When my daughter got a place at Holland Park School we were envied by everybody,” says Charlotte Sones. “It’s a phenomenal environment to be in, an awe-inspiring place.”
“It was like winning the lottery,” agrees Jodi Bartle, a mother of six, when her eldest child was allocated a place. “I thought oh my goodness this is the greatest thing for my family. I am completely sorted for the whole of the rest of my children’s secondary school career.”
The school, housed in a six-storey glass building next to Holland Park — the most expensive state school building in the country — is known for its “interesting, controversial, sexy reputation”, said one mother. Local families always loved its strong results and its truly comprehensive intake which has included the children of high-profile parents such as Michael Gove and former Commons Speaker John Bercow, as well as families from Grenfell.
But things have changed rapidly in the past few months. The reputation of the outstanding school which opened in 1950 and was once known as the “Socialist Eton” — Tony Benn sent his children there — has taken a battering. There have even been reports of a “Mad Max” situation, riots, strikes, teachers scared to discipline children and parents at loggerheads over its future.
Mumsnet is awash with stories of traumatised students and parents questioning their decision to send their children there. The chair of governors brought in to tackle the situation announced her plans to step down last week after nine months in the job.
“Things have changed in an unbelievably short time” says Jennifer Oukherfalla, mother of a child in year eight. “Some parents aren’t waiting around, they are leaving either because of the uncertainty or because they don’t want to have to join a multi-academy trust.”
The current “turbulence” began last summer when former teachers made incendiary claims saying Holland Park School was a toxic working environment where bullying and intimidation was rife. A group of past students published an open letter saying they too had experienced the same “toxic and often abusive environment”, characterised by excessive shouting as a form of discipline, and public shaming and humiliation. A bombshell investigation into the allegations upheld every complaint, and found a culture of “fear, favouritism and inequality”.
New governors were brought in and headteacher Colin Hall, who had been credited with transforming the school into an oversubscribed comprehensive, announced he was to step down after more than two decades at the helm.
Things got worse in November when the Government issued the school with a financial notice to improve, telling it to rein in the salaries of its highly-paid leaders — Mr Hall was paid at least £280,000 in 2020 — and to “consider” joining a multi-academy trust (MAT.)
It was announced the school was set to join United Learning, the country’s largest MAT. Some parents and staff are bitterly opposed to this, arguing they were not consulted, and fearing the “deadly uniformity” of a MAT will turn the prestigious institution into a “cookie cutter school”. Backed by teaching union the NEU, they have filed for a Judicial Review saying the consultation was flawed.
Kensington and Chelsea council says it is “significantly concerned” about the lack of communication between the school and parents and has called on the Department for Education to intervene immediately.
The school has been forced to close for three days during exam season after teachers walked out in protest at the lack of consultation. More strikes are planned, including one today. Emotions are running high. The newly-formed Holland Park School Parent Collective, which is campaigning to stop the school joining United Learning and for a fuller consultation, says it is open to all parents regardless of their stance. But some parents who want United Learning to take over the school because it is the “clear way out of this s**t storm”, are wary of speaking out.
One who wishes to remain anonymous says: “This is a school in crisis. It needs strong, experienced leadership within a well-established MAT as soon as possible. Restarting the process could add a year of uncertainty. That would be devastating. Delay will mean that young people, particularly the disadvantaged, will suffer irreparable damage to their education and well-being.”
But Sarah Newman, head of children’s services at Kensington and Chelsea, fears the quality of education has already been disrupted by the chaos. The council wants Holland Park School to join forces with local school Kensington Aldridge Academy instead of United Learning.
Ms Sones, whose daughter is in year seven, is also anti United Learning and wants a fuller consultation. “People just want to be involved in the conversation and not patted on the head and told I have made this decision for you.” She believes the urgency to push Holland Park under the United Learning umbrella is part of the Government’s aim to ensure all schools are either in or on their way to joining a MAT by 2030. A spokesman for Holland Park School says the consultation process about its future has been “comprehensive” and included an offer to every parent for a one-to-one phone call.
Amid the row pupils are still taking their GCSEs and A-levels, despite strike action, and lessons go on as normally as possible. One pupil says behaviour has slipped. “During Mr Hall’s headship, children who wanted to rebel would untuck their shirts or wear nail varnish or earrings. Now that’s not being challenged so children who want to show their rebellious nature are skipping class or loitering in the hallways. The bar has been lifted.”
Some say teachers are worried of sparking more complaints if they are too strict. A recording of a teacher shouting at pupils after a swimming lesson has gone viral. A recent incident, described as a “riot” by Sarah Newman, but dismissed as “high jinks” by some parents, saw hundreds of children running around throwing water.
The school spokesman says that before the new governing body was brought in, it was for many years “a place where a significant number of pupils and staff…experienced toxic practices, inequality, failure to safeguard and bullying… There was poor pastoral care, leadership and governance, and there was financial mismanagement”.
He says the new governors, led by chair Jane Farrell who will leave soon, have worked incredibly hard to address these problems. He adds: “Governors have been clear that they believe the school’s future is best served within a strong academy trust, on which we are currently consulting. However, regardless of the outcome of that consultation, the school will be in a much stronger place in September.
“None of the improvements the school has undergone could have been achieved without taking difficult decisions and without changing methods towards inclusive approaches. Transition can be challenging but the culture change is gradually taking effect.”
One Mumsnet user says: “I have kids in the school. Do I regret sending them to HPS? Yes, yes and yes again.” But parent Charlotte Sones will not be leaving. “There are very good people at the school, some unbelievably dedicated members of staff who feel incredibly passionately and are hugely invested in the outcomes for those children.”