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The start of the summer term, and in schools across Britain, teenage boys and girls are diligently preparing for the all-important exams that will shape their futures.
Teachers mark practice GCSE and A-Level papers late into the night. Pupils fret about coursework and grades. The smell of freshly cut grass drifts into crowded, silent libraries.
Unless, that is, these youngsters have the misfortune to be enrolled at Holland Park School, a famous institution in Kensington, London, known as the ‘Socialist Eton’ due to its popularity among filthy-rich Left-wing parents who refuse to educate their children privately.
This historic bastion of trendy liberalism, where politicians Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, Labour luvvies Antonia Fraser and Ken Russell, and generations of virtue-signalling local millionaires have sent their offspring, was on Wednesday the scene of an impromptu riot.
A protest by about 50 pupils against the recent stewardship of the school (following the departure of their longstanding headmaster) turned ugly when dozens of screaming troublemakers decided to burst out of classrooms and into the corridors.
Holland Park School, a famous institution in Kensington, London, was on Wednesday the scene of an impromptu riot
It seems that dozens of police officers, an ambulance and members of the fire brigade were called amid reports (later debunked) that knives had been brandished and acid thrown in the face of a teenage girl
‘Behaviour descended into chaos as 400-plus students were running around the school in period five,’ reads a letter of complaint sent by one shell-shocked parent to a local MP.
‘Staff felt unsafe and [discussed] calling the police. There is a real concern for the safety of our children . . . Children are now scared to go to school, and some are shaken.’
It was the second troubling incident in recent days. On Friday afternoon last week, an altercation at the school gates escalated into a mass brawl involving dozens of Holland Park School pupils outside a sandwich shop in nearby Notting Hill Gate.
Details are hazy, but it seems that dozens of police officers, an ambulance and members of the fire brigade were called amid reports (later debunked) that knives had been brandished and acid thrown in the face of a teenage girl.
Videos of the aftermath, showing two pupils being handcuffed and one bundled into a police car, have since clocked up more than 5 million views on the social network TikTok.
‘It was complete carnage and only good luck prevented someone from being seriously injured,’ says another parent. ‘Discipline has completely fallen apart. The whole place is a tinderbox. Just a few months ago, Holland Park was an outstanding school. Now it’s like something out of Mad Max.’
A protest by about 50 pupils against the recent stewardship of the school (following the departure of their longstanding headmaster) turned ugly when dozens of screaming troublemakers decided to burst out of classrooms and into the corridors
The school is a historic bastion of trendy liberalism, where politicians Roy Jenkins and Tony Benn, Labour luvvies Antonia Fraser and Ken Russell, and generations of virtue-signalling local millionaires have sent their offspring
Adds the mother of a sixth form student: ‘What is happening at that school is a monumental s***show which could well f*** up my son’s A-levels.’
Behind the unedifying scenes is an extraordinary political row that has been rumbling away since the back end of last year.
In a few short months, it has turned one of London’s most sought-after establishments — whose alumni range from Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee to Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston — into a case study of failure and dysfunction.
A few days ago, a ballot of unionised staff members saw 96 per cent of teachers (on an 87 per cent turnout) declare they have no confidence in their entire board of governors. They are now considering strike action. A coalition of roughly 350 parents is pursuing a separate legal complaint against the board.
Noisy demonstrations have been staged at the school gates, and staff meetings boycotted. Petitions are being circulated. And a recent emergency inspection by Ofsted is expected to be withering.
Governors are meanwhile facing ugly questions over why tens of thousands of pounds has been spent instructing top law firm Mishcon de Reya and political lobbyists to try to end the crisis.
The hostility dates back to a decision to dispense with the aforementioned headmaster, Colin Hall, late last year, amid disputed allegations he presided over a ‘toxic’ environment, with a rigorous focus on discipline and academic excellence that left some students feeling ‘anxious and unsafe’.
In a few short months, the political row has turned one of London’s most sought-after establishments — whose alumni range from Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee (left) to Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston (right) — into a case study of failure and dysfunction
Caught in the crossfire are both the former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, and his wife, Sally, who send their children to the school and were both occupying seats on its 12-person Board of Governors when some of the contentious decisions were made
Fallout from the claims saw Hall leave in February. Soon afterwards, governors decided to transfer control to United Learning, Britain’s largest Multi-academy Trusts (MAT), which operate outside of local-authority control.
That decision has outraged large numbers of parents and pupils, who would prefer Holland Park School to be run either independently, or by a more local organisation (United is based in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire).
They have since been mounting a vigorous campaign against the board that signed off the move, while teachers are also vehemently opposing the change. Caught in the crossfire are both the former Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, and his wife, Sally, who send their children to the school and were both occupying seats on its 12-person Board of Governors when some of the contentious decisions were made.
Holland Park School opened in 1958 as one of the first comprehensives. It was a testing ground for post-war egalitarianism and during its 1960s heyday it expanded to more than 2,000 pupils. As time passed, however, Holland Park began to symbolise the shortcomings of a Left-wing ethos that pervaded many comprehensive schools. Uniforms were ditched and ‘unfair’ streaming abolished. Pupils were encouraged to call their teachers by their first names. Misconduct went unpunished.
In the early 1970s, Holland Park snubbed the wedding of Princess Anne by requiring pupils to work through the national holiday (they were given a day off later).
By the 1980s, as one schools guide put it, ‘cool had turned to chaos’. Truancy and drug abuse were rife. In a memoir called Comp, John-Paul Flintoff, a pupil at the time, recalled one school chum became a crack addict who ‘cleaned himself up’ to become a dealer. Another student said it ‘made St Trinian’s look like Lucie Clayton’ [a 1960s finishing school].
Venerable Labour politicians Roy Jenkins (left) and Tony Benn (right) send their offspring to Holland Park School
Despite Holland Park School’s location in one of London’s most expensive postcodes, a majority of pupils hailed from sink estates in West London and received an education that condemned them to stay there
Fast forward to 2001, and Holland Park was one of Britain’s most notorious failing schools — with around 20 per cent of students leaving with no qualifications.
Despite its location in one of London’s most expensive postcodes, a majority of pupils hailed from sink estates in West London and received an education that condemned them to stay there.
Then came Colin Hall. A sometimes abrasive pedagogue, with a relentless work ethic and rigorous teaching standards, he set about reversing the decline, covering graffiti-stained walls in posters of the disciplinary code and accolades for the highest-achieving students.
Uniforms were reintroduced along with pupils placed in ‘sets’ according to ability and constant monitoring via testing.
Some £80 million was raised, via the sale of a playing field, to build a state-of-the-art building containing 36 specialist classrooms along with a gym, roof terrace and 25m swimming pool. In 2010, Holland Park won its first entry into the coveted Good Schools Guide, with more than 90 per cent of pupils obtaining five GCSEs at A*-C (compared to about 70 per cent nationally). A smattering of pupils each year got in to Oxbridge.
Its reputation was also transformed: previofusly pegged as a school for virtue-signalling champagne socialists, it came to be regarded as a genuine ‘community school,’ providing life-changing opportunities. Several of its pupils hail from the Grenfell Community, and one died in the tragedy.
Ofsted in 2014 described the school as ‘exemplary’ and said Hall led with ‘a drive and skill admired by all in the community’. But that admiration was in fact far from universal. For Hall’s exacting standards had for years upset the trade unions and other vested interests.
In 2009, the Guardian ran an article complaining that ‘nearly 100 of the existing staff (all NUT members) had left, complaining of stress, bullying, harassment and threats of capability proceedings’ if their pupils under-performed.
There were also concerns about the school’s financial management. Hall’s salary, which had been £70,000 in 2001, doubled in his first decade and then doubled again to an astonishing £280,000, making him one of the best-paid state-school heads in Britain.
In 2019 it emerged that he’d spent £15,000 on luxury Farrow & Ball paint and £6,000 on scented candles for the school buildings.
Last August, these long-running issues escalated into a major row after two articles in The Guardian raised serious concerns about his reign. One revealed that 26 recently departed staff members had written to the Education and Skills Funding Agency [ESFA], which regulates academies, with examples of what they called abusive management on his watch.
Nine signatories had been signed off for stress, depression or anxiety, which they blamed on the work environment, complaining that staff were publicly named and shamed for poor work or exam results.
The second letter, signed by 100 former students, claimed that they experienced a ‘toxic and abusive’ environment. One ex-pupil, Zahra Enver, told reporters that aged 15 she found her face on a poster saying: ‘Wanted for poor grades.’
Above: Promotional photo from 1985’s Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. Says a parent: ‘Discipline has completely fallen apart. The whole place is a tinderbox. Just a few months ago, Holland Park was an outstanding school. Now it’s like something out of Mad Max’
‘I actually needed help to turn things round. But there wasn’t any of that,’ she recalled. ‘It was just shaming and humiliation.’
By late September last year, Hall’s impending retirement had been announced. In the ensuing weeks, six governors — half the board — resigned. They were replaced by a raft of professional educationalists. None of them had any obvious connection to the school or local area, but all either worked for or had close professional links to either MATs or large non-profit chains of academy schools.
In November, the Government gave the school a ‘financial notice to improve’ saying it ought to rein in the salaries of top staff.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea commenced a ‘safeguarding review’.
An interim headmaster, Arwel Jones, was hired to run the school until September, on a salary equivalent to the thick end of £200,000.
Despite the growing atmosphere of chaos behind the scenes, daily life initially remained relatively unaffected. But everything changed in early March, when the governors announced that they had decided to transfer the school into the control of United Learning.
The move came as a complete surprise to staff and parents, none of whom had been offered any chance to say whether they thought it was a good idea.
A fractious dispute broke out. Initially, it revolved around hastily convened demonstrations at the school gates by both parents and pupils, and heated discussions among staff, who voted to boycott meetings with the new owners.
Both the local council and Conservative MP, Felicity Buchan, are backing calls for the decision to be reversed, while parents have voiced concerns about longstanding links between United Learning’s chief executive, Sir Jon Coles, and several of the governors, including interim head Arwel Jones.
A pre-action legal letter sent on behalf of the ‘collective’ earlier this month meanwhile states that they have hired David Wolfe QC and Sarah Sackman, barristers from Matrix Chambers, to seek a judicial review of the decision.
Among other concerns, they point out that the school’s ‘articles of association’ require its Board of Governors to contain at least two elected parent representatives.
Conservative MP, Felicity Buchan (above), is backing calls for the decision to be reversed, while parents have voiced concerns about longstanding links between United Learning’s chief executive, Sir Jon Coles, and several of the governors, including interim head Arwel Jones
At the time of the contentious decision, there was just one — John Bercow. His wife Sally’s term had ended in December.
There are currently no parents on the board since Bercow was forced to resign in mid-March after a Parliamentary report dubbed him a serial bully and a liar.
The governors insist that the Board was quorate when the decision was taken.
‘The governors’ sole priority and guiding principle is to make sure the school is again fit for purpose and providing the first-class education that students have a right to expect,’ they said last night. ‘It is simply not possible for this to be achieved without significant, long-overdue change.’
At the school gate, things are heated, and increasingly personal. The ‘collective’ was contacted by Sally Bercow this week. ‘She asked to join,’ says a source. ‘We agreed to add her to our email list, but she’s blackballed from the WhatsApp group because her husband was on the board which backed the transfer to United Learning.’
As to this week’s riot, parents were contacted on Wednesday night by Mr Jones. The email concluded: ‘We do not condone the actions of these students whatsoever.’
Doubtless this is true. But parents and pupils — whose outstanding school is now going to the dogs — are entitled to wonder why this kind of thing never happened on his predecessor’s watch.