Turmoil at London school hit by flag and hairstyle row

A London secondary school that has been criticised for changes to its policies, curriculum and strict new uniform policy is in turmoil, facing mass staff resignations, a student protest and a vote of no confidence in its headteacher.

One teacher predicts a “mass exodus” of staff at Pimlico Academy with up to 30 members due to leave at the end of the year. Students are also planning a large protest to be held in the school grounds on Wednesday morning.

The National Education Union, which represents teachers at the school, was holding a vote of no confidence on Tuesday night in the academy’s new principal designate, Daniel Smith, and taking an informal vote on whether to pursue strike action.

The Guardian exclusively revealed last week that students, parents and some staff at the central London academy were angry over hairstyle and hijab rules, and changes to its history curriculum.

Over the weekend the school walls were daubed with graffiti, which has since been removed. Photographs seen by the Guardian included criticism of the union jack that remains permanently erected outside the school: “Ain’t no black in the Union Jack …” There were also calls for Smith to be sacked. Other graffiti said: “White schools for brown kids are u mad” and: “Pimlico Academy … run by racists … for profit!!!”

On Wednesday morning children are expected to stage a sit-down protest in the school grounds, refusing to go to their lessons. On Tuesday morning a member of the senior leadership team asked pupils to cancel the protest but pupils said it made them even more determined to take action.

“We believe the school has unfairly targeted groups of students. The school should protect marginalised races, religions and other groups instead of target them. We should see ourselves and our backgrounds represented in our studies,” one pupil said.

The pupil called for urgent change, saying some students at the school felt outraged that there was allegedly no recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement or Black History Month and that concerns about the placement of the union jack flag had been repeatedly ignored.

“There have been a lot of changes recently. Previously, Pimlico may not have been the best school but we were represented and we felt we were heard when we raised issues but now that’s not the case. The flag has become a symbol of us not being listened to. It’s strange but feels like we are being colonised," sy het gese.

“In September, many students expected assemblies … in light of the Black Lives Matter movement to show solidarity and support for Black students, but were disappointed. In plaas daarvan, students were told to form a club to discuss their experiences, rather than uplifting the voices of Black students,” she added.

A teacher at the school, who had handed in her resignation and is due to leave this year, said staff also felt demoralised and fundamentally disagreed with certain choices that had been made by leadership of the academy trust.

Describing the situation as “heartbreaking” she said she could not work in a school that no longer reflected her values and ethos. Around a fortnight ago the whole of the geography department at the school allegedly handed in their notices in solidarity with a colleague who was dismissed earlier this year.

“It is heartbreaking to know that so many exceptional teachers will be leaving at the end of the school year. Many feel their hand has been forced as their own values are no longer in line with the senior leaders in school," sy het gese.

Sy het bygevoeg: “Pimlico has a proud history of celebrating its diverse community, so to have a situation where young people do not feel represented, and staff voices are not being heard, is very sad.”

In September 2020 students took down a union jack that had been erected outside their school, and burned it. Four weeks earlier, pupils had started a petition in response to the academy’s strict new uniform policy, which stated that hairstyles that “block the views of others” would not be permitted and hijabs should not be “too colourful”. The pupils accused the school’s management of racism, claiming that the new policy would penalise Muslims and those with afro hairstyles.

Concerns had also been raised that the history curriculum had been rewritten chronologically which resulted in references to BAME communities being removed, and meant the focus was on white British kings and queens.

The academy is run by Future Academies, which was set up by the minister in charge of academies, Lord Nash, and his wife, Caroline, in 2006. They both maintain prominent roles in the organisation.

John Alfred Stoddard Nash was a Conservative donor before being given a peerage in 2013 and made the minister in charge of academisation. Lady Nash, co-chair of governors of the school, as well as the chair of governors at two primary schools in the academy chain, is a former stockbroker. The trust’s Curriculum Centre describes her as the “leading force in curriculum development across the trust”.

The Guardian put a series of detailed questions to Future Academies but it had not responded at the time of publication and has previously denied that it was failing to take issues around race seriously and said it was the victim of a scurrilous campaign to undermine the school. It said the school was an inclusive and diverse community.

A spokesperson said the union flag was a “symbol of the school’s commitment to fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs”. It defended the school’s history curriculum and said students learned about many diverse aspects of world history and how these had influenced British history.

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