Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Stop this chaotic and dysfunctional experiment now

The Free Schools experiment is descending into chaos. In the space of one week, it was revealed that one Free School in Derby was being threatened with having its funding cut off having been described as ‘chaotic and dysfunctional by Ofsted, while the headteacher of another ‘pioneering’ Free School in Crawley resigned from the school she and her husband set up after Ofsted condemned the school’s performance and then described the recovery plan as ‘not fit for purpose’. The Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt wrote to Michael Gove calling for greater accountability and transparency for Free Schools, and saying that ‘a dangerous ideological experiment has been allowed to run out of control’. Then, to cap it all off at the weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it ‘made no sense to him’ to allow Free Schools to employ unqualified teachers and be able to diverge from the national curriculum (as an aside, while we welcome Nick Clegg’s realisation that the policy he voted through is fundamentally flawed, it doesn’t say much for the Deputy Prime Minister’s judgment that it took till now for him to work this out).

So what’s going on? While the Conservative Party would like to dismiss this as a few duds, it is becoming clear that, as Laura McInerny argued recently, what’s taking place is the entirely predictable result of the ‘freedoms’ granted to Free Schools and the policy of railroading them through in defiance of any democratic process.

To understand why that’s the case, it’s worth looking at what happened with the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby in a bit more detail.

A case study in chaos

In September 2012, the Al-Madinah Free School opened in Derby and later that month the local press broke stories that non-Muslim teachers were being obliged to wear the hijab. By the end of the month, further allegations had resulted in the Department for Education conducting two separate investigations and Ofsted brought forward an inspection, on the first day of which the school was closed for ‘Health and Safety’ reasons when it was found that the school had failed to carry out adequate child protection checks on staff. In early October, Lord Nash, the minister for schools, wrote to the school threatening to terminate its funding agreement, effectively closing it, if it didn’t undertake immediate emergency measures.

The reports from the Department and Ofsted were devastating. On teaching standards, Ofsted said that the school was inadequate in every category and ‘dysfunctional’. Pupils were given the same work to do despite very different abilities, while classes were delivered by inexperienced teachers without proper training, sold to parents as ‘industry experts’. Almost all the Early Years Foundation stage teaching was found to be inadequate. The school was also unable to say how many special needs pupils it had in its intake.

The original investigations were launched as a result of allegations of that female teachers were obliged to wear the hijab and boys and girls were segregated in lessons and lunchtimes. Lord Nash’s letter to the governors made clear that staff were to be told that they did not have to cover their hair, and that the school had to cease any practices that had as their reason, cause or effect that women and girls were treated less favourably than men and boys.

Both Ofsted and The DfE identified the fact that the school was appallingly governed. Ofsted found that the school had ‘been set up by representatives of the community with limited knowledge and experience’. Inexperienced and untrained Governors had ‘failed to ensure children were safe in the school, failed to appoint properly qualified staff and as a result had been unable to monitor the school or hold it properly to account. The Governors, Ofsted said ‘had failed the parents of this community who have placed trust in them’.

On every count these are the consequences of the so-called freedoms of the Free School: the ‘right’ to hire unqualified teachers, the promotion of state-funded faith schools operating outside local authority regulation and most of all the flawed governance and the complete absence of democratic oversight.

How did the supporters of the Al-Madinah school ever get approval from the DfE? As we’ve pointed out repeatedly in relation to Oasis and Tauheedul’s applications, the process for getting approval to open a Free School is completely absurd and utterly opaque. There is no genuine, open local consultation, no real coordination with the Local Authority and the dealings between Free School promoters and the Department for Education are clouded in mystery. Once the promoters of the Al-Madinah school got approval from the DfE, there was no way for parents to hold their school to account. If local teachers hadn’t gone to the press, how long would children gone on being treated like this? Who was there to hold the governors to account on behalf of the children, the parents, the community and the parents?

No one takes any pleasure in this. Reading through the Ofsted report on Al-Madinah, it’s impossible to feel anything but deeply sad and angry for the 400 children at this school and their parents. But the fact that the Education Secretary continues to drive forward this policy without regard for any warnings, either before or since this week’s revelations demonstrates just how dangerous he is.

What does all this mean for the people of Waltham Forest?

Education is a big issue in this borough. We know this from the fact that meetings on schools in Waltham Forest are getting bigger all the time. There are a lot of anxious parents out there.

If you are a parent and you are opposed to these schools, we would ask you to help us to build our petition in favour of a Local Authority led alternative involving our community schools. We know that they have a plan to provide a place for everyone who needs it in our community schools and to build a new school that would be accountable to our community.

If you are a parent who has actively supported one of the proposed Free Schools, we would beg you to think again. Everyone wants the best for their children but this is not necessary and it’s not the right way, either for your child or for the others who will be affected by a new Free School.

If you are a parent who is thinking about putting your child’s name down for one of the proposed Free Schools we would ask you a few questions:

· Are you confident that you really know about the people who are going to run this school?

· Are you confident that the proposed school has been subjected to proper independent oversight by the Department for Education? It certainly hasn’t been scrutinised by anyone else.

· Are you prepared to take the risk that your child will not be like the 400 children in Derby?

· Are you confident that you know how you will hold this school to account?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then sign our petition instead and join the campaign for good schools for all our children in Waltham Forest.


Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Why we support our teachers

Tomorrow morning, most of the schools in our community in Waltham Forest will be closed due to the strike action being taken by members of the NUT and the NASUWT unions. For many of us, that’s something of a pain. Nonetheless, we would ask our supporters to show their support for the teachers tomorrow, and this is why.

Our Community, Our Schools is a campaign group that brings together parents, teachers and local residents in supporting our community schools and raising awareness of the threat posed by the proposed ‘Free Schools’. One of the really inspirational things to come out of our mass meeting on 8th October was to hear how proud people in Waltham Forest are of our community schools and how angry they are about the way they are endlessly denigrated in rumours stoked up by the mass media and, most disgracefully of all, by the government. As Zoe Williams wrote so powerfully in the Guardian following the meeting, the Education Secretary Michael Gove is engaged in a sustained drive to tell a disaster narrative about our schools, very similar to the one being waged against the NHS in the right wing newspapers. This creates a climate of fear that provides him with the justification for pumping money and resources into driving forward his forced academisation and his Free Schools project. It is also this which prompts anxious parents to contemplate Free Schools as a solution.

He is doing exactly the same thing to the people who teach our children. Teachers have been subjected to a shameful propaganda war designed to try to drive a wedge between us and them, as though many teachers are not parents and as though we don’t talk to each other in our communities. Michael Gove even stooped to describing teachers who opposed him as ‘enemies of promise’. We think that the Education Secretary’s undoubted gift for headline grabbing nonsense like this has led him to overreach himself, badly. Is this really the experience of any parent in our community schools? Are the teachers who teach our children day in day out really enemies of promise, working to stifle our children’s ambitions?

No. As parents, we think it is despicable to subject the people who teach our children to such vicious public attacks. We’re also really uncomfortable at the attacks on their daily working lives. Many teachers are already having to work longer and pay more into their pension schemes, in return for less at the end of it. Now they are being told that the way they are paid has to be changed so that they have ‘performance –related pay’ because that will apparently incentivise them to be better teachers. No one enters teaching because they want to make a fast and big buck. It’s a vocation and a profession. Yet government ministers appear to think that they need to import into teaching the morality of the FTSE listed companies in the City of London where, apparently, senior CEOs can’t get out of bed unless they have the prospect of a six figure bonus dangling before them. Teachers are also facing the threat of changes to the hours they work and increases to their workloads. You can read more about why exactly they are striking here. But the key point is a really basic one. Teachers are not the enemy. They are not failing in their work. In fact, they achieve amazing things every day, in the face of malicious public slurs, attacks on their working conditions and a punitive Ofsted regime that seems to be geared entirely to promoting Michael Gove’s failure narrative and helping him to smash up our school system. We stand with our teachers just as we stand with our community schools. And we know who are the real enemies of promise.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Packed house hears devastating attack on proposed Free Schools in Waltham Forest

It surpassed all our expectations. More than 150 people packed out the Vestry House Museum meeting room on Tuesday night. The room was filled, with people sitting on the floors and standing at least two-deep outside the doors listening to the proceedings inside.

Guardian columnist and campaigner Zoe Williams kicked off by pointing to the press reports about the Free School in Derby that was closed recently. She read from an extraordinary letter that education minister Lord Nash had had to write to the school asking a series of basic questions about their procedures, their policies and practices for employing staff, ensuring their qualification, conducting CRB checks and so on. Her point was that you would never have had to do this with a community school because they are transparent and accountable. The government and the supporters of Free Schools are creating a system that will fail and we will have to reinvent community schools all over again. "There is no way for the people who use Free Schools to hold them to account” she said. The question for parents and teachers who wanted good community schools was "how to mobilise to get a system in which you are heard" and she urged parents and teachers to make links with each other's campaigns across boroughs and across the country.

Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the NUT stressed that her union regarded Michael Gove's Free Schools policy as undermining basic democratic rights by creating a chaotic system of unaccountable schools that are inefficient and expensive. She pointed out that 1 in 10 teachers in existing Free Schools are unqualified and that a third of the total government budget for new school places was being used to promote building new Free Schools, often in areas where they are not needed or where they can't answer the need for more places. She also pointed to the perversity of a situation in which Local Authorities have the responsibility to provide a place for every child but cannot build more community schools or coordinate provision. She pointed to NUT research which showed that 91% of Local Authorities thought they needed the power to establish new community schools and she praised the London Challenge initiative which showed that collaboration among schools could actually meet the need for more places. Channelling public money toward Free Schools, paid for by us but accountable to no one but themselves was "basically robbery", she said.

Councillor Clare Coghill followed this with a robust defence of Waltham Forest Schools. She argued that it was vital to break down the idea that there is a problem with community schools in the borough. Waltham Forest schools are fantastic" she said, "and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.” Like Christine, she stressed the perversity of a system where Local Authorities are responsible for providing places but can’t build new community school. Sending a message to the Education Secretary, she said, “I’ve got the duty to provide places, now give me the right to build a new community school”.

Patrick Edwards, a school governor at Norlington school in Leyton, gave a barnstorming performance in which he talked about how active parents, involved in their community schools could have a positive impact on their schools, driving up standards by collaborating and supporting each other, not through destructive competition. He derided the future system envisaged by the government and the supporters of Free Schools in which competition would drive schools out of business and he urged people to get behind their community schools:. They want us to feel so threatened that we only want to look after our own kids but that would be like cutting our own throats” he said.

In the discussion that followed several teachers explained why they were so angry, why they were striking on the 17th and why they were campaigning for education, making the point that they were being attacked every day by the government and appealed for parents to support them. Several parents spoke movingly about the anxiety they experienced at the shortage of places in the borough and as a result of widespread misconceptions about Waltham Forest’s community schools. Representatives of the East London Humanist society talked about the divisiveness of faith schools, noting that the majority of Free School sponsors are religious organisations. There were lots of ideas about things that could be done in the future but there was a general agreement on the need to build the campaign against the proposed Free Schools and to make links across London and England with other local campaigns and start to build a movement for a more democratic education system that looks after all its children.

This was an absolutely inspirational meeting at which we heard voices from across our borough expressing their anger and frustration, but also their determination to fight for better schools and for community schools. Sign up to get involved here and watch this space for more soon.

Postscript: Zoe Williams mentioned our meeting in a coruscating attack in the Guardian on Michael Gove’s attempt to denigrate systematically our community school system.  You must read this article!