Demonstration outside Blackthorns Community Primary Academy: Lindfield parents worried about joint leadership decision

Parents of children at Blackthorns Community Primary Academy in Lindfield held a demonstration outside the school gates today (Tuesday, January 4).

The demonstration started at about 10am in response to the decision to make Lindfield Primary Academy principal Mr Marcus Still the permanent lead principal of both Blackthorns and Lindfield from January 1.

The University of Brighton Academies Trust (UoBAT), which runs both schools, made this announcement in a letter to parents on December 14.

“We want Blackthorns to have independent leadership,” said demonstrating parent Jo Bryant, who is concerned that joint leadership will lead to a merger of schools and says the recent decision is ‘as good as a merger’.

Parents and children demonstrating outside Blackthorns Community Primary Academy. Picture: Steve Robards, SR2201041.

Jo said the aim of today’s demonstration was to show Blackthorns and UoBAT that parents want the former leadership, with acting principal Mrs Sarah Neller, to remain in place.

She also said many parents are signing their names to a letter calling for an independent investigation into UoBAT’s handling of the decision.

Demonstrators printed a banner that read ‘keep our leadership, keep our voice’ and asked parents to each attach a balloon to it to show their support.

Jo also said parents had chosen an inset day so their event would not affect children’s learning.

Jo Bryant and Katie Wishlade. Picture: Steve Robards, SR2201041.

“We have lost our own head (Mrs Neller) and have no assurance of what the future leadership of the school will look like,” said Jo, speaking about today’s protest.

“We feel that it is paramount for the children’s stability and the preservation of the unique characteristics of the school that a Blackthorns leadership team is maintained.”

Jo said parents are frustrated because the sudden joint leadership announcement was made days after the end of Project Enrichment, which aimed to strengthen educational and operational provision at both schools and help them work together.

She said she and others were concerned that the project’s aim was to merge the schools, but UoBAT said Project Enrichment and the recent leadership announcement were not linked at all.

Parents and pupils adding their balloons to the banner. Picture: Steve Robards, SR2201041.

Jo said more than 80 per cent of Blackthorns parents have now signed their names to the letter calling for an independent investigation into UoBAT’s recent conduct.

During the demonstration parent Katie Wishlade said: “I simply don’t trust the trust at all.”

Katie said she felt the Blackthorns’s community had been treated unfairly by UoBAT three days before the end of term last year and during a pandemic.

“Our community deserves that someone independent looks into their actions,” she said. “Ultimately it’s the children that will lose out.”

Jo Bryant. Picture: Steve Robards, SR2201041.

Parent Sophie Sayers said: “The Trust haven’t consulted with us about merging our school’s leadership.”

“They haven’t given any reason for their decision,” she added.

“We’re left asking ‘why is one head better than two’, especially when both Principals are exceptional leaders of Outstanding schools?”

Parent Nicholas Grimaldi said: “We feel totally let down by the Trust who have clearly taken absolutely no notice of our concerns and worries.”

“Blackthorns is an Outstanding school with dedicated and talented leadership, so this decision makes absolutely no sense to us,” he said.

A UoBAT spokesperson said: “We acknowledge that implementing any leadership change can be unsettling for the school community.

“The Lead Principal of the two academies, Mr Still, has demonstrable, exceptional school leadership experience, as recently confirmed by Ofsted,” they said.

“We wish to emphasise that our decision will ensure we continue developing and strengthening our learning provision to support our current and future pupils.”

The UoBAT spokesperson said the decision to implement a structure where leaders oversee more than one school is ‘not uncommon’ within schools and academies.

“The structure will enable the strengths and best practice in both academies to be shared for the benefit of all children in the local community,” they said, adding that the new arrangements will provide Blackthorns with stability after a year where there was no permanent leadership in place.

“Mr Still, supported by the Trust’s School Improvement Team, will guide, coach and mentor teachers and leaders across the two academies to support succession planning and the development of leadership capacity,” said the spokesperson.

“We were aware of a planned demonstration today and will continue to work with our school communities during this new term.”