Friday, 15 March 2013

Speeches from our public meeting (1)

This is a slightly edited version of the speech given by Jonathan White opening the public meeting on 1 March. We hope to publish the others shortly:


We called this meeting 'Education Crisis?' Partly to question what was being said about an education crisis in Waltham Forest – we wanted to question some of the propaganda that was circulated by proponents of the new Free School.

But also to start a debate about what was happening to our school system in the borough – perhaps there is an education crisis in Waltham Forest – but if so, what is it?

1. Demographic timebomb:

When WFDSS was set up it was response to a proposal to set up a Free School, run by Oasis and WSSI. One of the things that was claimed in their propaganda was the statement ‘there is a demographic timebomb in the borough’ and the familiar refrain – ‘there is no alternative, we must have this new school’.

Yet it was quickly apparent to us that there were serious problems with their propaganda.

Firstly, Oasis and WSSI were using different figures to illustrate demand in the borough and not even the most authoritative. We suspected fearmongering.

One of the things we wanted to do when we set up the campaign was to have a proper look at that and start a proper debate about whether there is a demographic timebomb – to get beneath their propaganda and get a more nuanced debate in the borough.

So we looked at only figures available and they showed something quite interesting.

They showed a very large bulge in reception age children, peaking in 2014/15 and 2015/16 and then falling year on year. Demand drops substantially and is not projected to be a permanent feature.

These probably aren’t the latest figures and the Council will know better, but the fact is that these figures are more comprehensive and authoritative than any used by Oasis and WSSI, they have never been challenged by Oasis/WSSI nor have they been acknowledged or any other data used. So we think there is more than a bit of fearmongering going on here.

These figures are also important for another reason, and I’ll come back to that...

2. Second, we wanted to raise the issue of the Free Schools in the borough:

It seemed to us, for example, that not everyone who signed up to Oasis’s consultation knew what they were signing up for, and they certainly weren’t told in the consultation document – the website, for example, only asks you if you want a new school.

We wanted to try to make sure that people who signed up for a new school knew what they would be getting.

Here are some facts about Free Schools.

This is something that is sold as being about local people getting up and doing it for themselves, addressing problems of the demand for school places in deprived areas.

But that’s not what’s happening.

What’s happening is that the proposals for Free Schools are disproportionately from religious organisations – 39 out of 102 proposals identified last year, for example. People like Oasis.

Oasis, for example, like to claim that they are not really a religious school and that it’s particular to their ethos that no one will be discriminated against. Yet at the same time the Oasis ethos is described as being Christianity in action, it is said to pervade everything that goes on in their schools, Christian materials are openly promoted amongst the teaching staff and staff are expected to demonstrate their understanding of Oasis’s ethos. Confused?

Oasis are also a growing education chain like Ark, E-Act and Harris, the same chains that are dominating private academy sponsorship.

Free Schools are disproportionately being set up in more affluent, middle class areas – only 2% of Free school pupils in Tower Hamlets claim Free School meals, compared with a borough average of 48%.

Some Free Schools are operating covert selection criteria, like setting their catchment areas around certain more affluent postcodes or application forms that weed out certain kinds of applicants.

The fact is that these schools fuel religious and social segregation.

In both Sweden and the US, where large-scale experiments with this kind of school have been conducted, research indicates that there has been little or no educational benefit to these schools, but that segregation has definitely increased.

And they are more expensive. It is more expensive to start and maintain a new small school than it is to expand an existing school. The start up costs of new Free schools have used up large amounts of capital carved out for them by the government out of existing schools’ capital budgets. And contrary to the myth that small is best, analysis suggests that results overall are better in larger than in smaller schools.

So these schools increase social and religious segregation and they are inefficient.

But they are also the wrong solution to the real problem – which is how do we effectively and fairly cater for growing, and possibly later falling, demand?

Because they are outside local authority control, even more than academies, they can set their own catchment areas and operate covert selection criteria, they can avoid paying national pay scales for and qualification requirements for teachers, and most importantly of all, they have to maintain a surplus, regardless of what the level of demand in the local area.

If the demand for places does fall in the way shown in the Council projections, then the Free School will start to operate parasitically within the borough, sucking resources from our existing local authority schools.

And there is nothing that you or I or our elected representatives in the Local Authority can do about it because the school is outside democratic control.

For all the pious guff about being part of a ‘family’ of schools, or a ‘hub’, these are unaccountable schools, operating parasitically in our communities.

Local authorities do lots of things wrong and they are desperately under-resourced at the moment. But they can still play a critical role in coordinating school provision. They did this last year, for example, dealing with the bulge in demand for primary school places in London through collaboration and coordination within and across boroughs.

With Free Schools that’s impossible. And there are already areas where they are sucking resources from local authority schools. It’s true of academies too, but it’s even more true with Free Schools.

All this is hardly a surprise of course.

They are the brainchild of a government that believes that competition is a creatively destructive force.

It’s not ‘unfortunate’ if a school goes to the wall, for Michael Gove and his cronies. It’s an example of the discipline of the market working.

It’s a policy that is part of a plan to roll back all the democratic achievements of the post-war period, at one and the same time, sending us back to the period of church schools, grammar schools and elementary schools for the poor, but with a 21st century twist of allowing US based education businesses to work them for profit.

That’s not scaremongering. It’s happened in the US, where the Charter Schools movement, originally sold as solutions based on parent power, are now  dominated by for-profit Education Management Organisations, companies who are very close to and have had publicly documented discussions with Michael Gove and David Willetts about how they can break into the UK market.

3. There is an alternative

There’s always an alternative. It’s not easy and the government doesn’t want this but there is a different way of doing this. And it could be done, with sufficient political pressure.

Last year, the Local Authorities in London catered to the demand for primary school places through a coordinated response, working collaboratively with their schools to expand capacity. They had support from the Mayor’s office.

It could be done again. It would take a lot of work, but it could be done again, if there was sufficient political pressure.

One of the reasons we set up our petition was to give people the opportunity to get behind a local authority led solution and create some of that political pressure.

We wanted to give support to our Local Authority in making the case that it could cater to expansion without a new Free School, a rogue, parasitic element in the borough.

I don’t want to go on much longer, but I want to say a few words about where next.

In terms of the specific campaign against Free Schools – at least one, Oasis, have their preapproval and now consultation. We will aim to apply the maximum democratic pressure possible on this consultation and to make sure that the proposal gets as hard a time as possible and as much publicity as possible.

But, we have to be hard-nosed and think about what next. And this, I think goes for academies too.

We may win, or we may not. At a very practical level, there has to be life after a failed fight. We can’t just become demoralised

But that requires people to have a shared common sense of the direction of travel.

I think the basis for this exists.

Most people don’t want a Free School. Most people don’t want an academy. They DO want a good community school.

Most people believe that everyone has the right to the same level of access they have and only resort to climbing over others’ heads when that feels scarce.

Most people understand that local authorities and democratically accountable bodies would be better at coordinating a fair system of provision in the borough than a chaotic struggle among competing schools.

Most educationalists agree that the best way to raise the quality of schools is to invest in teaching and teachers, not to attack their pay, terms and conditions and pensions and pitch schools in a race to the bottom.

What’s being done to our education system in Waltham Forest and nationally, raises profound questions about choice – supposedly the heart of the government’s programme – and democracy.

Personally, I think the basis exists for those who believe in a broadly progressive, fair and equal education to unite, not just around campaigns to defend schools where they are still under democratic control, but to take the fight to those which are outside it.

I think we need to start to build mass democratic local pressure on academies and free schools where they exist.

To bring themselves closer into line with democratic ideas of a good quality school,

To work with the local authority,

To pay their teachers properly,

To be transparent and publicly accountable and to open up their access policies.

All this is fair and democratic and it would also send a clear message to those people looking in the near future to making a profit out of our schools that we won’t let them.

To conclude:

I think there is a crisis of Education in Waltham Forest. But it’s not really a crisis of demand or supply – it’s a democratic crisis. It’s a crisis engendered by government and exploited by opportunistic carpet baggers who want to colonise our school system and turn it to their own ends and roll back the seismic achievements of the post-war period.

The only response is for local and national bodies of progressive people to come together around long-sighted campaigns that defend what we still have but which ultimately aim to return education to being a democratic right, a democratic tool and a democratic system.

I hope that WFDSS will be part of that process in our borough.



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