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An east London free school has admitted some of its methods are “completely unacceptable” after an ITV News London investigation revealed allegations of extreme levels of discipline and pupils are referred to as “detainees”.
ITV News London has seen emails sent by teacher Barry Smith, who was brought into Hackney New School to improve discipline, calling pupils “detainees” when handing out detentions.
More than 7,500 detentions have been issued since the start of the new year, averaging at around 80 per day.
Leaked emails also show that on one day last year, more than 150 pupils were given detentions – half the population of the school.
Teaching staff were also given a handbook containing apparent sexist language to instruct their teaching, including the statement that following rules is considered “feminine”.
It adds: “Boys really, really don’t want to be perceived as feminine.”
The Community Schools Trust, which manages the site, defended most of its practices, saying it had inherited a “broken school” and stricter measures were needed. It also said behaviour of pupils had significantly improved.
However, the Trust did admit language used in the booklet handed to staff was “unacceptable” and the use of the word “detainees” was inappropriate.
Four members of present and former staff from Hackney New School approached ITV News complaining of the disciplinarian approach, claiming the methods of teaching was damaging pupils’ mental health.
The staff members, who have all worked at the school over the past year, spoke anonymously.
One said: “We’re encouraged to scrutinise their [pupils’] facial expressions. If they’re not smiling we’re encouraged to give them demerits or detentions.
“They’ll be told they’re not good enough to have certain privileges. Quite frequently they have been described as being lazy, and if they’re shuffling on their feet they can be given demerits.”
Another added: “One student was running up for the toilet, and I passed them, and their face kind of wobbled, and I said, ‘are you okay?’.
“I took them outside for a moment and they just started sobbing.”
Two pupils also spoke to ITV News London about their experiences at the school, saying a "toxic environment" have been created at the school.
Temilola, 15, said: "If we don't say good morning or good afternoon to a teacher, it's being rude. If we bring our sad mood into class it's being disrespectful. It's oppressing.
Another student, who wanted to remain anonymous, added: "Everyone knew how much pressure was being put on staff, the teachers and the students."
Hackney New School was taken over by the Community Schools Trust in November 2019 following a damning Ofsted report
During an inspection in July 2019, the school was judged to be “inadequate” because of poor safeguarding, low attendances, while children with special educational needs were also not given necessary support
The school was even forced to close for three days just one month before the inspection, because of “concerns about behaviour and safety”
The Department for Education (DfE) subsequently removed the schools governors, and the current Trust was brought in to improve behaviour
In February 2020, the Trust hired controversial teacher Barry Smith in a consultancy role to help tackle poor behaviour.
He was labelled Britain’s toughest headteacher in 2017 for his militant methods of teaching at Great Yarmouth Charter Academy, in Norfolk.
Mr Smith left the school amid allegations of “restraining a pupil” three years later. Neither Mr Smith nor the academy trust commented at the time.
ITV News has seen a handbook staff say was given to pupils at the start of his term.
It states: “Conforming, following rules, getting on with teachers, effort, conscientiousness, these are often considered ‘feminine’. Boys really, really don’t want to be perceived as feminine.”
In a broadcast interview, Chief Executive Simon Elliott said: “It sounds like the sort of careers advice we were given as a class in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s completely unacceptable and that has been updated. We as a Trust stand for inclusivity.”
When asked about Mr Smith referring to students as “detainees”, he added: “The advice around emails and how we talk to children has been corrected.
“But I must stress to parents that we do have a very fair and strict behaviour system that helps children to achieve.”
The Trust acknowledges it implemented strict new measures to improve behaviour following the school’s troubled history.
In March, the school claimed to have “eliminated bullying” by banning students from playing games such as football at breaktimes.
Instead, pupils are made to recite poetry and take part in quizzes supervised by teachers.
The teachers who approached us said the idea that bullying had been eradicated through the activities was “laughable”.
Upon hearing the allegations, the school's leadership team invited ITV News to film the poetry recitals and assemblies, saying it was these practices that had turned the school around.
Mr Elliott added: “We have children who do poetry, they’re engaged in activities, small group discussions, and on our playground here they’re under strict control. We’ve had no bullying complaints.
“Within three months we turned around what the Oftsed team described as a dangerous school into a harmonious place.”
A member of staff contacted local MP Meg Hillier raising concerns over the management of the school in November 2020.
In a statement, Ms Hillier said: “I was approached at the end of 2020 by a member of staff with concerns about the new behaviour strategy at Hackney New School.
“I was concerned and spoke to the Headteacher in early January. I am keeping a close interest in this matter and am receiving information from a number of sources.”
Members of staff also contacted Hackney Council, which is not accountable for the school, with complaints this year.
But the council defended the school's management, saying no complaints had been made by parents and officials have been impressed with the leadership on school visits.
The Department for Education which oversees the management of free schools, declined to comment.