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!