Published: 12:17, 06 September 2021
| Updated: 12:19, 06 September 2021
Sheppey's Oasis Academy began the new school year without a dedicated head teacher following Tina Lee's sudden departure as principal.
She is the third to leave the Island's secondary school since it was taken over by Oasis in 2013. It's predecessor The Isle of Sheppey Academy sponsored by Dulwich College, and Minster College before that, both also failed to hang on to their heads.
Miss Lee officially left the building last month after presiding over the school's GCSE and A-level results.
The shock news was broken in a letter to the school's "hub council" - its version of a parent teacher association.
Louise Lee, Oasis Community Learning's regional director, wrote: "Over the summer holiday our previous principal Miss Lee left the academy.
"Oasis Community Learning would like to thank her for her long-standing commitment to the children and families of the Isle of Sheppey. We wish Miss Lee every success for the future. We will be informing our staff, pupils and parents of Ms Lee's departure this week."
The school, which continues to "require improvement" according to Ofsted, is spread over two sites at Sheerness and Minster.
The Rev Steve Chalke, the founder of Oasis Community Learning, insisted Miss Lee had not left "under a cloud."
He said: "The reverse is true. Tina has done a great job. For the first time in years we have a full intake of Year 7s and are having to use the Sheerness site again. We have also just received a really good letter from Ofsted saying the school is making real progress."
He admitted: "We are not 'good' yet but we are heading in the right direction. It takes a long time to turn a school around. For years huge numbers of children have been bussed off the Island every day."
Miss Lee's role has been taken by executive principal Andy Booth who has been drafted in from Oasis Academy Shirley Park near Croydon. He was also executive head at Oasis Academy Coulsdon.
Mr Chalke said: "Andy has come to take over the baton. He is one of our best assets and has huge experience."
In a message to parents on the academy's website, Mr Booth said: "As a rapidly improving school, we recognise the continuous work necessary to increase pupils' academic progress and attendance as we strive to meet and exceed national standards.
"Thus, our expectations around pupils' conduct and work ethics are high. Our school community is based on the 3Ps, which we call The Isle of Sheppey Way, which are to be Prepared, Polite and Productive."
When Miss Lee, a geography teacher, took up the appointment in 2018 aged 40 she had already been at the school three years.
She joined under David Millar for a one-year secondment and when he left suddenly in 2016 she worked under John Cavadino until he quit for health reasons after 18 months. Both men had commuted from Croydon every day.
Miss Lee's tenure of three years in the hot seat is something of a record for the school.
But her insistence on commuting daily from her home in Brighton may have taken its toll.
When she was appointed she admitted it was a "challenge" but warned: "It’s not a five-minute job. It is a huge commitment. I don’t put a time on anything because I don’t think you can. Anything personal can happen.
"It would be silly to say I won’t be going until the school has bells and whistles because I might be 85 by then. But we want to be a good school by September 2019. I want the academy to be a secure, good school where children leave suitably skilled and qualified for the next stage of their lives, whatever that might be.”
She was certainly dedicated, often at her desk before 6am and still on the premises at 7pm.
But her biggest challenge was recruiting staff and keeping them. It was one of the reasons Mr Chalke created the Sheppey Community Development Forum to try to instil pride in the Island and boost its reputation.
The school was designed to take 2,500 pupils but has often struggled to attract half that as more than 1,000 children are bussed off the Island every day to rival schools in Sittingbourne - leading to an acute shortage of spaces on the mainland coupled with increased demand from more housebuilding.
In April last year Oasis drafted in Ian Simpson from Bradford as an executive head to help pull the school around. He has since made way for Mr Booth.
In 2019 all pupils were switched to the Minster Road campus except for sixth-formers and those with special needs who were left at the Marine Parade complex in Sheerness.
In May, Miss Lee announced she was proposing 30 redundancies among support staff in a major shake-up of teaching jobs. She said the were needed so the academy could recruit more teachers for an influx of pupils. But furious staff affected by the changes blame “leadership ineptitude.”
It was followed in June with a 30-second video trying to recruit more teachers.
Retired priest the Rev Cindy Kent who chaired the Oasis Hub before moving off the Island said: "I always enjoyed working with Tina. She had a good range of interests which were reflected in the ethos of the school. I wish her well in whatever she goes on to do."
A spokesman for the school said: "Oasis Academy Isle of Sheppey continues to be led by experienced executive principal Mr Andy Booth with the support of the wider Academy Leadership Team.
"Over the summer holiday our previous principal Miss Tina Lee left the Academy. Oasis Community Learning would like to thank her for her long-standing commitment to the children and the families of the Isle of Sheppey. We wish Miss Lee every success for the future."
He added: "The Academy’s sole focus is on ensuring that each of our students has the opportunities that they need to make excellent academic progress and to fulfil their full potential."
Previously, Sittingbourne and Sheppey MP Gordon Henderson said: “Part of the problem is too many children leave Sheppey for Sittingbourne schools, not just to the grammar schools but also to Westlands, Fulston Manor and Sittingbourne Community College.
'I always said it wouldn't work and it hasn't'
“This will only change when Island parents are given a choice of secondary schools. I always said one academy over two sites wouldn’t work and it hasn’t. It needs two schools, preferably one for academic studies and one for more vocational subjects. That is the underlying problem.”
But he added: "The academy is improving. It would be wrong to keep rubbishing it.”
The school has received four successive judgements of "requires improvement". In a visit in October 2018, just after Miss Lee had been put in charge, the inspector told her: "Since your appointment, you have lost no time in sharpening management systems, improving teaching and clarifying roles and responsibilities.
"Aided by your senior leadership team and senior officers from the trust, you have taken effective action to review the curriculum and further strengthen the school’s approach to managing behaviour.
"Morale among teachers spoken to is high. They feel valued by leaders and believe that the training they receive is well matched to their needs. Pupils pay attention in lessons and take pride in their work."
'Calm and orderly'
It said the school was "calm and orderly" but absences remained above average.
In March this year Ofsted performed a "remote" visit because of Covid regulations and found leaders were "taking effective action" to provide education in the "current circumstances."
But it warned more was needed to "fully execute plans" to boost pupils’ reading skills and embed improvements for pupils with special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND) to "ensure consistency across the curriculum."
Tony Batchelor, former secretary of the Sheppey Parents Action Group, said: “Perhaps this is the right time to have another look at how education is structured on the Island?”
The 72-year-old, a former governor of Danley Middle School, said: “In 2007, school inspector Maurice Smith recommended two secondary schools which would compete against each other. It was a compromise between the three schools parents wanted and the single school Kent County Council preferred.
"Regrettably, although the two site structure was implemented, the competitive features envisioned were discarded.”
In September 2009, Cheyney Middle School in Sheerness and Minster College merged to create the Isle of Sheppey Academy sponsored by Dulwich College and KCC. When that failed, the school was offered to the Oasis Trust
Mr Batchelor said: “I did think some sense might prevail when principal Tina Lee said in the Times Guardian she envisioned one site could offer an academic perspective and the other a vocational prospectus. But nothing seems to have come of that. It is a huge pity that the past 12 years have not lived up to expectations.
"The losers in all this have been the students as their parents seek a choice and strive to secure school places off the Island. During the past decade the academy has struggled to fulfil the bright future promised by its original founders and has never achieved an Ofsted rating higher than ‘requires improvement.’
"A long succession of principals have come and gone. None has transformed the provision of secondary education. What I'd like to see is Borden and Highstead opening a satellite co-ed grammar provision on the Island to increase grammar capacity and to avoid the need for students to travel off the Island.
"If there could be some way of increasing competition for secondary/comprehensive places that would be an added bonus. But all the time there is spare capacity within the academy that is unlikely to happen. Parents and pupils deserve better.”