lamb.

Mr Pennington announced in October 2019 that he would be leaving the school at the end of the summer term, the following August. As pressure built in the wake of Mr Lamb's 'leaving speech', Mr Pennington left on sick leave and was allowed to quit altogether seven months before the end of the school year.

The ECHO can now reveal that Mr Pennington is also the subject of an investigation by the Teacher Regulation Agency for his conduct during his time at The Blue Coat, once again thanks to a dossier handed over by Mr Lamb.

A letter from the TRA, which we have seen, states: "In executing its role as the regulator for the teaching profession, on behalf of the Secretary of State, the TRA has considered all the information received and has decided that a formal investigation should be started in relation to Mr Pennington's conduct." The TRA has appointed external legal firm Kingsley Napley LLP to carry out the investigation.

Scilla Yates

Scilla Yates, former headteacher of the Blue Coat School
Scilla Yates, former headteacher of the Blue Coat School -Credit:Blue Coat

Along with Mr Barends and Mr Pennington, the TRA is also carrying out an investigation into Scilla Yates, who moved from her role as deputy head of The Blue Coat to headteacher following Mr Pennington's departure.

Taking up the reigns on a permanent basis from 2021 onwards, she said she was committed to promoting an "even more inclusive culture, where every member of our community believes that they matter and truly belong."

But like her former colleagues, Ms Yates was also firmly in the crosshairs of Mr Lamb, who submitted further evidence to the TRA, resulting in confirmation of a probe into her time at the school.

In February of this year, the school announced that Ms Yates would be stepping back from her headship in a gradual fashion as she moved towards retirement. The idea, communicated to parents and staff, was that she would remain as head, but with a lesser focus on day-to-day operations and instead focusing on building greater connections with universities, employers and educational partners.

The Blue Coat insisted that news of the TRA investigation into Ms Yates, confirmed just days before this announcement, was unrelated in her decision. The plan would see Erin Bakstad step up from deputy headteacher to a newly created role of co-headteacher over the subsequent two years, before taking over fully after Ms Yates' retirement.

But that plan did not last long and three months later, Ms Yates would resign from her role altogether and leave the school with immediate effect.

Strikes and fights

The last few months at The Blue Coat have been marred by further chaos and unrest. In March it was revealed that staff members had voted for strike action. The National Education Union said its members at the school had expressed "dissatisfaction with governance and leadership" and that school leaders had failed to address "critical issues" despite promises made.

The school said it was keen to work "collaboratively" with the union to address the concerns. But relations between the two sides worsened and reached boiling point a couple of weeks later.

The climax arrived when a meeting between Ms Yates and Blue Coat leaders and NEU representatives resulted in both sides accusing the other of aggressive behaviour and the police being contacted. In April it was confirmed that as many as 70 staff members were set to walk out on strike across six separate days - starting next week.

With pressure mounting on various fronts, an announcement quickly followed of Ms Yates' decision to resign with immediate effect. A statement from the board of trustees said: "There can be no denying that the last few months have been challenging for our school community and the individuals concerned. This has taken its toll, and Ms Yates doesn’t want her continued involvement at The Blue Coat School to distract from the school sustaining its excellent education and the wellbeing of the students."

It is expected that an interim appointment will be made before a permanent replacement headteacher is installed in 2025.

Years of chaos - but good results

Students have continued to achieve top results at The Blue Coat School
Students have continued to achieve top results at The Blue Coat School -Credit:Blue Coat School

Despite a remarkable run of chaotic events and the departure of two headteachers in the past few years, The Blue Coat continues to be one of Liverpool's most successful schools. In fact it was named the best secondary school in the entire north west by The Sunday Times in 2023.

In that same year, 65% of all the school's A level grades were either A* or A. While a whopping 86% ranged from A* to B. In the same year, 30% of all the school's GCSE grades were grade 9, while 81% of students achieved three or more grade eight or nine marks.

Trouble ahead?

Heading into the next week, the first two days of planned strike action at The Blue Coat are due to go ahead on Tuesday (May 14) and Thursday (May 16, with an additional four days of action scheduled across May and June.

The school said it is working hard with arbitration service ACAS in a bid to reach a resolution before any action is taken, but says it has planned contingency measures and will close on the days if strikes go ahead.

So after five years of chaos, the Blue Coat could be heading into an even more volatile period - starting this coming week.

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