Investigation: Council tries to shut down Hampstead private school denounced as a 'circus'
PUBLISHED: 07:00 04 April 2019 | UPDATED: 16:27 04 April 2019
Staff and pupils have quit an independent school in droves and council chiefs have stepped in amid claims of "appalling" management, safety issues and mis-selling.
Barnet Council has applied to the High Court for an injunction to stop Heathside Preparatory School running as a day school – even as the school is trying to expand to a new site in Hampstead.
Since the start of this academic year scores of pupils have been pulled from Heathside, which is spread across six sites and charges between £9,000 and £18,900 a year in fees.
The school’s recent attempt to take over a seventh premises has prompted a furious backlash from the local community, where parents and ex-staff are pursuing legal claims over a string of management failures in 2018.
The Ham&High has learnt:
• Up to 15 pupils were forced to leave in the first term of this year because Heathside had been offering GCSEs without Department for Education permission;
• In March 2018, allegations were made that a staff member had taken Year 9 students off school premises and returned drunk;
• The headteacher and sole proprietor, Melissa Remus, tried to block the publication of a damning Ofsted report flagging multiple safeguarding issues last year;
• The National Education Union is representing a number of ex-staff, some of whom claim to have had their pay withheld;
• The school’s official parent company Remus White Limited, of which Ms Remus is the sole shareholder, now owes £7million to creditors.
At least 24 staff members and members of senior management have left post since January 2018, with two signing non-disclosure agreements. The upper school has had four deputy heads in a year.
A former employee, who asked not to be named, said: “When I set foot in the school I realised it was a circus.”
And they said that in their opinion: “There was something deeply wrong at the very top of the leadership.”
Expansion, injunctions and a GCSE fiasco: What happened at Heathside last year?
Heathside was established as a primary school in 1993 and gradually evolved into an expansive private co-ed with hundreds of pupils enrolled, including the children of local celebrities.
The lower school is now scattered across several buildings in Heath Street, including the Baptist Church and the two commercial properties’ basements.
The middle school is based in New End, with classes held at the synagogue and above the now-derelict Ye Old White Bear pub, as well as at the Territorial Army base in Swiss Cottage.
The secondary or “upper” school opened its doors in West Heath Road in September 2017, with boarding provision launched around January 2018.
An ex-staffer recalled: “We got an outstanding Ofsted in our first year of opening the upper school. Off the back of that, things started to go very wrong.”
The 2018/19 academic year began with about 15 pupils enrolled in Year 10 being forced to leave Heathside less than a term into their GCSEs.
The school had been offering a full range of GCSE courses despite never having obtained a licence from the Department for Education to teach youngsters over the age of 14.
A former staff member told the Ham&High: “The fact that parents aren’t rioting is shocking to me. The head knew she didn’t have DfE approval. It was a scandal.”
One parent said she had pulled her son out in November, almost a full term into what was supposed to be his first year of GCSEs.
She said: “Just before we were due to come back from the holidays, Melissa said she hadn’t been granted GCSE permission, but not to worry – it was all going to be sorted out.”
Over the next few months, she was encouraged to keep her child at Heathside and turn down offers from other independent schools before finally having to pull her son out shortly before his 15th birthday.
She said: “I’m worn out. I’ve been swallowed and consumed by educational and financial pressures, and trying to figure out how to educate my son.”
Last week the Department for Education confirmed Heathside still only has permission to teach up to the age of 14.
A spokesperson added: “Any application to increase its age-range will be considered in the light of the progress Heathside makes in meeting the independent school standards.”
At the same time, Barnet Council is taking steps to have teaching at the upper school halted outright.
It is run from the former St Margaret’s care home building, which was bought from Camden Council for £10.8m in July 2016.
In 2016 the school was subject to enforcement action from Barnet for running a day school there without permission.
One of the conditions for permission eventually being granted was that 50 per cent of day pupils at West Heath Road should also be boarders.
The school has been in breach of planning law since then. According to recent Ofsted reports, a maximum of 21 pupils are registered for boarding, while several members of staff have insisted that only a handful are actually living on the premises full-time – and then without paying any fees.
In 2018 the local authority slapped Heathside with a second enforcement notice.
A Barnet Council spokesperson said: “In response to concerns raised by the local community we issued an enforcement notice requiring that the day school cease.
“The school failed to comply with this, so we therefore made an application to the court for an injunction. If granted, it will require Heathside to cease being used as a day school. We have not yet received a date from the court for the hearing.”
A spokesperson for Heathside said: “We absolutely consider that 84 West Heath Road is operated in accordance with all planning requirements.
“Although there are day pupils on site, we are not operating a day school. We also meet all regulations for a boarding school.
“The greatest percentage – more than half – of time and building area is dedicated to boarding during school hours and completely available to boarders after school hours.”
Safeguarding: Missed opportunities and ‘buried’ reports
Barnet’s intervention came in the wake of a multitude of safety and welfare incidents that resulted in three damning Ofsted reports being published in 2018.
In March the head of boarding reported to senior management that a staff member had twice entered West Heath Road late at night, entering pupils’ rooms and waking them up.
On two occasions, pupils had allegedly been taken off the premises for impromptu excursions, returning both times at 10.45pm.
After returning from one of these excursions, ed a staff member was said to have then “sat on the sofa, smelling of alcohol”.
In mid-May the head of boarding was suspended and then dismissed. Around the same time, another member of staff called the Ofsted whistleblowing hotline.
An interim Ofsted inspection of the boarding site was carried out on June 6.
Inspectors concluded: “Management of the boarding provision is disorganised and unsafe. The head of boarding left the school in May 2018.
“A recent allegation by a boarder was internally investigated without the independent oversight of the designated officer from the local authority.”
Two further emergency inspections took place on July 9 and September 27 and saw safety arrangements and leadership at Heathside slammed by the regulator.
Inspectors found “significant shortcomings” in fire safety, unsecure entrances and exits across the sites, “inconsistent, poorly organised” record-keeping, play areas strewn with hazardous waste and building materials, pupil registers not being taken and child protection referrals left in the Royal Mail envelopes they had arrived in.
One report concluded: “Leaders and staff do not know how to keep pupils safe.”
Inspectors discovered that students had been excluded unlawfully and staff were “fearful” of reporting problems to Ms Remus.
They found “scrappy handwritten notes” in Ms Remus’s handbook from when others had reported safety concerns, adding these had gone “undated, unsigned and not recorded on the school’s online system”.
They said: “The leadership team has failed to create a culture in which staff feel able to raise concerns or are confident that their concerns will be taken seriously by the proprietor.”
Ofsted has confirmed to the Ham&High that Ms Remus went to the High Court to try to block the July report, which led to its publication being delayed until November 2018.
A spokesperson said: “We can confirm that the headteacher and proprietor tried to obtain an injunction to stop the publication of the report. However, the legal action was unsuccessful.”
In January 2019 inspectors visited Heathside again and found it was meeting national minimum standards in the areas inspected, but were back yet again two weeks ago.
The spokesperson added: “We recently carried out a full standard inspection of the school, including its boarding provision. The DfE commissioned the inspection and the outcome will be published in due course.”
Three sets of documents seen by the Ham&High show a plethora of safety risks had been flagged up internally long before inspectors arrived.
A health and safety audit dated April 1, 2018, refers to out-of-date medication found in an unlocked cupboard at 16 New End; to parts of the premises in “a state of disrepair”; and to staff in the upper school having been advised not to call the fire brigade but investigate themselves if the alarm went off.
On this last point, the auditor said: “Staff could not explain the reason for this but reported that they were informed the fire brigade call-out costs money that the school wants to avoid.”
Elsewhere a 21-point action plan was produced for Heathside by an Ofsted-accredited consultant, which gave a deadline of April 20 for key safety improvements to be made.
And as far back as March 2, 2018, the lack of clear fire safety protocols had been discussed internally after a false alarm led to the discovery of several locked doors on the boarding site.
Emails seen by the Ham&High also show concerns were raised with designated officers at both Camden and Barnet Councils in 2018.
A spokesperson for Barnet said: “We immediately referred this matter to Ofsted and the Department for Education. Both parties are working to address these concerns, whilst the council has also visited the school as part of its usual safeguarding procedures.”
A Camden Council spokesperson said: “Camden Council has a duty to investigate safeguarding issues that relate to the conduct of staff and the abuse or neglect of children.
“The most recent Ofsted report for this school shows that it is now meeting the national minimum standards for independent schools. The council will continue to monitor the school.”
In November 2018 the Department of Education also issued Ms Remus with a formal notice ordering her to submit two action urgent plans to bring Heathside up to standard.
“Rock bottom”: Teachers and staffers leave school in droves
Among those to have left Heathside since the start of 2018 are two deputy heads, two special educational needs co-ordinators, the bursar, two English teachers, two receptionists, the school counsellor and a consultant child psychiatrist.
The National Education Union is representing current and ex-staff in dispute with the school, some of whom claim to still be owed back-pay.
Camden district secretary Gerald Clark told the Ham&High he was in touch with “a number of members” and there had been “some constructive conversations”.
At least one ex-employee has threatened to take Ms Remus to the small claims court while two others have been paid off and signed NDAs.
The Ham&High has learned some people were working without contracts, while at least three were allegedly employed without a DBS check.
One person was initially told their salary would be paid by the parents of a child at the school, rather than by the proprietor, Ms Remus, or the parent company.
An ex-teacher, who like others spoke to the Ham&High on the condition of anonymity, told the newspaper: “I can’t measure how much it differed from anywhere else I have worked.
“The biggest problem is the lack of transparency in every aspect of school life, whether it’s recruitment or finances or plans.”
One former staffer said: “My personal experience of working there was plates on sticks the entire time, and it’s exhausting.”
And another said: “I used to call it Fawlty Towers. Some emails and communications were completely barmy; [for instance] there would be a trip planned the night before and parents informed at six in the morning.
“Everything was in disarray.”
Ofsted inspectors returned to Heathside two weeks before Easter, where the mood was described to them as being at “rock bottom”.
More teachers are understood to be departing after the break.
Questions hang over school’s finances
Melissa Remus is the director and sole shareholder of the company that officially owns the school, Remus White Limited.
According to company accounts, in 2016/17 she paid herself a salary of £551,167 while the business itself made a net profit of just £85,794.
In the last financial year the school’s overall borrowing rose from £6.7m to £7.2m, including £1.3m owed in charges and loans to Barclays Bank.
Funds have also shifted between Remus White Limited and a nexus of other firms owned and controlled by Ms Remus, which at times have been used to facilitate the school’s expansion.
Heathside Enterprises Limited was granted a lease on the Old White Bear pub by Braaid Ventures, a company registered in the Isle of Man now also wholly owned by Ms Remus.
Braaid Ventures had bought the pub for £1.3m in 2013 and was bought by Ms Remus in 2015, with lenders taking out charges on the building.
In January 2017 Camden Council gave the green light for Heathside to move into the upstairs of the Old White Bear, with the ground floor expected to re-open its doors as a pub in early 2018.
But more than two years later Ms Remus still has yet to offer the intended publican, Dan Brod of Bramley Bars, a lease on the building, even though one had been explicitly promised.
Further expansion: What happens now?
After the Ham&High approached Ms Remus for comment a statement was provided on behalf of Heathside.
A spokesperson said: “Many of these allegations are historic and no longer relevant as appropriate action was taken in all areas following the additional inspections.
“No stone was left unturned. We acted decisively and Ofsted found Heathside to be fully compliant in all identified areas, including fire safety and safeguarding in January of this year.
“We are aware that a significant amount of gossip about Heathside began to circulate at the time of the additional inspections in 2018. Regrettably, much of this was shared by individuals who did not see eye-to-eye with the school leadership in our efforts to ensure full compliance with Ofsted standards.
“While we accept that this process may have been difficult for individuals, we make no apologies for taking clear and definite steps to bring about these changes.
“We are a successful and happy school and our focus is on the upcoming exam term and the success of all our pupils.”
The latest bulletin on Heathside’s website is dated February 28, 2019, following an Ofsted report that found it was now meeting all the minimum standards that were checked.
The school recently established a governance and safeguarding advisory board which is due to meet alongside Ms Remus six times a year.
The board is made up of 10 people including a strategy consultant, an asset management consultant, the founder of a home entertainment company, two teachers and the CEO of safeguarding trainers Aspire.
Since late 2018 a series of documents have been published online detailing the school’s policies in areas such as health and safety, whistleblowing and public access to the buildings.
In February this year the school applied to Camden to occupy the historic Jack Straw’s Castle pub on the edge of Hampstead Heath.
The application has received more than 100 responses so far, including objections from the City of London Corporation and the Hampstead Neighbourhood Forum.
Many people have spoken in support of the application, while most objections focus on the potential for further congestion along a crucial artery into Hampstead.
But one person commented: “For a school that has already been criticised for poor safeguarding of children in its care it would be irresponsible for the Camden planning team to grant approval.”
Tulip Siddiq, the MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, had also confirmed she had been in contact with parents at Heathside and was “following this situation closely”.
She told the Ham&High: “I have raised parents’ concerns with Camden and Barnet Councils, Ofsted and the Department for Education.
“The safety and safeguarding of children is of upmost importance and I will continue to work with all affected stakeholders to ensure any required action is taken.”