15. Aug, 2020

Black Lives Matter - From the people (John Whitehead, previous Headteacher) who worked with SMV Gov.

The Society of Merchant Venturers is ‘not fit’ to run schools in Bristol - according to a man who was the headteacher at one of their most prominent schools until last year.

John Whitehead, who was the principal at Colston’s Girls’ School for three years until the summer of 2019, questioned the very presence of the organisation’s deep involvement in education in Bristol.

The Society of Merchant Venturers has released a number of statements in the month since the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston which change that organisation’s stance on its history and the way in which Edward Colston is commemorated in Bristol.

In response to Mr Whitehead's statements, the Society defended its record in education in the city, and said it takes the responsibility of running schools in Bristol ‘extremely seriously’ and it continues to ‘review and evaluate our approach’.

This is said despite SMV failing to secure good Ofsted judgments for schools that it has been responsible for since 2012 and employing 6 different executive leaders, only one of those 6 is currently in situ, in a period of 5 years

When SMV sponsored primary academies Kingfisher, Bannerman, Barton Hill and Merchants All Through Academy none were judged by Ofsted as Inadequate. Yet within 3 years of them sponsoring these vulnerable schools, 3 of them were judged as inadequate and one, which had a good judgment was downgraded to Requires Improvement. It is one of the most failing Trusts in Bristol. Is this evidence a testament to John's statment that SMV is not fit to run schools?

Speaking to Bristol Live in the weeks after the removal of the statue of Edward Colston, Mr Whitehead told how he tried and failed to begin a consultation to change the name of Colston's Girls' School, but was overruled by the Society of Merchant Venturers which runs the school.

Mr Whitehead joined Colston’s Girls’ School in Montpelier as a member of the senior leadership team in 2013, and took over in 2016 when allegations surfaced about the principal at the time, Alastair Perry.

Mr Perry was subsequently convicted in a historic case of sexual assault on a child, in a court case which saw him given character references by senior figures, specifically, Anthony Brown, Trevor Smallwood and Richard Wynn Jones, all members of the Society of Merchant Venturers and senior governors with significant influence and control in their failing primary schools.

Mr Whitehead was promoted in 2016, and was principal for three years until he left in the summer of 2019 to take over a failing school in the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire.

He said the efforts of he and his senior leadership team to modernise the school, and its practices that commemorated the slave trader Edward Colston, were something of a battle with the Society of Merchant Venturers, which runs the school and had installed one of its members, Anthony Brown, as its chair of governors.

Mr Whitehead said his experiences in six years at the school led him to conclude the Society of Merchant Venturers were not a fit and proper organisation to run educational establishments in Bristol. The fact that their sponsored primary and secondary schools continue to be in failing Ofsted category, with 4 after having been 6 years under their control and the trust employing their 6th executive leader in less than 5 years, would suggest that this is true.

The 2017 row, which I witnessed. 

Within a year of taking over as principal, the issue of the school’s links to, and commemorations and celebrations of, the slave trader Edward Colston were thrust into the public eye.

The Colston Hall announced it was thinking of changing its name, another primary school was following suit, and the group Countering Colston had begun small-scale demonstrations outside the Colston commemoration church services held by schools associated with the Society of Merchant Venturers, including CGS.

For generations, pupils at schools run by the Society of Merchant Venturers, and other Church of England schools like St Mary Redcliffe and Bristol Cathedral Choir School, took part in church services and ceremonies to celebrate and commemorate the slave trader Edward Colston.
Mr Whitehead said he tried to minimise those ceremonies and services during his time at Colston’s Girls’ School.

Right up until several years ago, an annual commemoration day, called simply ‘Commem’ within the school, saw the girls attend a church service where Colston’s will was read out, wear a metal chrysanthemum - his favourite flower - and eat Colston Buns.

Pupils were traditionally taken to see his tomb, and his preserved fingernails and hair - a practice which had been restricted by the 2010s to just the head girl each year.

Those practices have been outlined in detail by former pupils like Great British Bake Off star Bryony Williams, who criticised the school for not teaching her about Edward Colston's slave trade links during her time there, and former Lord Mayor of Bristol, Cleo Lake.

At CGS, they continued up until the mid part of the 2010s, when Mr Whitehead was there.
“The leadership of the school successfully fought to remove the cult of Edward Colston from school events,” he said.

“We removed reference to Colston from the Commemoration event; ended the annual visit by the head student to Colston’s tomb and covered the CGS statue of Colston from public view,” he added.

The dropping of any mention of Edward Colston’s name at a Commemoration Day service held to commemorate the slave trader happened in October 2017 and was revealed by Bristol Live, who reported instead the service would be about remembering the victims of slavery.

Colston's Girls' School Commemoration Day will not mention Edward Colston - but will remember slavery.

But the question of the school’s name was the most obvious public acclamation of the merchant who did more than anyone in the late 17th century to industrialise the scale of the transportation of enslaved people from west Africa to the Caribbean and North America, and opened up the genocidal trade to Bristol’s merchants.

In late October, with the Commemoration Day changes revealed by Bristol Live, the school announced it would be considering a review into the name change.
Mr Whitehead told Bristol Live that ‘review’ lasted barely more than a day.

It was something Mr Whitehead said the staff were keen to do at Colston’s Girls’ School.
“CGS is a superb school that offers the best education to young people of all backgrounds in Bristol,” he said.
“At the same time the school carries the name of a slave trader. Many of the BAME students at CGS felt angry and disrespected by this.
“There was always a feeling that something wasn’t right; that the school was compensating for the dysfunction of powerful and unaccountable forces that did not put the futures of young people first.

“There was a strong feeling in the school that we should have started a consultation with the community about changing the school name,” he added.

Mr Whitehead said he began that consultation informally with teachers and some pupils, and then went with the senior leadership team of teachers to the Merchants Hall, the headquarters of the Society of Merchant Venturers, to make a presentation.

“It wasn’t really a presentation about why we should change the name, it was just a presentation about how we would do the consultation, what form it might take and who it might involve.

“I was keen to get the pupils involved, and the teachers and the parents too,” he said.

“We presented this to a panel of Merchant Venturers, including the chair of governors of the school.

“It’s fair to say that they were not enthusiastic about it. Their fear was that it would become a huge public event and a big political issue, and that campaigners from Countering Colston would make it very publicised.

“They were very nervous about that, that we might get students and parents being pressured by the campaigners.

“We had a discussion and went away. But we as a senior leadership team within the school were keen to press on, and began to talk to staff about the idea,” he added.

But Mr Whitehead said that within a matter of a few days, before any consultation was announced, Mr Brown intervened again.

“He came in and had the senior leadership team in, and he basically read us a long paper that had been written by a university in America as justification why they were not going to change their name, but he’d adapted it to Bristol and Colston,” he added. “And that was the end of the discussion.”

Mr Whitehead said there was no further discussion about the question, and then a long statement was issued by the school announcing the name was not going to change.

In the October of 2017, the first Commem happened without mentioning Colston, and within a week, the school made the announcement that the name would NOT change, in early November 2017.