Looking to the Future after online harassment

Lawrence Foley, chief executive, Future Academies Trust

I'm really proud of the job that I did in very difficult circumstances

Lawrence Foley went from school refuser to doctor in modernist literature – but his career almost came to a crashing halt after a vicious online campaign

Foley was sitting in a park with his wife Sonia when his phone rang. It was the Metropolitan Police. A social media campaign, accusing Foley of being a racist for excluding three children – one of whom had punched a teacher – was spiralling. It had reached the inbox of ministers. The officer told Foley death threats against him meant they were putting a marker on his phone. If he called 999, armed police would be dispatched immediately – for his own safety. 

His wife asked if it was “time to call a day” on the profession he loved. Several sleepless nights later, Foley (luckily) decided to stick it out.

Now chief executive of the 10-school Future Academies trust, Foley tells his story in the week a government review found a breakdown in social cohesion is increasingly putting the safety of school staff at risk.

It’s a dark chapter in what is a colourful life, where a teenage school refuser became a financial trader and doctor in modernist literature, before rising through the ranks of school leadership.

Lawrence Foley Future Academies Trust

Dickens by night

Foley comes from Irish Catholic stock in Stratford. He attended a secondary school in Newham so “appalling” (the English and maths GCSE pass rate was nine per cent) that his parents (a teaching assistant and kitchen sales manager) pulled him out aged 11 and sent him to school 90 minutes away in Epping. 

He initially found it “difficult to make friends” at St John’s Church of England School, where “parents were dropping kids off in Land Rovers”. It felt a world apart from multicultural Newham. He “hated” it. Foley skipped school 40 per cent of the time, but turned a corner in year nine upon discovering the joy of playing rugby. 

He feels “really lucky” now that his “really supportive family and peer group” put him back on the straight and narrow.

“Nowadays, that peer group is whoever kids interact with on social media. The challenge for schools is to have a stronger culture than that one they’re experiencing out there in the ether.”

After getting “pretty average” GCSEs, Foley followed in the footsteps of his uncles and quit school to work in construction. But after a year he found it “knackering” and enrolled at sixth form instead.

Foley later joined KPMG’s accountancy trainee programme, assuming it would be “glamorous”. The reality was “grim hotels in Luton, doing spreadsheets of VAT receipts”. 

He spent evenings commiserating with books by Charles Dickens and Ernest Hemingway, picked up from charity shops. He indulged his growing love of literature with an English degree at Queen Mary University, while continuing to work in finance.

He then worked as a trader for IG Index. Fortuitously when the 2008 credit crunch hit, a generous voluntary redundancy package enabled him to do an English literature Masters at UCL without having to work while studying.

False impressions

Pocket money well invested

Foley’s attentions turned to school education upon spotting an ad for trainee teachers at Future’s Pimlico Academy. He was put on an in-house scheme funded by the trust’s sponsor, former academies minister Lord Nash.

Foley is keen to challenge what he says are false perceptions over the trust, including the involvement of Lord Nash and his wife in its work. “The reality is that you see them very little,” he says.

But the Nashes do still donate around £1 million to Future’s schools (£100,000 each) every year, and Foley works with them on how to spend it. He wants Future to be somewhere that “people from backgrounds like mine want to train”, and much of the funding goes on trainee teacher scholarships.

But having public backing from such a prominent Tory peer has drawn the trust into political debates around education. Its branding mirrors that of elite private schools – for example, its website’s prominent Latin motto is ‘libertas per cultum’ (which translates as ‘freedom through education‘).

Foley concedes that the trust has been “perceived to be quite elitist in the past”, but he claims “the perception from the outside doesn’t reflect the reality in schools”.

He puts the misconception down to Future’s “unequivocal devotion to providing kids with an academic curriculum. It’s patronizing to assume that kids from backgrounds like mine can’t access that curriculum.”

Thinking back, Foley said his teaching at Pimlico gave him a “direct, tangible impact in a way that I couldn’t when I was working in finance”.

But he had his heart set on a PhD. He recalls “wanting the ground to swallow me up” during a social event in which he was the only non-Oxbridge graduate, when he made a faux pas by not knowing there were two versions of the play Doctor Faustus. 

“I didn’t have the broader cultural capital. In a way, I was motivated to do a PhD out of resentment – to prove myself.”

He loved his PhD (in modernist writers’ interpretations of bullfighting), but disliked lecturing Queen Mary’s high-achieving students because he couldn’t have the same impact on them as he’d had at Pimlico.

Back to the Future


This drove him to apply for Teach First, which placed him at Bishop Challoner in Tower Hamlets – a school his cousin had been expelled from.

He recalls waking up at 4am for three hours of PhD thesis corrections, before teaching six lessons. He spent exhausted evenings “falling asleep with the phone on my chest” after texting his future wife (whom he met on Teach First). 

Foley later returned to Pimlico to lead Future’s teacher training programme. Overseeing its curriculum centre of in-house materials (set up by Daisy Christodoulou) was a “weird side-step”, as Foley was “directing senior leaders having not been a head myself”.

He missed “the daily life of a school”, and these days tries to combat this sense of disconnection by sending Future’s central staff out to schools regularly. He spends three days a week in schools doing “gate duties and running line-ups”.

Being offered the executive principal job at David Ross Education Trust (DRET’s) new Bobby Moore Academy, on his home turf of Stratford, in 2018 was a “dream come true”. But the trust was struggling with a near £5 million deficit and its budgets were slashed.

Foley claims as DRET’s only London school, Bobby Moore “lost out” from its gag pooling policy (which had been introduced by a previous chief executive) because its funding “was much bigger” than its 33 other schools.

“The school was growing year on year, so you never had enough capacity to do the things you wanted.”

When Foley complained that his new school library had no books, he was told to ask parents to contribute to a library fund. But given the school was in Newham, “one of the most deprived boroughs in the country”, Foley felt he couldn’t. 

“There was a real disconnect. I wasn’t aligned with the vision,” he added.

Petition and turmoil

A misspent Year 9

He quit to become executive principal at Harris Tottenham, part of the Harris Federation, three months after his son was born in May 2020. Six weeks into the role, Foley was cycling home on his Brompton bike over Tottenham marshes when he was held at knifepoint for half an hour by four men with zombie knives and balaclavas. 

They stabbed him in the leg.  

Foley recalls thinking that he might never see his son again. He took a month off, but he’s still unable to ride a bike – which meant getting taxis for six months until he learned to drive.

Upon his return to school, things got even more challenging.

In April, a Harris Tottenham teacher instigated a petition calling for Foley to resign after three black year 11 students had been excluded in his first month.

The petition accused Foley of introducing a “zero tolerance behaviour policy that disproportionately affects BAME and SEN students”. He believes the campaign was part of a “very particular intense cultural moment”.

Although Harris Tottenham was ostensibly ‘outstanding’, it had not been inspected since 2017 and Foley says its staff had been “losing morale because behaviour was so poor”.

He claims that pupils were texted a link to the petition in the playground, and told he was a racist.

The campaign “went wild” on social media after being shared by certain influencers, with “people from America posting on this petition without any possession of the facts”.

Over 6,700 people signed it. One comment claimed the school was ‘run by white people … who don’t understand the children’ while another compared its policies to ‘Putin’s Russia’. After death threats, the police reached out to him.

Foley has welcomed the cohesion report this week, which called for a new conflict unit to better support schools, government to collect figures on teacher harassment, and to legislate for a “buffer zone” to prevent protests directly outside of school.

The racism accusation is particularly jarring for Foley because his wife is of Indian descent. His mother-in-law was left feeling “confused”. He questions how his mixed heritage children will feel one day when they google their dad and see the accusations.

Thankfully, “things got better” and three weeks after he left in January 2023 to lead Future, the school was inspected and retained its outstanding rating.

Future pride

Graduation day from Masters Degree at UCL

These days, Foley is particularly proud of Future’s SCITT. Started ten years ago, it now has 130 alumni working in its schools and is “probably the main driver of our school improvement”.

As big trusts become the “main vehicle for teacher training over the next ten years”, he worries that small SCITTs like his, which has “something really special”, are in “quite a vulnerable position”.  

However, he pulled out of Future’s “advanced” discussions with the National Institute of Teaching about becoming an associate training college because “we’d lose our identity if we bought into this behemoth.”

But he also criticises Future for not being “outward facing” compared to Harris, which “really invests time shaping those perceptions”. Future is now embarking on more public engagement. 

Sellotaped to the door of Pimlico Primary – which is just a 20-minute walk from Buckingham Palace, but “serves a great deal of poverty” – is a poster asking parents to share their experiences of community life.

Falling rolls means Future is also consulting to merge two of its three London primaries, which, as a devoted Londoner, Foley finds “really sad”. But reflecting migratory trends out of London, half of Future’s four schools in Hertfordshire are growing their capacity.

Lawrence Foley

Weaponising attendance

But attendance has been a particular problem in the area, where “large demographics of white working-class parents oftentimes have really complex relationships with the state”.

A lot has changed since the days when Foley was skiving off. He believes that outside London, attendance is “increasingly being used as a weapon against schools. Parents know that schools are under pressure to increase attendance rates … as soon as there’s a disagreement, the answer will be, ‘I’m not sending my child back to school until this is sorted’.

“Parents have seen that the emperor has no clothes, because schools have very limited powers around what they can do.”

Meanwhile, as someone who struggled with the transition to secondary school himself, he’s instigated joint working between Pimlico’s primary and secondary schools to ease that transition.

He’s using Reach’s ‘cradle to career’ framework, through which schools engage with local stakeholders around ages 0 to 21. He plans to roll the model out to other schools.

“We’re ostensibly working with the same families and tackling the same problems. It’s mad that you have all this institutional and local knowledge in public institutions so close to you, yet there’s never sharing of information and good practice.”

Exclusions are also a contentious issue. The mayor of London’s violence reduction unit is determined to lower exclusions But he believes the solution to acute behavioural problems lies in “more money for schools” rather than “siloed units at the mayor’s office”.

He says if Future had money for its own suspension unit, “we would do that in a heartbeat because we know that they’re safe when they’re with us”.

And Foley knows too well what being unsafe feels like.

Reflecting on his time at Harris Tottenham, he adds: “It’s quite a frightening thing, because it could have been the end of my career. 

“But we turned that school around. I’m really proud of the job that I did in very difficult circumstances.”

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