It was a high-flying school with a stellar reputation. Then the inspectors arrived
One of the region’s most prestigious schools stands accused of failing to protect its students and allowing racism and sexism to flourish. What’s going on inside?
By Mollie Simpson
In September, the teachers at Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School gathered in the school’s main hall. It was an inset day, when teachers do compulsory training, and the long, narrow hall in the school’s Edwardian building felt empty without students.
The head of school had some news that came as a shock to most of the teachers present: six years after being rated as “Outstanding” by Ofsted, the school — one of the most prestigious state schools in the North West — was now in special measures. Inspectors who visited three months earlier had delivered a report so damning and nightmarish that some of those who read it in the subsequent days could barely believe they were reading the right document. The official rating — “Inadequate” — didn’t remotely capture it.
“Incidents of harmful sexual behaviour” had gone unchallenged. The school had an “unsafe and dismissive culture in which racism, homophobia and misogyny appear to be accepted”. Things had gotten so bad, the report said, that many of the school’s students had “lost confidence in the ability of leaders and staff to protect them from harm”.
“There were a few teachers tearing up,” a former staff member remembers about that meeting in September. “Some teachers have worked there for decades, and it hurt them.”
The report cast a highly sought-after school in a dramatically new light. Bacup and Rawtenstall Grammar School, or BRGS, is one of only four grammar schools left in Lancashire and attracts students from across the region, who take a special admissions test devised by the school. This summer, 55 of its students got at least three A*-A grades in their A-levels, representing more than a quarter of the leaving class, and there have even been years when BRGS has ranked in the top ten schools in the country for English Baccalaureate performance. Between 2017 and 2019, its students received 21 offers from Oxford and Cambridge, one of the best Oxbridge records in the North West.
It’s also an institution renowned for its reassuring stability. Founded in 1701, the school has only had eight leaders since it moved to its present site in the early twentieth century, and four of those have been in the past two decades. One of the longest serving was a legendary headmaster called Martyn Morris, who led the school from 1988 to 2004, during which time he was honoured with an OBE by John Major’s government and advised four separate Secretaries of State for Education. “People always speak of academic results, but I believe we have created a caring, family atmosphere at the school, where everyone cares for each other,” he said on his retirement.
When the Ofsted inspectors last visited in 2016, they rated BRGS as outstanding in every category, praised for creating “a culture that enables pupils to excel as learners and develop as well-rounded citizens”. But after the latest report was released by the inspecting body, the walls caved in and many parents responded with bewilderment and panic. Speaking to the local newspaper, Samara Barnes, the local councillor for Hareholme, chose words that brought to mind the scandal-ridden institutions of yesteryear. “Young people will have been traumatised by what they have experienced during their time there. They may never get over it.”
Looking for answers
In September, Emma had just enrolled her daughter in the school — a high-achieving and well-behaved 11-year-old who had turned down three leading schools in favour of BRGS. Emma remembers the excitement they both felt about her starting at the school, but just days after the new term began, she was alerted to the presence of the Ofsted report by a letter from the chair of governors, Malcolm White. “I appreciate that you may find some of the report distressing,” White wrote, before reassuring parents that the school’s leadership was “taking this very seriously” and “making significant and important changes”.
Emma didn’t expect to be told precisely what the incidents of “harmful sexual behaviour” were, or how exactly the “racism, homophobia and misogyny” had manifested itself. But she badly wanted to understand the school’s response. How had they dealt with those problems? Parents had learned that the school’s deputy head James Johnstone had been promoted to acting head of school after the previous head Alan Porteous went on sick leave. But Johnstone had been the “pastoral lead” in the period when the Ofsted inspectors arrived — so she wondered why he was considered the right man for the job?
That same day, she wrote an email to Johnstone. “We are extremely concerned by the content of the Ofsted report,” she said, requesting a meeting. “The letter from Malcolm White goes nowhere near far enough to reassure us that BRGS is a safe environment for our daughter.”
Johnstone’s response was less than reassuring. “I completely understand your concerns and I am grateful to you for flagging them to us,” he wrote. “However, the inspection that led to this report took place in June, several months ago, and since then we have made good progress — and continue to make good progress — against the areas where we knew we needed to improve.” He informed her a parents’ information evening would be held in due course, and parents could submit questions in advance, some of which would be answered on the night.
Emma thought the event might not provide the answers that she and other parents wanted. She asked Johnstone to confirm that her questions would be answered that night. “This is not about educational standards or a minor complaint, this is about the safety of my child,” she wrote. Two days later, Johnstone responded that while he wanted to meet one-on-one with parents, with a school population of over 1,200, it would be impossible. If she wanted to submit further questions via email, he promised she would receive a response.
That was on 17 September, and by 27 September, there would be three unanswered emails from Emma in Mr Johnstone’s inbox. “My problem isn't that your Outstanding status has dropped, or even the fact that it's dropped to inadequate,” she wrote, “but because of the frequent use of the phrase ‘harmful sexual behaviour’ and the fact the children feel unsafe.”
When parents gathered in the great hall for the information evening, Emma felt that none of her questions — like what the severity of the incidents were, whether police had been involved, whether safeguarding training was now up to date — were answered. She felt there was little clarity about what the school was doing to address reports of sexual abuse.
Meanwhile, her daughter was struggling. In her blazer pocket was a report card that she was made to carry around with her, which teachers would mark off with a credit for any misbehaviour, or give a positive for good behaviour. Because of the strict no-phone rule, she was terrified of even looking at her phone in her bag. “She was petrified of getting things wrong,” Emma tells me.
On 27 September, Emma formally withdrew her daughter from school. The lack of clarity about how the school was responding to the Ofsted report, combined with the school’s newly hardline approach to discipline, had culminated in a toxic environment, she says.
Mr Johnstone immediately replied confirming he acknowledged her decision. “I would still very much welcome an opportunity to discuss with you your concerns. I would like to offer some reassurance to you,” he wrote. “Do you have availability this week to meet either in person, by telephone or virtually?”
“You have acted too late,” Emma wrote back. “I am not alone. You have hundreds of disgruntled parents after those evenings. I have consulted tens of people who work in safeguarding and education and they have been genuinely horrified by the report and the lack of action since the school were aware of the issues.”
In a statement to The Mill, BRGS said: “We discussed our response to the Ofsted report in six meetings with parents from each year group and could not have been more open and transparent about this. There has also been regular and ongoing communications with parents and the school organised drop down days specifically targeting the issues raised by Ofsted. We are pleased that the vast majority of parents and carers agree with the approach we take.”
On the question of Johnstone’s promotion, the school told us: “Our Acting Head of School is new in post and doing an excellent job in leading the changes as set out in the action plan set by the current executive Leadership, Endeavour Learning Trust, which is supporting the school’s improvement, and endorsed by our Governing Board.”
Since I started reporting on BRGS in mid-October, it’s been difficult to understand the scale of the issues outlined in the Ofsted report. Things are often unclear when you are reporting on schools — partly because they are not allowed to talk about specific incidents in order to protect the privacy of students, and also because you are relying, in part, on the accounts of teenagers.
What is clear is that the report has ushered in an abrupt change in how the school operates. The conversations I’ve had with 16 sources — including students, a former teacher and parents — point to a school in crisis, trying to work out how its hard-won reputation has been shattered in the blink of an eye and trying to respond.
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