This is the third in a series of articles which tells my first-hand experience of the current toxic politics putting a dark cloud over Oldham. Previously I have touched on the abuse, harassment, and intimidation, fed by hatred and division in the town. As the articles set out the consequences of the campaign, it was important to explain where and how it began.
These posts will first explore the introduction and failure of a Free School, the subsequent government intervention, and the official investigation which sparked the online campaign of abuse, harassment, and division in Oldham.
For Collective Spirit Free School, the range of complaints related to safeguarding was growing. For any school it would be a concern, but this was only a small school with just over 200 pupils. Reports included violence against pupils; an assault against a child by a member of staff, and that at least two members of staff had been accused of acts which sexualised young people. This included a confirmed example of a male member of staff placed on an ‘improvement plan’ after it was discovered he had observed girls changing, he was only removed from the premises after being caught for a second time.
These accounts are deeply concerning, but it is important to remember that many of the staff were trying hard to provide support to pupils at this troubled school.
Further, it was claimed that the school did not carry out safeguarding checks on incoming staff, allowing for at least one example of a member of staff who had previously been dismissed for a serious safeguarding breach, it is alleged that this was only discovered on a visit by a government education official who recognised the individual.
The allegations went further to suggest that the safeguarding register was falsified to mislead inspectors into believing checks had been carried out.
The most concerning case related to a pupil at the school. There is very limited information which can be placed in the public domain to ensure the identity of the victim is not compromised. However, what can be said is that a Serious Case Review would later find that the lack of robust safeguarding standards at the school contributed to the prolonged sexual abuse of a pupil.
In response to a previous post, the school’s former CEO Raja Miah took to his podcast to claim; “The safeguarding concerns were raised by McMahon maliciously, falsely, and I was found to be at fault of nothing to do with safeguarding, Zilch. Financial irregularities. Again, nothing Zilch.”
The extent to which Raja Miah had effective management of Collective Spirit Free School and its sister school the Manchester Creative Studio as CEO is something he has failed to fully explain. All the concerns raised by Ofsted related to the schools are a matter of public record and have received wide coverage in local and national press. The individual cases have been provided through a whistle-blower who provided a contemporary school record of incidents. All these complaints, which had been shared by parents and teaching staff, were referred by me in my capacity as a Member of Parliament to the appropriate Local Authority Safeguarding Unit, and to Greater Manchester Police.
A RAPID DESCENT ON STANDARDS
As concerns escalated, so too did calls for action on the Collective Spirit Free School and the GM UTC (Greater Manchester University Technical College). As the constituency MP for the two establishments, I had been in regular dialogue with the Regional Schools Commissioner and government ministers on supporting pupils, and in raising specific concerns.
The GM UTC was closed after just two years, with reports that not one single pupil achieved GCSE’s A-C in English, Maths and Science. Ultimately the failure to attract pupils to fill it’s 600 capacity meant the £14m project ended abruptly. After many years of work, and significant lobbying to central government the building was used as a temporary facility for pupils later displaced by the closure of Collective Spirit Free School, before being transferred to Oldham College. Nationally a host of other UTC’s came to the same fate, closing after just a few years.
For Collective Spirit Free School, the descent was far more dramatic; as complaints from parents and teachers mounted, inspections catalogued failures here and at its sister school, the Manchester Creative Studio School.
An Ofsted inspection carried out in 2016 provided the most serious evidence that the Collective Spirit Free School wasn’t just struggling, but that pupils were being placed at risk, judging it to be ‘Inadequate’ in every area.
Worryingly the Ofsted inspection raised further questions about the allocation of resources, with emerging allegations that funds were being taken from the school into companies owned by, or with direct conflicts of interests of its CEO Raja Miah and Chair of Governors, Alun Morgan. Concerns on payments being made continued on the appointment of its new chair, Mohib Uddin.
Concerns were raised about the building contracts, security & cleaning contracts, and catering provided to the school, among others.
The quality of school meals, provided through a catering company associated with Raja Miah was criticised, with Ofsted reporting that pupils were banned from bringing in lunch, instead having no choice but to use the onsite catering. However, it concluded that the food was so inedible that children would throw it away and go hungry, adding to a lack of concentration which disrupted learning even further.
It was reported that the school didn’t have a library, nor suitable books, and that the school did not make use of the local public library either. It went on to say that teaching was so poor that it would affect pupil behaviour, highlighting too the excessive rate of exclusions.
The following year its sister school, Manchester Creative Studio School, also run by CEO Raja Miah, received an Ofsted inspection, again being judged to be ‘Inadequate’ in every area. It found significant problems including serious and widespread failures in the school’s safeguarding arrangements, leaving pupils unsafe. It reported that there were significantly poor standards of teaching, and profound failures of the governing body to address ‘far-reaching failures across the school.’
The inspection also found the school was failing to support the most vulnerable and at-risk children, saying that nearly 40% of disadvantaged pupils were regularly missing from school.
The matter was raised by me and other MPs in Parliament, and for some time we were met with indifference and secrecy by the Department for Education.
Collective Spirit Free School was placed in Special Measures and subsequently issued with a financial notice. Aside from the spider’s web of transactions, the immediate concern was drawn to the safety of, and support given to pupils.
GIVING A VOICE TO THOSE AFFECTED
On the closure of the Collective Spirit Free School my office worked to support parents and pupils adjust to a new school, with Oasis Academy agreeing to take on those who were displaced. Months of negotiation took place where we would make recommendations to government to provide catch up support, financial support for new uniforms, and support to address transport issues.
As the school closed its doors the pupils, parents and staff were left to pick up the pieces and to try and move on. For some this proved extremely difficult, and the voice of those affected should be heard.
Parent A said, “I once had a high achieving, happy, confident son. I now have a very miserable young man who doesn’t want to go to school anymore. He is very anxious a lot of the time and I am very worried about his mental state.”
Child A said, “I’m at the point where I feel like I’ve been robbed. I don’t want it to happen to anyone else. I’ve had my education ruined.”
Parent B said, “My child used to attend the school prior to its closure. I feel that those responsible need to be held accountable for the ongoing trauma suffered by former pupils. Particularly vulnerable pupils. I believe until a full large-scale review is undertaken the parents and pupils will not be happy as the issues surrounding the school were on many fronts. Including mismanagement, misappropriation of funding, poor education, safeguarding to name a few.”
A letter signed by 86 of the parents at the school set out the impact; “Naturally parents have been deeply upset and frustrated by the promises that have been made and these have not been forthcoming nor has there been any clarity from the local authority and the DfE.”
“As parents of pupils who attended Collective Spirit, we have been badly let down by the DfE and as a consequence the educational progress and attainment of our children has drastically suffered. This will have a significant impact on the life chances of our children.”
“We would also like the DfE to fully investigate the financial probity of the collective spirit trust, as we personally believe serious questions needs to be raised with regards to the financial management of the school and its CEO. We are disappointed that thorough due diligence was not carried out on the trust members and the CEO which has led to the collapse of collective spirit.”
As time passed on the pupils reached the end of their school experience, Oldham Council conducted a review to establish the extent to which pupils had fallen behind, and the continuing impact it had as they progressed to complete their secondary education. The report showed that not only did the pupils fall behind when compared to their peers previously at the same level, but that they never recovered, with it impacting on their exams and having huge consequences on their educational outcomes.
SCHOOL FAILINGS THROUGH TO FINANCIAL CONCERNS
The next post will set out the concerns raised on financial conduct, and the resulting investment, together with the numerous outstanding questions.
It will then move on to a further post covering the two-and-a-half-year period the online campaign has been running for, which has created a toxic and dangerous political culture in Oldham leading to abuse, defamation, and death threats.