Hackney New School building
Canal-side view of Hackney New School building. Photograph: HHbR

Hackney New School (HNS) is set to complain to broadcasting regulator Ofcom over an ITV News report last week that detailed allegations of extreme disciplinary measures, including pupils in detention being referred to as “detainees”.

HNS, taken over by the Community Schools Trust (CST) in November 2019 following a damning Ofsted report which forced it to shut because it was “unsafe” for students, is seeking an apology from ITV through Ofcom.

It claims the report was unfair in the context of how much the school has improved since then.

ITV, which said it stands by the story, reported last week that more than 7,500 detentions had been handed out to students since the start of the new year, averaging at around 80 per day.

It presented emails that showed over 150 pupils were given detentions on one day last year – half the school’s population.

The broadcaster also revealed a handbook given to teachers which the school says was prepared by consultant Barry Smith, widely known as ‘Britain’s toughest headteacher’.

The document includes an assertion that following rules is considered “feminine”, and adds: “Boys really, really don’t want to be perceived as feminine.” 

Speaking after the report was shown, HNS assistant head Joynab Sultana claimed the news team refused to speak to students or staff on a visit to the school.

Sultana added: “I offered to show them more classes and the opportunity to speak to staff and students who have experienced both the old and new leadership to convey that we’ve nothing to hide.

“However, this offer was declined. They had no intention of offering a balanced and objective report. What’s clear is that the team at ITV had made up their minds well before their visit to the school.”

The report, led by award-winning social affairs correspondent Ria Chatterjee, sparked heated debate.

Government behaviour tsar Tom Bennett backed the school by saying that any concerns should be addressed through Ofsted, with “trial by media turning the sweat of a school into entertainment”.

Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville said the story “further illustrates why there needs to be more local accountability in the education system – free schools and [multi-academy trusts] are not the answer”.

He added: “I will be asking for a meeting with the school and know that the council has already raised concerns on these issues.”

Glanville’s comments struck a different tone to a supportive statement released by Hackney Council’s director of education Annie Gammon, who said the council has been “pleased by the changes and significant improvements made by the new leadership team” at the school since 2019.

Gammon said officers and councillors, on a number of visits to the school over the past two years, have found that pupils’ safety, behaviour and ambition as well as teaching and learning quality had “moved forward positively and at pace”.

Both Hackney Council and the Department for Education confirmed that no official complaints have been lodged against Hackney New School, but a Town Hall spokesperson later confirmed to the Citizen that it has received anonymous complaints reflecting the allegations in Chatterjee’s report.

According to ITV, the report presented anonymous allegations by four members of present and former staff of a disciplinarian approach at HNS damaging pupils’ mental health.

One teacher said: “We’re encouraged to scrutinise [pupils’] facial expressions. If they’re not smiling we’re encouraged to give them demerits or detentions. 

“They’ll be told they’re not good enough to have certain privileges. Quite frequently they have been described as being lazy, and if they’re shuffling on their feet they can be given demerits.” 

Another added: “One student was running up for the toilet, and I passed them, and their face kind of wobbled, and I said, ‘Are you okay?’.

“I took them outside for a moment and they just started sobbing.” 

The report also heard from two pupils at the school who claimed a “toxic environment” had been created.

The school maintains the methods described by its former employees were necessary to improve behaviour, which it says was at “rock bottom” when CST took over.

The Trust has admitted that language used in the booklet handed to staff was “unacceptable” and that the use of the word “detainees” was inappropriate.

Chief executive Simon Elliott said the handbook’s language “sounds like the sort of careers advice we were given as a class in the 1970s and 1980s”.

Speaking to the Citizen following the report, a representative for the school said that the manner in which the facts were presented by ITV is the basis of their complaint.

They cited a failure to speak to other students and teachers, and that claims presented in the report had already been investigated and resolved.

The representative added that a safeguarding breach has been reported to the local authority, claiming that one of the teachers involved in the report had approached a child spoken to by ITV directly, rather than approaching the parents first. 

In a statement, HNS Headteacher Charlotte Whelan said: “This is a school which was deemed so unsafe it was closed by Ofsted. It is now a calm and structured environment where students can thrive.

“We did introduce a strict behaviour policy when we first arrived because we needed drastic action to turn this school around. The children, at that point, were in charge.

“Some of these children were due to take their GCSE and were miles behind because of the substandard education they had received. We had to establish order so we could create the right environment for students to learn.

“We have nothing to add about the ITV report other than I can confirm we will be lodging a complaint.

“For those who wish to make up their own mind about our school, we operate an open-door policy. Anyone, and this doesn’t have to be a parent at the school, can come and have a look around.

“It will not be a showcase or guided tour, you can pick the classroom you want to visit – our visitors are the guides. In every classroom you will see the same thing. Happy and relaxed children learning in a safe environment.”

An ITV spokesperson said: “The provision of high quality, accurate and impartial journalism is paramount for ITV News London and we therefore stand by our reporting.”