A pioneering free school, sponsored by Eton and opened by the Queen, has become embroiled in a racial bullying row just six months after accepting its first pupils.
Police were called to investigate two separate claims of bullying with anti-Muslim connotations involving the same child at Holyport College in Berkshire. In one case the 13-year-old Muslim boy was said to have had a knife and fork held to his neck by a fellow pupil and was called a “terrorist”.
Police also investigated claims that another pupil at the school had hidden a Swiss Army style knife with an “intention to attack”.
However, following a long-running dispute with the boy’s parents, last month the school decided to effectively expel the victim of the bullying, claiming he was “unable to cope with or benefit from the boarding environment”.
The case comes as new figures reveal that of 87 free schools inspected by Ofsted, 30 per cent have been judged to be inadequate or requiring improvement. This compares to just 20 per cent of all state schools.
In the case of Holyport, which was lauded as a new model for education when it opened in September, a report by the school’s safeguarding governor into bullying allegations found failings in the way the school had handled the incident.
The governor, who is the deputy headmaster of Eton, said there had been “deficiencies in the way the investigation was conducted”. He also concluded that while the school had “many procedures in place for the monitoring of pupil behaviour” he was “not convinced that comprehensive oversight is in place”.
Currently the school has only 122 pupils but it is planned to expand to 500 pupils over the next few years.
In an interview with The Independent, the family said their problems began in January when their 13-year-old son had a knife and fork held to his throat during an altercation at breakfast, while there was a teacher present in the room.
The family said the school initially downplayed the significance of the incident, saying their son had only been kicked on the shin. They said they were also not initially informed that the fight had included a racial element. The Muslim boy was called a “terrorist” and retaliated by calling his attacker a “black idiot”.
The boy’s parents said when they became aware of the seriousness of the incident they asked the college to temporarily exclude the attacker from the school but the headmaster declined.
The 13-year-old’s mother then reported the matter to the police with the intention, she said, that they would give the other boy a warning. But the situation then began to deteriorate for the Muslim boy – particularly after his mother wrote to some of the other parents criticising the school authorities.
This culminated in an incident in the dormitories when the Muslim boy got involved in a fight with another pupil who is said to have called him “twin towers”. Afterwards he was told by a friend that the other pupil was intending to attack him with a Swiss Army style knife. He reported the incident to the headmaster who searched the room and found a knife. The boy concerned was not suspended but was internally isolated from the boarding house.
Rather than take action to deal with the bullying, the parents claim the school decided instead to look for a way to remove their son.
The boy was accused of pressuring two of his friends to send him emails backing up his version of events. This resulted in the Muslim boy being suspended for four days. While he was at home his parents received a letter from the school informing them that it now considered their son “unsuitable for boarding” altogether. The headmaster also said the boy was “not adopting a positive attitude to his studies”. This included refusing to work with his Eton mentor and declining an invitation to attend a talk at Eton.
The boy’s mother told The Independent that her son was having his future educational prospects ruined even though he was the original victim.
“What really angers us is that having confronted the school with its failures, Holyport has decided that the easiest option for them is to effectively expel our son rather than confront their failures as a school. To us that is just wrong,” she said.
In a statement Holyport College, said: “The account given by the parents is selective and regrettably bears little relationship to the facts identified through the college’s investigations.
“We have spent a great deal of time with the parents, including discussing the behaviour of their son. Unfortunately, these efforts have met with a persistent campaign against the college, including unsubstantiated claims of discrimination.”
The national Islamophobia support and monitoring project Tell Mama, brought in to intercede on behalf of the parents said its investigations suggested that while there was poor behaviour on both sides the school had been “dismissive of the Islamophobic incidents” and “did not address fundamental safeguarding concerns”.
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