Francis Martin reports on the Newham school that can’t stay out of the headlines.
In his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October, Boris Johnson drew attention to one particular institution – an example, to his mind, of what Britain’s education sector can achieve. ‘There is,’ he proclaimed, ‘a new school that anyone could send their kids to, in an area that has for decades been one of the most disadvantaged in London.’ Gesticulating for emphasis, Johnson lionised Brampton Manor Academy in Newham, a school that this year sent more students to Oxbridge than Eton. ‘If you want proof of what I mean by unleashing potential, and by levelling up, look at Brampton Manor.’
The school has regularly attracted headlines for its outstanding results – it did so again in spring this year when it had 55 students accepted onto courses at Oxford and Cambridge, seven more than Johnson’s alma mater. The plaudits focused on the fact that a state school in which 50% of students are on free school meals, and where only around 5% identify as white British, had bested one of the most expensive schools in the country.
How did they do it? ‘No fist bumps and 6am starts’, according to the Sun, and ‘success through effort and determination’, according to the school’s motto, although high grade requirements for entry and a dedicated University Access Team (UAT) of seven Oxbridge graduates who work solely on university applications are also part of the formula.
To Johnson, and to sections of the media, the school’s success is evidence of increasing equality in the education system, and is testament to what can be achieved with hard work and ambition.
There was, however, a notable omission from the laudatory reports which emerged from results day and conference coverage. In May this year, Yasmin Omar, a newly qualified biology teacher, who had recently been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, was found to have been discriminated against by Brampton Manor senior management based on her disability. In a rather different tone to the Prime Minister, the employment tribunal deemed the school responsible for creating a ‘hostile and intimidating environment’, which Omar was subjected to from day one of her time there. The case went unreported by all national and local news outlets.
Omar’s experience is not, however, an outlier. In a recent conversation, as this article was going to press, she told me that she has been contacted by over 20 ex-Brampton teachers since the judgment was released, all of whom wanted to share their own experiences and express solidarity. ‘We had a common feeling of fear, of feeling bullied,’ she told me.
Over the course of my investigation, I spoke to ten former members of staff and several ex-students about their experiences at the school. Their allegations suggest that behind Brampton Manor’s gilded public image there lurks a culture of fear.
According to Ahmet* a former teacher at Brampton, ‘the way they treat new teachers needs a new way to describe it: bullying doesn’t capture what they go through.’ Mark*, a former deputy head of a department, describes it as a ‘very intimidating workplace.’ He told me he has worked in five secondary schools but has never seen anywhere that compares to Brampton in terms of the mistreatment of staff.
What made Brampton such a difficult place to work in the experience of our correspondents? The hard-line approach to sick leave detailed in the employment tribunal’s judgment was often cited, along with a hostile attitude to any staff who had complaints or might want to seek alternative employment. Alex*, who worked in the much-applauded UAT, was summarily fired after raising concerns about workload and both the efficacy – and the ethics – of the school’s practices (Alex’s termination letter refers vaguely to ‘a significant negative approach to your work’ and offers no further explanation). Lesson observations were allegedly used excessively, and almost all of the former teachers I spoke to reported a struggle with the school to get a reference after they’d left Brampton. Many of my correspondents claimed that Yasmin Omar’s experience resonated with them. One former staff member told me that he made requests for minor adjustments to his work practices on account of a neurodevelopmental disorder – but found those requests ignored.
Is all this justified as the price of success? The school – which did not reply to multiple requests for comment – has a glittering status based on its ability to help disadvantaged students get into the country’s most august universities. The students themselves are indisputably deserving of all the praise they receive, but whether Brampton itself deserves these same plaudits is an open question.
In my reading, it seems that Brampton Manor’s success is not the result of some alchemical approach to education, but instead relies on a mixture of student hoarding, dubious practices and staff pressure. While it might pass in the current political commentary as the answer to educational inequality, could it be that Brampton Manor only obscures the deeper problems endemic in the UK school system?
Brampton Manor secondary school became an academy shortly after the coalition government passed the Academy Act 2010, and the sixth form opened in 2012. Unlike some of London’s most successful academies it is not part of a large federation, like Ark or Harris; the Brampton Manor Academy Trust maintains just one other school.
London sustains a diverse ecosystem of schools: in addition to the fee-paying institutions, there are free schools, faith schools, grammar schools, academies and numerous specialist colleges, alongside a dwindling number of institutions maintained by local authorities.
In Newham alone, there is the London Academy of Excellence, a free school set up in conjunction with a number of private schools, and Newham Collegiate Sixth Form Centre, which works in partnership with University College London. Both of these schools have impressive Oxbridge entrance rates, though, of late, they have been outshone by Brampton Manor.
The changes to the education system enacted a decade ago during Michael Gove’s tenure as Education Secretary allowed the new academies and free schools greater independence in their recruitment, curriculum and finances, as well as in their pedagogy and self-identity.
Michaela Community College, often cited as ‘Britain’s strictest school’, was one of the new free schools championed by Gove. The school’s founder and head, Katharine Birbalsingh, was recently appointed by the government as the new Social Mobility Commissioner. Commending the appointment, Liz Truss described her as ‘not indulging the soft bigotry of low expectations’.
I visited Michaela in 2016 and met Birbalsingh. I was impressed by her zeal, though the requirement that students engage in a supervised group discussion about ‘inspirational figures’ while eating their lunch struck me as excessive.
Over in west London, Holland Park School is another celebrated academy with links to Gove – at one point, his son was a student there. Currently, the school is in turmoil, following reports in the Guardian of a toxic and intimidating work environment for both staff and students, along with serious safeguarding concerns. An independent investigation has been announced by the school; several governors, including the chair, have resigned and been replaced; the headteacher, Colin Hall, departed the school shortly after the start of the autumn term.
Holland Park bears some similarities with Brampton Manor. Both academies have been celebrated for achieving impressive results, but also face accusations of being toxic work environments. Neither school has trade union representatives amongst their staff bodies, despite Holland Park once being known as the ‘socialist Eton’ for its egalitarian approach to education, and both schools have had long-serving and well-remunerated headteachers. Colin Hall was paid £280,000 a year at Holland Park, and as per the documents available on Brampton’s website, Dr Dayo Olukoshi receives between £250,000 and £260,000 for his work as ‘executive principal’ and as CEO and accounting officer of the Brampton Manor Academy Trust.
Unlike Ms Birbalsingh, who is a prolific user of Twitter, neither seem inclined to publicly advocate for their vision of education, and generally they keep a low profile even while their schools seize headlines: the only interview Dr Olukoshi has given was to Nigerian magazine the Interview, while the photo the Guardian used of Mr. Hall was from 2008. Dr Olukoshi did not respond to any of our requests for comment.
One of the effects of the Academy Act has been to make state schooling in London an increasingly competitive marketplace. Brampton’s admissions policy for sixth form is to discriminate based on academic achievement first and geographical proximity second, a system which has resulted in far fewer students coming up through the secondary school and other neighbouring schools, and a greater number travelling from further afield.
I spoke at length to Alex, a member of the UAT, who worked with a student who travelled three hours by train to get to school each day, a phenomenon corroborated by one recent Brampton graduate who told me that ‘a good proportion [of students] came from grammar schools in Southend. The distances are increasing year-on-year.’
This expansion, in Alex’s account, has had a knock-on effect on the sixth form’s demographics: they cited statistics that show the vaunted ‘50% free school meals’ figure as an average across the whole school, years 7–11 included, but does not apply to the sixth form in isolation. I asked the school to confirm this, but did not receive a reply.
As much as students are vying to get into the top sixth forms, London schools are competing for students. A reputation for securing places at top universities is a huge draw, and has led to Brampton being substantially oversubscribed, despite already operating with a student population far larger than its official capacity of 2,046 – statistics on the government directory of schools shows a total of 2,775 students in the secondary and sixth form sections.
David*, who worked in the UAT, told me that Brampton admitted around 520 new year 12s this year, despite the official capacity being 400. More students mean more funding, approximately £4000 a head, yet with that comes an increased strain on faculty workloads and facilities (reportedly, new rules have had to be introduced this academic year to ease congestion around the sixth form centre).
All the former teachers that I spoke with complained of being overworked. The UAT works individually with each student to help them prepare their university applications, and in the busiest periods of the year staff report working 70- to 80-hour weeks. Three of the seven-member team left this summer, after one was fired and two others resigned, and the school reportedly struggled to recruit replacements. One of the new recruits, I’ve subsequently heard, left after less than half a term, allegedly after conflicting with the school’s reluctance to organise events for Black History Month.
Staff turnover at Brampton is high: while no exact figures are available, Mark suggests that a 30% turnover was par for the course. This notional figure is supported by Valerie*, a former humanities teacher at Brampton, who told me that 55 employees left at the same time she did, out of a total staff body of around 200. Another teacher, who spent two years at the school and summarised it as a ‘horrible place to work’, reported that, when he left in January, he was one of 29 staff departing the school at that time.
Though extremely high in comparison to most schools, such figures support the trend of turnover being higher both in London and in academies. For teachers as well as students, London schools are a dynamic marketplace.
In the state schools that I have worked in, turnover is generally less than 10%. For two years, I had a part-time position in an academy in north Dorset, doing work similar to the UAT at Brampton. That sixth form was about a third of the size of Brampton’s, but hadn’t sent anyone to Oxford or Cambridge for several years.
If it had equivalent provision for university access, there would be two or possibly three full-time employees to do this work. Instead, I was working one and half days a week and, even then, I was effectively made redundant at the end of my second year due to budget restraints. Not all academies have access to the same resources, which is often overlooked when Brampton is held up as a model for what others can achieve.
State schools are not all equal when it comes to what they can afford, but nor are they the same in their priorities. Brampton has made ‘progression to elite universities’ its calling card: it is what it has become famous for, and the school seems to embrace this identity.
The segment from Johnson’s speech was, at time of writing, embedded on the home page of the website. Every summer the school account tweets photographs of selected students on results day, listing their achievements and where they’re going to university, some of which are ‘liked’ tens of thousands of times.
In a 2019 profile of Brampton Manor in the Guardian, written shortly after the school had forty-one students accepted onto courses at Oxford and Cambridge, Dr Olukoshi is quoted describing himself and his staff as ‘missionaries’.
However, the singular focus on continually increasing the number of students securing places at top universities is cited by former members of the access team as the root cause of their issues with the school. ‘The mentality is all about the numbers,’ David told me, adding that the sixth form aims to increase its intake every year in order to swell its Oxbridge entrance statistics (though, after taking around 520 new year 12s in 2020, they had to reduce the intake this year).
According to one recent member of the UAT, Brampton’s head of sixth form privately described 2021’s score of 55 offers as ‘not a total disaster’, an attitude in stark contrast to the school’s celebration of their students on Twitter. Constantly striving to improve on its Oxbridge number every year, it is drawing from an ever larger cohort of students as one straightforward way to achieve its goal.
The fixation on Oxbridge allegedly involves pushing students towards subjects where staff think the competition will be lower: for instance, directing a student who wants to study economics to apply for Land Economy at Cambridge, rather than the actual economics course. David informed me that the school has stopped running an A-level computer science course, solely because of their difficulty in getting students into Oxford to study the subject.
Speaking to staff and students, a consensus emerged that the focus on Oxbridge applications has led to a degree of segregation between those applying to Oxford and Cambridge, and those who aren’t.
Ahmet told me that ‘even students with straight As feel neglected to an extent, unless [those students] make it to the “Oxbridge Club”’, and one student complained about the practice of applauding successful Oxbridge offers in assembly, but ignoring those who are accepted at other universities.
Brampton’s admissions criteria state a requirement of a GCSE ‘grade point average’ of 6.5 (roughly equivalent to a mixture of A and B grades.) However, accounting for the school’s achievement-first attitude to student recruitment, the grades required for entry are far higher in practice. David described the peculiar theatrics of enrolment day: the students who had been invited were all present, and the sixth form staff started with those who had a GPA of 8.5–9 (equivalent to straight A*s). Once these students had been admitted, they proceeded to those whose GPA was 8–8.5, then to those with 7.5–8, and so on. They continued enrolling students way beyond the official capacity of 400, until around 520 students had been admitted. There were, alas, students who had been invited to enrol who were nonetheless turned away, and had to leave for home in front of their peers.
This brutal quality control is apparently repeated, unofficially, even after students have been enrolled. As John told me, ‘no students are forced to leave at the end of year 12, but some are heavily encouraged to, if they seem at risk of falling short in the year to follow.’ With an ever increasing intake of the highest achieving students, one could argue that there would be something awry if the school wasn’t sending increasingly large numbers to Oxbridge.
Moreover, with the high calibre of students that Brampton accepts and the number of them who are heavily encouraged to apply to Oxbridge, the figure of 55 offers is more or less in line with what you’d expect, given that Oxford and Cambridge tend to have around six applicants for each place.
This in no way diminishes the achievements of the students, each of whom works hard for and deserves their success, but does perhaps cast doubt on how much value Brampton is adding.
Having worked in admissions for an Oxbridge college, Alex agreed: ‘Brampton is not doing anything magic. It is lots of pain, and a lot of stress, for very little. We add a tiny bit of value with mock interviews, but these are more and more available now: from Oxbridge itself, and from charities like OxFizz.’ Alex had been excited to start working in Brampton’s UAT, but was almost immediately disillusioned. The workload was colossal, and they told me it was made worse by the disorganisation and ambiguity wrought by senior management.
A large part of the problem, in Alex’s opinion, was the extent to which Brampton fixated on personal statements, requiring multiple rewrites until the finished piece resembled an undergraduate essay. This, Alex tried to tell their line manager, was not what Oxbridge expected or required. But their views were ignored, despite their experience on the other end of the application process.
A lot of the pressure to get statements to this level fell on the UAT, and Alex says it was unclear how much they were expected to merely make suggestions on the student’s work, and how much they were expected to contribute themselves – both in terms of content and expression. ‘[UAT members] were overworked, stressed out, and burnt out.’ Alex was sacked after sending an email outlining these issues about workload and disorganisation, and asking for clarification regarding how they worked with students on their personal statements. They say that their concerns were shared by other members of the team, and had all previously been raised in person at different times to their line manager. The email was sent on Friday, and on Monday morning they were fired and escorted from the premises. Under the terms of their contract, which I have seen, Alex could be dismissed without having to go through the standard disciplinary process at any point within their first two years of employment. Alex was in the UK on a work visa, and yet – in their words – ‘they were happy to put me at risk of deportation just because I was complaining’.
‘They fired me to silence me and scare everyone else,’ Alex told me. This seems to be borne out by the testimony of another member of the UAT, who reported that, after Alex was sacked, they were summoned for meetings and asked about their future plans: ‘they were’, the other member relayed to me, ‘trying to scare us.’
John*, who has also worked in the UAT, was likewise uncomfortable with how the system was run and, like Alex, he questioned whether it was in the best interests of the students. Another of Alex’s former colleagues asserted that they ‘only got fired for putting things in writing that we’d all been saying’.
This kind of solidarity between staff seems to be relatively unusual, as well as unpalatable to senior leadership. Valerie said that ‘they didn’t like it if we were socialising and talking in the staff room, and we were encouraged to go to one of the sixth form rooms and do some independent work.’ Mark concurred: ‘you’re not allowed to have conversations with anyone else. It’s a very intimidating workplace.’
John connected this lack of shop-floor solidarity to what was perceived by some as the senior leadership team’s aim of restricting the means, if not the causes, of complaints, leaving staff ‘so downtrodden they want to get through the day with limited trouble’. As Ahmet put it, the ‘staff room was like a graveyard. No one wanted to be seen talking or “off task”, so you didn’t get to know many people, which in turn meant not much was discussed.’ This, he said, was necessary for the senior leadership to maintain an environment in which staff were discouraged from stepping out of line: ‘it had to be this way: divide and rule.’
It also, he alleged, prevented information from being discussed, which enabled an investigation into malpractice to pass under the radar. Ahmet’s allegations are incendiary: that, in an A-level revision session, the head of sixth form, Sam Dobin, was suspected of revealing the contents of an upcoming Economics exam. Dobin, in his role with the exam board, had been involved with writing the paper. OCR dispatched investigators who interviewed staff members, though information available on the Teaching Regulation Agency suggests that, to date, no case has been brought against Dobin. When I put all this to Mark, he told me that he had heard stories from students about ‘suspiciously precise revision materials’, and that other staff had mentioned the investigation. Mr Dobin did not respond to our invitation to comment.
Many former Brampton staff members seem to be scarred by their experiences. ‘People are bullied left, right and centre, especially if they are new to the school,’ Ahmet told me. He worked with a newly qualified teacher (NQT) at Brampton, whom he subsequently recruited to his new school: ‘he’d had the life sucked out of him’. Yasmin Omar’s experience, detailed in the employment tribunal’s judgment, captures something of what an under-pressure new teacher might face: frequent observations, followed by imprecise feedback that she was told she didn’t have to implement, at the same time as being told that she would be penalised if improvement wasn’t detected. This environment left Ms Omar fearing for her job and with an increased workload, both of which had a detrimental effect on her condition. Since moving to another school her multiple sclerosis has been in remission, even while teaching a full timetable. She spoke of the support she has received there as having ‘massively contributed to my wellbeing and helped me to sustain really good health.’
However, not everyone who leaves Brampton finds employment at another school. One former teacher I communicated with has left education entirely. He was not willing to have his name published, and despite reassurances was too frightened even to communicate over the phone. ‘All that I can say is that I left due to stress and pressure,’ he told me over text. ‘I am afraid of repercussions as they have power, influence and money.’ He cited the school’s failure to give him a reference as preventing him from getting another job.
Nikita*, who taught at Brampton for two years, told me that ‘the headteacher didn’t want to give me a reference. I had to chase them.’ Mark echoes these comments, telling me: ‘the headteacher refused to do a reference for me.’ He spoke of a colleague, who was struggling to get a reference for a prospective new employer, allegedly being informed by his line manager that he’d only receive a reference if he resigned first.
Valerie* told me she had heard the same, and that she knew of many people who had struggled to get references after they left. Another contact who didn’t want to be interviewed cited their fear of not getting a reference as their reason. Nikita saw this apparently obstructionist approach to references as ‘their way of playing with people’. Mark likewise saw the apparent reluctance to give references as part of a wider strategy of intimidation that is designed to encourage obedience.
The judge in Yasmin Omar’s case cited the fact that Ms Omar was refused permission to leave a training day half an hour early in order to attend an urgent blood test as an act of harassment. According to staff, this kind of stricture is common practice.
Valerie, who left the school in the summer, described being too scared to take a day off sick, even when she needed it, such was her fear of the consequences. She knew of someone who had taken three days off before returning to work in a neck brace, but was nonetheless treated with suspicion. ‘Calling in sick is a no-go zone,’ Ahmet told me. ‘I’ve heard of people who have been called when they’ve been in a hospital and told to come back to work.’
For Ms Omar, one day of sick leave was sufficient to trigger the school’s ‘managing absence’ programme, in which staff are set the target of no further days off due to illness. Such a formalised process is likely to be intimidating, especially to NQTs who are potentially less aware of their employment rights, and who are anxious about the fact that they are on a probation period.
As stringent as Brampton’s rules are, some claim that they are not applied consistently. Mark alleges that one NQT was paid on her sick leave, in spite of the policy to only do so if they are able to provide cover work (a policy which meant that Yasmin Omar, in receipt only of statutory sick pay of around £100 per week, was left homeless while still employed by the school). This NQT eventually got promoted to a middle-management position, which he cites as evidence of an ‘abuse of power – staff they like, whose face fits, it’s a wink and elbow, and they expect something in return.’
This description matched Valerie’s impression that, in order to get promoted, one had to ‘copy [senior leadership’s] exact behaviour, take on their mannerisms, have a crazy work ethic and you can’t say anything bad about Brampton.’ Several correspondents used the word ‘cult’ to describe the atmosphere. Nikita asserted that ‘if you buy into their ideology, they’ll reward you with positions and [by extension] money.’
Another common complaint is that management disorganisation is exploited in order to undermine and demoralise the staff. ‘They wanted to withhold information, keep things secret. Maybe it’s a power thing,’ John told me. He described a system of ‘deliberate disorganisation’ for the purpose of ‘keeping people on their toes […] keeping control by keeping things unpredictable.’ He cited numerous occasions on which plans were changed without consultation or communication, leaving the members of the UAT with an increased workload. As they were in regular direct contact with the students, with whom they worked closely, such abrupt U-turns put them in an invidious position, having to explain changes that they themselves did not understand. David agreed. ‘They deliberately make people do things that are completely stupid just to keep them in line,’ citing the school’s extremely strict discipline as an example: detentions are doled out for leaving a classroom by the wrong door or wearing the wrong-coloured coat.
Whether the disorganisation was deliberate or not, the fact that it was perceived as a tactic suggests a breakdown of trust between teaching and support staff and senior leadership. I asked the members of staff that I spoke with about their contact with Dr Olukoshi, the executive principal, and most reported having very little contact with him, seeing him as remote and unapproachable.
Since moving to a new school, Valerie told me: ‘I have to remind myself that I am able to speak to the headteacher’. Mark is overtly critical of Dr Olukoshi, claiming that ‘if you get on his wrong side then that’s it. He will go all out against you’.
According to Mark, appraisals were weaponised in order to force teachers out who weren’t sufficiently pliable: ‘if he wants you out, he will fail your appraisals. They’re looking for a yes person, who doesn’t challenge any of the rules. If anyone raises concerns about workload, they can forget any chance of passing their appraisals. They create a system whereby they can easily fail someone if they want.’ Part of Gove’s reforms involved making it easier for schools to sack teachers who were judged to be underperforming, and allowed heads to conduct more lesson observations. Staff I spoke to complained that they were frequently subject to surprise observations, which made them feel targeted by senior leadership.
As reported on the website Education Uncovered, a group of former teachers wrote to Ofsted shortly before the school was inspected in 2018, outlining their experiences and the ‘culture of fear’ in the school. Nonetheless, Ofsted rated Brampton ‘Outstanding’, and wrote that staff ‘feel well supported.’
The judge in Yasmin Omar’s discrimination case ruled that ‘the education of its pupils to achieve at the highest level and ensure their success and the success of the school are legitimate aims for the respondent [Brampton Manor]. It is legitimate for the school to want its teachers to attend school and to perform at their best. Every child is entitled to the best education that the school can give. […] However […] it is our judgment that the means chosen for achieving those objectives were not proportionate or appropriate in the circumstances.’
I asked my correspondents why they thought that the press had ignored Yasmin Omar’s case and not raised any criticism of Brampton Manor. John put it bluntly: ‘people are terrified of being seen as against getting poor students or black students into university.’
Everyone I spoke to had come to Brampton in the first place because they believed in its mission to address educational inequality, but all were left disillusioned. John identified the school’s guiding philosophy as ‘“just work harder”, which echoes the far-right argument about poverty.’ In his view, the school’s leadership have merely come up with a way to ‘juice’ the current educational system, a system which gives individuals and organisations the freedom to enact whatever vision they prefer, or from which they can profit.
The transformation of UK state schooling into a chaotic marketplace makes it harder for any strategic vision to be realised. Brampton has formulated an eye-catching and highly marketable model, but, even putting aside the troubling aspects of the school’s practices, most of their methods are simply not replicable on a systemic level. Not every school can be hyper-selective, nor can many afford to employ an access team.
Those who cheerfully hail Brampton Manor as an example of ‘levelling up’ and pat themselves on the back, reassured that the march of progress is well underway, ignore not just the particular problems with this specific institution, but also the extent to which educational inequality is intrinsically linked with wider issues of social injustice: regionalism, racism, and the operation of cultural capital. It would take a bold politician to attempt to reform the system in a way that addresses these complex problems, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t try. As Brampton’s motto asserts, success can only come through ‘effort and determination.’
*Names have been changed
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