Monday, 22 July 2013

A former Waltham Forest headteacher speaks out

Eve Wilson, formerly the headteacher of Willowfields Humanities College, one of our community schools in Waltham Forest, has responded to Tauheedul Free Schools' consultation and has given us permission to post a copy of her response on our blogsite. So here it is in full below. We think you'll agree that it's a powerful and compelling contribution to the public debate in Waltham Forest:

Response to Consultation – Walthamstow Leadership Academy for Girls, Tauheedul Free School:

Tauheedul sets out a compelling vision for its new school in Waltham Forest but despite that  I do not feel that it will serve the best interests of the community.  I have a number of reasons for my views on this matter. 

Firstly, I believe that opening a girls’ school will have a negative impact on the education offered to girls and boys in the borough.  There are already two popular girls’ schools in Waltham Forest, between them admitting 1,500 girls.  I recognise that more parents would like their daughters to attend a girls’ school but unfortunately they would also like their sons to attend a mixed school.  Originally the borough planned to offer exactly the same number of places to boys as to girls but the 6fe boys’ school first became a 4fe school because of lack of demand and then closed altogether leaving only a 4fe boys’ school which has been very undersubscribed for many years despite being academically successful in recent years. 

Until 2011, I was the headteacher of Willowfield Humanities College.  Willowfield is a popular and respected school but nevertheless, because of its proximity to Walthamstow Girls’ School, it had a gender imbalance in favour of boys which was rarely less than 60:40 and occasionally as imbalanced as 70:30.  This resulted in a number of challenges for us in both pedagogical and practical terms, both inside the classroom and in social areas in order to ensure all our students made excellent progress academically and were happy, confident members of our community.  For example, our teachers became proficient at planning to ensure that girls and boys received equal attention inside the classroom but it was more difficult to manage the pressure on boys’ changing room space during PE lessons because of the excess numbers of boys.  This situation would be greatly exacerbated were there to be additional school places for girls that were fully subscribed and it seems very unfair on the many families wishing to choose mixed education for their sons and daughters that genuine mixed education would effectively disappear from Waltham Forest.  Your proposal would, I believe, increase choice for a minority of parents while reducing choice for the majority.

My second concern is the impact on community cohesion.  I recognise that it is Tauheedul’s ambition to attract students of all faiths or none and welcome this.  In practice, however, it has failed to achieve this aim in its schools in Blackburn despite their undoubted academic success.  Currently the quality of social cohesion is an exceptional strength of schools in Walthamstow and indeed in Waltham Forest generally.  There is ample evidence of this in OfSTED reports.  You will, I am sure, agree that there has never been a time when this was more important.  I have no doubt that this is a result of the very diverse communities in schools (currently there is only one faith school in Waltham Forest) and if you speak to young people at school in the borough you will find that this is one of the things they most value about their schools.  They describe how much they value being able to learn from each other about their different cultures and religions.  We often said that at Willowfield we could have taught the people of the world how to live together – the atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance and rejection of any form of stereotyping was something that could, I am certain, be achieved only through students learning and playing together.

Finally, I should like to point out that the Walthamstow schools have a long established partnership which brings significant benefits for students and for staff development through collaboration rather than competition.  They operate with openness and trust and understand they have a responsibility for all the children in Waltham Forest schools as well as the particular one they have for the students enrolled at their own schools.  It is disappointing that Tauheedul, despite its stated wish to work in partnership with other local schools, has made no effort as far as I am aware to discuss its proposals with existing schools.  Indeed, in the consultation document, the only indication of how this partnership might work is where Tauheedul suggests that it will look to other schools and colleges to provide the curriculum for students unsuited to the one it offers.  This is worrying since it does not resemble the way in which the existing partnership operates.

In short then, because of local circumstances, I believe that despite its track record as an excellent provider of education in other parts of the country, if the Tauheedul free school opens in Waltham Forest, it will disrupt and undermine educational provision across the borough.  I have no doubt that as an organisation of integrity and repute this is not its intention and hope that achieving a greater understanding of the needs of Waltham Forest will cause it to reconsider its proposal.

Eve Wilson

July 2013


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