Tuesday, 12 March 2013

First public meeting a big success

More than 50 people gave up part of their valuable Friday night on 1 March to attend the first of our public meetings, titled ‘Education Crisis in Waltham Forest?’ Jonathan White introduced the meeting as the planned first of a possible series of meetings designed to raise the profile of the issue of Free Schools, Academies and the provision of education in the borough. The audience was a mix of parents and teachers with a range of views, including some supporters of WSSI, the parents’ group who secured Oasis’s backing for their proposed Free School.

Kicking off the meeting, Jonathan White charted the origins of Waltham Forest Defend State Schools as a response to the proposal for a Free School in the borough. He explained that the group initially saw itself as combatting some of the propaganda about the demographic crisis in the borough, raising consciousness about what kind of school a Free School is and explaining what its impact on the borough’s other schools is likely to be. He argued that existing evidence showed that Free Schools increase social segregation, increase damaging competition, sucking resources from other schools, and represent a decisive move toward breaking up local community school provision in preparation for privatisation. Most of all, unlike local authority schools they are unaccountable to the democratic public in the borough.

Jonathan finished by suggesting that campaigns coordinate their work better, not just around defensive campaigns to protect local authority schools from new Free Schools or forced academisation, but also around democratic ideas of education which can force schools outside of local authority control to take account of their local communities.

Mark Holding, a governor at Thomas Gamuel school, gave a moving account of how his school had been targeted by Ofsted and the Department of Education for academy conversion, in spite of the fact that it was a good school, initially on the basis of an administrative error. Ofsted and the DFE argued that TGP ought to become an academy sponsored by Barclay Academy, in spite of the fact that Barclay itself had only been converted recently, meaning that any benefits it brought as a sponsor were based on its achievements as a local authority school.

The main thrust of Mark’s talk was to highlight the widening gap between the idea of parental choice and the profoundly anti-democratic nature of academy conversion. At Thomas Gamuel, he explained, the governors, teachers and local parents had built a broad-based campaign which resulted in the governors voting to reject academy status, the parents voting by 95% on a 57% turnout to reject academy status and a mass petition from the community Yet in spite of the clear preferences of the entire school community, academy status is now being forced on Thomas Gamuel by an interim executive board and the DFE.

Mark finished by echoing the first speaker’s view that the real agenda here was about breaking up all structures of local democratic accountability to place community resources and assets in the hands of private companies and echoed the call for the building of broad-based, borough wide campaigns for a more equal, accountable and democratic system.

Kiri Tunks, a local parent, teacher and NUT activist finished the panel speeches by speaking about her veiw of Free Schools and Academies from these three perspectives. She stressed how Free Schools were taking resources from other schools by drawing money from the funds reserved to provide Central services for Local Authority schools, directly financially damaging our community schools. As a parent, she pointed to the experience of academies: academies do not raise standards, they have higher exclusion rates than community schools, they are poorer at providing for special needs pupils and, to echo the first two speakers, she re-emphasised, they are unaccountable. As a parent, she said, you have a democratic avenue for redress of your grievances with local authoriy schools – a right of appeal and a vote. With academies and free schools, there is no democratic route and no such democratic right.

Speaking as a teacher, she recounted how colleagues have experienced conversion to Academy status: attacks on terms and conditions, increased workloads, greater use of unqualified staff, higher staff turnover rates and less experienced headteachers. Kiri finished by stressing that coordination and planning of schools provision works, as shown by the success of London Challenge and the only beneficiaries of a competitive market in schools would be private education chains and companies who will look to profit from the system. She, like the earlier speakers stressed the need for campaigning that emphasised the need for a decent education for all children across all our schools.

In the discussion that followed several teachers gave their experience of academy conversion, echoing points made by Kiri. Speakers from WSSI argued that Oasis had been misrepresented and that there is a problem of schools provision in the borough. Speakers from the Anti-Academies Alliance called for support for the petition for the removal of Michael Gove (which can be found here). The chair finished by noting that the number of people who had wanted to speak was clear evidence of the demand for more meetings of this kind around education in the borough and saying that WFDSS would look to organise more soon.

Watch this space!

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