THE head of the new city academy in Southampton whose students rampaged through corridors has hit back at her critics.
In an exclusive interview with the Daily Echo she blamed some parts of the community and parents for inciting students to act because they were unhappy with change.
And Oasis Academy Mayfield principal Ruth Johnson insisted the protest was not an outburst of rivalry between former Woolston and Grove Park pupils but a impossible demand for their old schools back, particularly because of firmer rules on discipline.
Mrs Johnson said reports of up to 150 students were “exaggerated”. She insisted no more than 40 were involved and only one window and door was damaged.
There would likely be five exclusions as a result of 30 individuals disciplined, she confirmed.
Mrs Johnson refused to acknowledge any management failings and suggested some students just needed longer to bed in.
She said she wanted parents and pupils to tell her of problems and issues and for parents to individually be involved in tailored curriculums for their children and out-of-school activities. She promised newsletters and better communication.
But Mrs Johnson insisted that she would hold fast to the academy’s code of conduct.
“It’s about making sure our students look smart, they behave well, they have respect, for the environment and the people around them. That they treat the community with respect. Those are traditional values that we will uphold,” she said.
She said timetabling problems would be fixed by next term and hit out at unions for “hugely exaggerating”
travel problems between the split sites, which affected only half a dozen staff.
She confirmed four support staff had resigned since the start of term, because “the academy wasn’t for them”.
What happened last week?At the end of breaktime, a relative small group decided to stay outside to make a comment. They were joined by a few more students.
Totalling no more than 40 students. They were there for probably three or four minutes then decided to move into the building. The majority were boys.
They decided to run along the top corridor of the school. Fifteen and 16-year-old boys running makes a lot of noise. There were probably two of three girls as well. During that time, one window got broken and one door got damaged and that was it.
The exaggerated claims were simply not true.
Why do eye witnesses claims higher figures of up to 150 rampaging students?
I was there and saw it happen. I can categorically state there were not that number of students.
There were classes continuing to go on during that time.
What disciplinary action was taken?
We identified who those students were, the actual number identified was 30 and that’s the number that have been sanctioned. We recognised them.
We contacted the parents who were asked to come to the school.
They were then sent home and some of them continue to be at home. There have been some permanent exclusions. To date there are likely to be five.
Why do you think they were doing this?
Students are like everybody else and find change difficult.
Unfortunately in this situation the students are being encouraged and in some cases incited by some of the adults who are finding change difficult – possibly parents, and there are other members of the community that are finding the change difficult.
They want their old schools back. And that’s sadly not going to happen. And so some of them are experiencing changes in teacher and working practices that I can understand for them is very difficult, particularly at this stage in their educational career.
That’s not a problem I’ve created that’s a problem I’m trying to resolve.
There were decisions made long before I decided to come and work for Oasis that were set in stone.
And that was the decision to close the two schools. Nothing that I do is going to bring that back.
Was it unprecedented?
We are talking about the type of thing that from time to time happens in secondary schools. I was exceptionally proud with the way my leadership team dealt with it.
What are you doing to stop a repeat of what happened last week?
What happened last week was over and done within 20 minutes, and we will do what we always do which is to make sure students are in lessons learning, that procedures are followed through appropriately. That where there is misbehaviour it is dealt with and sanctioned, and that where there are concerns they are listened to.
Do you expect any repeat of what happened?
If you had been in our academy on Thursday afternoon, it was like a millpond. If you had been there on a Friday it was like a millpond.
Did you adequately plan for the merger of these two schools?
I and my team around me have worked night and day to make sure everything is in place. What people don’t see is the phenomenal amount of bureaucracy that sits behind the opening of an academy. We inevitably were up against exceptionally tight deadlines. Of course we would have liked more time. But I’m very confident that all the educational framework was in place.
What problems did you anticipate setting up the academy?
You’ve got the merger of two schools. It’s the merger of a mixed school with a single sex school. It’s the merger of two schools who have been the participants in a rather acrimonious secondary school review. We have some very damaged and hurting communities. Re-establishing the confidence of that community has to be the number one priority.
We recognised there are many parents and families who would have gone to the previous schools and are going through the grieving process as well. Inevitably that was going to be one of the issues we faced.
The other issue we faced was bringing together two different cultures and two staffs who were used to different working practices.
The transition for the staff has been quite complex.
Did your planning work?
There has been a huge amount of integration work that has been done highly successfully. What people predicted was there would be this huge gang warfare between Woolston and Grove Park that has absolutely not happened.
I have not dealt with one incident where there has been territorial warfare.
What we’ve got is teenagers who’ve met some new friends, and got on really well. Yes, we’ve come in and put down some firm boundaries and firm guidelines.
As you well know, teenagers don’t like that. Inevitably there is going to be bedding down of that.
Parents and pupils say they feel let down, the school is not working, that you are not listening, and they are frustrated at things like timetabling problems and the school’s organisation?
We were never going to have from day one a highly achieving academy. If people are feeling let down they are making judgements too quickly.
My staff, particularly my leadership team are spending hours and hours listening to individual issues. I spend a lot of time responding to parents.
We want people to come and tell us where there are issues because unless they tell us we are not going to know how they are feeling. We’re not in any way saying “go away and don’t talk to us”.We would like some of them to do it a little more politely than they do but my leadership team has been here till 10pm making sure that where there are systems that are needing to be adapted we are willing to do that.
We were in here from the end of the summer. I was not allowed on this site until the first of September. I had this virtual school I had planned on paper that I had to make operational.
There will be inevitably things that need to be tweaked and we are doing that as quickly as we can. We operate a split site and staggered day. It was the only way we would could avoid a mass student movement across the sites.
That was my priority: making sure students felt secure and safe in one environment.
What you are looking at is staff who are not used to moving and have had to get used to very different working practices that are not ideal. I don’t want a split site but that’s what we have got (until the new buildings).
There were some minor issues with staff travel impacting on lunchtimes which we recognised at a very early stage was unacceptable and we have been working since then to redevelop areas of the timetable and after half term there will be some timetable changes.
That only impacted seven per cent of the teaching staff (of 90). That has been exaggerated hugely (by the unions).
What are you doing now to address the issues of the integration?
There is no issue with the student bodies merging. There are some issues with some students for the first time in a long time having some very firm and clear boundaries established and some of the students are not used to it.
They are as any child will do, challenging those boundaries.
And we will continue to keep those boundaries firm and we will continue to hold fast to our code of conduct (for example) to respect the property around you.
There are some students preparing murals, there is gardening that’s going on. We have our student council, which is just about to be convened, and our prefect body.
We will include all students but there has to be a line drawn where we make this a safe and secure environment for students to learn.
It’s not a social club, it’s not a theme park, it’s a learning environment and students have to be ready to learn.
What changes do you want to have made by the year’s end?
We want to make sure our community has an understanding of what the academy is about, what our standards are going to be. Our first newsletter is about to go out.
And it’s about making sure communication is flowing freely into the community. People said ‘why didn’t you put out a newsletter earlier?’ Well actually we’ve had to wait for things to happen.
You can’t put a newsletter out without news. Over half-term a full newsletter will be going out to parents to explain some of the very positive things that have been happening at the academy. We want to get to a place where we are more settled into the new working practices.
Are you up to the job?
I don’t go for the superhero head thing. If a head does that they burn themselves out. But I am up to strategically managing the team around me, I would refer you to my track record where I picked up a school that I would suggest was in a worse state than this, that went into special measures three weeks after I arrived.
Are there other things you are going to be bringing in to better involve parents?
One of the things we are already involving them in is our Day Ten programme. We have a nine-day timetable then every tenth day we have extra curricular activities.
We are running our own Duke of Edinburgh’s scheme, some students are going sailing, some are going horse riding, we’ve got our own Army cadet corp, a rock challenge group. We’ve been able to bring in a wealth of volunteers from the community and some of those involve parents.
Part of our innovative curriculum is personalising the learning to each individual. And we want to involve parents on an individual basis.
My team have spent hours and hours talking to individual parents and listening to individual concerns: their particular learning needs, friendship issues, their worries, their concerns, their hopes , their dreams. All of those things we’ve got to be looking at on an individual basis.
- See today's Daily Echo for more on this story