A SURPRISE shake-up at a struggling Oxford school has seen the sudden departure of its principal and vice-principal.

Pupils at St Gregory the Great Catholic School, one of the city's biggest schools, returned for the first day of term on Monday to find their head and her deputy had left indefinitely.

It is the latest twist in the school's scramble to improve standards, after a damning Ofsted report deemed it 'inadequate' and placed it in special measures.

  • See timeline below

The 1,400-pupil school in Cricket Road, East Oxford, told parents principal Marcella McCarthy and vice-principal Rodger Caseby were 'currently on leave', with a new head temporarily stepping into their shoes.

Parents were left in the dark about why they left or if they will return.

Education expert Professor John Howson said: "The school has got to come clean if these people are not coming back. If they are not, it's misleading.

"There is a need to rebuild confidence. [Leaders] are presumably trying to find a way out, and I applaud that, but frankly you cannot do it under a veil of secrecy."

Recent years have seen the all-through academy come under fire for poor finances, bad behaviour and weak leadership, culminating in Ofsted's worst rating of 'inadequate' in May.

County councillor Prof Howson called for an urgent action plan, adding: "Somebody has got to own up as to what strategy is getting this school back on even keel."

The staffing change comes alongside a major reshuffle at the multi-academy trust in charge of the school.

Dominic Barberi Multi Academy Company, which runs seven Oxfordshire schools including St Greg's, has appointed Fraser Long as its principal director – a role previously filled by Dr McCarthy.

It means Mr Long, who is principal at Blessed George Napier Catholic School in Banbury, has also become executive principal of St Greg's.

Documents lodged on Companies House state Dr McCarthy's position at the trust has been terminated, alongside a secretary and two other directors.

Sean Tucker, previously the school's 'assistant principal for Catholic life and ethos', has stepped up as acting head of the school.

The trust's 2017 annual report was published last week and is positive about the school's current financial position.

It said trustees had decided to appoint accounting firm MHA MacIntyre Hudson to 'provide further independent rigour'.

The report states there have been 'radical changes' since the Ofsted report, but admits attendance remains a 'major concern'.

Pupils at St Greg's were scheduled to return after the Christmas break last week, but an inset day (for teachers only) was hastily arranged.

Prof Howson said: "It's a shabby way to treat parents, suddenly changing the days last-minute, with all [families'] arrangements for care thrown out the window."

Staff were told about Dr McCarthy and Dr Caseby's departure during the inset day.

City councillor David Henwood, who teaches design and technology at the school, said it came as 'a surprise'.

He said: "They both contributed much to the ethos of the school – Marcella has always been a compassionate person.

"Change is difficult to accept sometimes but if it brings about improvement, then potentially it's a good thing.

"This school is key for many children and families. Our success will reflect upon the success of the area: we have to be better, and will do better."

He insisted despite the challenges, morale among staff remained solid, adding: "There is a particular team spirit here that I haven't seen at any other school.

"We were disappointed about the Ofsted and didn't feel it was a true reflection.

"Every teacher is working hard to get the best results as possible and improve learning. We are absolutely focused on achieving that."

A former employee of St Greg's, whose daughter is in Year 8 at the school, said she desperately wanted to take her daughter out but struggled to find an alternative place at The Oxford Academy.

The Blackbird Leys mother, who asked not to be named, said: "Half of the kids have already left – they're all dropping, even teachers. It's really bad.

"They're covering it up, not telling us if they're coming back. I'm fed up.

"The school has carried on failing and, unless they get someone in to sort the books out, I think it will end up closing."

Paul Concannon, a director at the trust, pledged the school will have all debt from its outstanding loan paid off by summer.

He added: "Since the Ofsted, a huge amount has been done to improve the school. Now with Fraser as executive principal, he has the ability to get things done.

"It is business as usual, but not business the way it was done before. Our financial position has massively improved – we are on top of it.

"The school clearly had problems and things needed to be sorted pretty urgently. We have got a responsibility to sort it and we are determined to do that."

He said reasons behind the principal and vice principal's leave were confidential.

Timeline of key events

  • April 2013: School converts to an academy, meaning it is controlled by a multi-academy trust rather than Oxfordshire County Council
  • April 2015: School rated ‘requires improvement’ by Ofsted
  • January 2016: Education and Skills Funding Agency (a Government agency) issues Dominic Barberi Multi Academy Company with a financial notice to improve, noting a ‘significant deficit’.

Annual accounts revealed it had ran up a deficit of almost £900k in one year

  • May 2017: School Rated ‘inadequate’ overall by Ofsted and placed into special measures. Early years provision was rated good.

Elizabeth Lutzeier, a former headteacher and ‘national leader of education’, is brought in to guide improvements

  • August 2017: The school celebrates as it achieves some of its ‘best ever’ A-Level results
  • October 2017: Dominic Barberi Multi Academy Company lodges termination of appointment of Marcella McCarthy at Companies House
  • November 2017: Fraser Long becomes principal director of the trust in her place, though this is not announced publicly
  • January 2018: School announces its principal and vice principal are ‘on leave’.

Annual report reveals major improvement in finances.