Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Our Schools: Kelmscott School in focus

The  national press and political parties are fond of caricaturing and criticising our community schools and they have few chances to answer back.
In the first of what we hope will be a series of pieces on our local community schools, we feature a short interview with Lynette Parvez, headteacher at Kelmscott School in Waltham Forest.
How would you describe your school, briefly, to a stranger?
Warm welcoming – a really good place for children to learn.
Tell us one little known fact about your school.
I will make this a serious answer. One little known fact about Kelmscott is how many A and A* grades we get. Parents get so fixated on C grades they forget that it is the performance of the individual child that counts and there isn’t anything to celebrate if a child gets a C when they should be getting an A (or A*). In Kelmscott we have had a focus on this aspect of our teaching and this year we had 8 subjects achieve more A and A* grades than the National Average. Those subjects were, French, Biology, Chemistry, Maths, Geography, Physics, French and RE. 
What is the funniest thing a pupil has ever said to you? Or, what is the funniest/most memorable thing that has happened to you as a head teacher?
Funny things happen every day. I like to see pupils’ happy and enjoying school. We have had lots of events over the years which are memorable but one of the best evenings was our Bollywood evening. Everyone got dressed up in Bollywood style outfits. We had a fashion show, dances, poems and of course lovely food to round off the evening. That was definitely one of the highlights of my time here.
What do you consider your greatest achievement as head of Kelmscott
You could say the obvious things like when we have had some really good examination results or when we have had good Ofsted inspections but to be honest one of the things I am really pleased about is my campaigning for a Zebra crossing outside of the school gates. In the first few years I was here I was petrified when I saw the pupils crossing Markhouse road with all that busy traffic. I kept asking the council to do something about it but I kept being told there was no money.
Eventually a child got hit by a car. Thank goodness the child suffered very little injuries but that was enough for me to go into overdrive. Luckily Councillor Saima Mahmood who held the portfolio for education at the time helped and hey presto the crossing was put in place. Even now I do not feel it is completely safe but I think it is better than before.
What would you say to a Y6 pupil trying to decide which secondary to apply to?
My message to a year 6 pupil would probably be chose the school that you feel you would be happy to attend. I strongly believe that if children are happy to come to school, they stand far more chance of doing well. Poor attendance is one of the main factors limiting a child’s achievement. I would explain to them that they should consider that they will be spending the next 5 years minimum of their lifes at the school so it has to be somewhere they (within reason!) want to be. Having said that I do feel strongly they should think about their local school because if they wish to take advantage of all the extra-curricular opportunities the school has they don’t want to be wasting time travelling a long distance when they could be enjoying a sports club or perhaps getting ready for a school play.
How does your school compare to the school you went to as a child?
Interestingly I moved to Walthamstow when I was 12 years old and we lived near Willowfield which is where I spent my year 9. In those days Willowfield was a Junior High which meant it only had pupils from what would now be called KS3. After year 9 all pupils moved on – most to the Senior High which was called McEntee. Today it is the Walthamstow Academy. Willowfield was a really lovely school and I can remember getting involved in lots of projects because they had something called the Spring Festival.
When I moved to McEntee it was very different. It was a much bigger school with older pupils. If I were to compare that school then with Kelmscott now, it is worlds apart. In those days you were left to sink or swim. No one tracked your progress or made you feel capable of succeeding. I wanted to choose Science for options but was told I wasn’t very good at Science. Eventually they allowed me to do Biology. Interestingly I went on to do a degree in Geography with Geology as my subsidiary so I have a Science degree.  Kelmscott genuinely cares about each pupil and wants them to succeed. We do everything to keep pupils on track and prepared for their exams. For me this is the biggest difference.

Another packed public meeting as parents and teachers unite for our community schools

Well over 100 people crowded into the excellent venue at Harmony Hall off the High Street on 21st October for another packed OCOS public meeting. Kiri Tunks from Our Community Our Schools introduced the meeting as a contribution to public discussion about OCOS’s proposed Charter in the borough, explaining that it was intended to be something that could be amended, developed and used by parents, teachers and everyone who cares about progressive education. She then introduced the first speaker Melissa Benn who spoke about the original vision of comprehensive education and why it matters who owns our schools.

Melissa pointed to the widespread, political and media representation of comprehensive schools as associated with ‘failure’ and argued that this orchestrated campaign masked their huge successes. Prior to comprehensive movement, children had been socially divided and told they were failures by 11, supported by disgraced eugenic theories of educational ability. From mid 1960s the tripartite system that segregated people into secondary modern, grammar and public schools was challenged by the comprehensive movement and by new academic theories of educational psychology. This movement, she argued, was a tremendous success of our society and we should celebrate it.

‘All our children should go to schools together’ she urged, arguing that all the ways of dividing our children fundamentally arise on the basis of class division. Private schools, Melissa argued  ‘have everything they want, except they turn out some very strange citizens.’ She called for a government that was strong enough to challenge increasingly entrenched social privilege and would fight for all schools to have fair admissions. Melissa argued that it was government policy and not failures of the comprehensive model that created divisions and fuelled parental anxiety. The best school systems in the world, she argued, send all their children to school together and even the  OECD says it’s good for society and for children too. She finished by reiterating that it really matters who runs schools. We are being pushed back to a 19th century patchwork of provision – we need to restore local schools to local communities.

The next speaker was Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers who said he was delighted to be at a meeting organised by parents and hoped there would be hundreds more like it across the country. Kevin focused on the problems created in the school system by teachers’ heavy workloads. ‘We are losing thousands of good teachers. It will become a problem in schools and lead to staff shortages and fatigue’. But the fundamental problem, he urged was less the volume of work than the composition of the workload. Teachers, he said, have to be increasingly focused on data, tests, league tables and evidence: ‘measurement is driving the whole child out of the picture. We need children to be happy, rounded human beings – creativity and enjoyment are lost. This is accountability gone mad. There is a lack of trust in the system for teachers’.

Kevin pointed to the US, where children are tested all the time and teachers pay is tied to children’s  performance. “It’s like doing a full day’s work and then going home and spending hours explaining that you’ve done it”.

Kevin finished by pointing to NUT’s manifesto for the elections and in particular the demand to tackle child poverty. ‘Politicians attack schools for not being ambitious enough for working class children. Every teacher knows this is their job but we also know that child poverty makes a big difference. We’re in one of the richest and most unequal societies in the world. We need politicians to focus on making society more equal and freeing teachers to teach.’

The meeting was then addressed by Jenny Smith, headteacher at Frederick Bremer school, featured on ‘Educating the East End’. Jenny opened by saying it was fantastic for a head to be invited to speak in a meeting where we’re not having to defend our schools from attacks and academisation. Jenny echoed Melissa Benn in condemning the attacks on community schools and pointed to her own family which had been divided by the pre-comprehensive education system. Being able to go to a comprehensive school, she said, made a huge difference. Jenny talked about what London schools can achieve, pointing to the investment that came through London Challenge and which led to such coordinated improvement in standards. But she condemned the Coalition’s attack since 2010 and its ‘chaotic’ policies: ‘We’re now being judged by our GCSEs alone, while the Free School initiative destabilises school system locally and creates a perception that there is something wrong with our existing schools’.

Jenny argued that ‘we have to retain the principles and models of community education. Waltham Forest is unusual in its diversity and our community schools represent our local community and still dominate the educational offer’.

She also recounted how when applying for a headteachership, she deliberately chose a community school and argued that at her school ‘tolerance respect and compassion are integral to our school. There is no labelling, bullying is rare, every child is known, nourished and nurtured in our school. Our community schools sustain community cohesion.’ ‘It’s difficult to hate’ she said ‘when the label is a friend at school’.

She finished by calling on the media to stop attacking community schools and promote their achievements. She argued that we need to improve pay for teachers in Waltham Forest, noting that we are only paid outer London weighting, and she called on teaching unions to ‘work with us to build a new relationship’. Jenny finished with a simple call for politicians to ‘make the madness stop’ and for parents to continue to support their community schools.

The last speaker was the local MP for Leyton and Wanstead John Cryer, who opened by reiterating the points made by earlier speakers about the iniquities of the pre-comprehensive era and told the meeting about how his mother had been written off by the school system and left a year below the national minimum. John also repeated his now notorious description of Free Schools as a ‘barking mad’ experiment which put people like ‘that screaming egotist Toby Young’ and ‘the Chuckle Brothers in Rotherham’ in charge of schools. He also warned that the recent scandals were, in his view, ‘just the thin end of the wedge’. John pointed to the scandalous waste involved in the Free Schools experiment, citing the example of the Suffolk Free School which had £2 million spent on it and has 36 pupils. ‘Imagine what Jenny Smith’s school could do with £2 million?’, he said.

Academisation and Free Schools he said were fragmenting the school system and reinforcing class divisions and finished, like Kevin, with an impassioned plea to tackle poverty: children from poor, working class families, living in cramped conditions, with parents who work every hour that God sends to make ends meet, they’re struggling from day one at school. Address that and you will change society for the better.’

Discussion opened with an inspiring contribution from pupils from Frederick Bremer school: ‘We want to learn in a dynamic place, we want to learn more life skills that prepare us for the modern era, especially the technology; and we’re not robots, we want to be creative and dynamic. We need more funding and more resources.’

Other speakers urged parents to become governors to ensure that their schools were community places, while many speakers made clear that they wanted all children educated together and not segregated on sex, faith or class lines. There were calls to include more on sex education in the Charter and for initiatives which made it clear that Waltham Forest is a great place to go to school precisely because of its diversity.

It was another inspiring meeting which affirmed the value of the Charter, added some valuable new elements and came up with some excellent concrete ideas for the future. Thanks to everyone who came and watch this space for more soon.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

What sort of person do you want teaching your child?

Why I’m supporting the OCOS charter, by Michelle Hendry 

What sort of person do you want teaching your child? I want my child’s teacher to be happy, motivated and feel valued. That’s because I want my child to be happy, motivated and feel valued.  All the teachers and support staff I’ve come across went into the profession with commitment, passion and enthusiasm.  I know this to be true because I have 10 years of experience of working in inner city London secondary schools.  As a parent, I feel so grateful for this insight because of the faith it has given me that my fellow professionals fully intend to do the absolute best for my child; to instil her with a thirst for learning and support her both emotionally and socially, during the sometimes difficult school years.  

The flip-side of this is that I know many - too many - wonderful teachers who are battered and demoralised by a system that is failing to support them in achieving this. 

Our children learn the importance of ‘group work’ from an early age; that through co-operation and having positive discussions from lots of different viewpoints, all members of the group feel valued and able to share their ideas.  By creating a collaborative environment, all members of the group feel supported and empowered, and so able to bring their own strengths, cultural experiences and differences to the table; and to do this without fear of judgment, criticism and being put down.  Should the same model not apply to teachers then?  Should they not be working together to share good practice and make learning exciting and invigorating for our children? This seemingly simple task is becoming increasingly impossible against an overwhelming backdrop of constant monitoring, assessment and testing.  The balance is all wrong. Teachers now spend so much time documenting evidence for the work done in lessons, and inputting countless data into spreadsheets, that they have precious little time to prioritise the most important part of their job: giving worthwhile feedback and planning high quality lessons.  Yes, I want my child to get good qualifications, but I also want her to have the space to be creative, the ability to socialise and above all else, to have an enjoyment of learning. 

40% of teachers leave within the first five years.  The chief inspector of schools, Sir Michael Wilshaw has famously said, ‘if anyone says to you that staff morale is at an all-time low you know you are doing something right’.  An ethos that condones low staff morale is not a supportive one. If a member of staff challenges a procedure in their workplace, they should feel free to do so not only without fear of recrimination, but because their voice is valued and will be listened to. After all, we know that students learn the most when asking questions, when curiosity is encouraged, and where they are challenged to look at different perspectives. How can we expect teachers to make that vital connection with our children, to encourage higher levels of thinking when their own levels of stress, tension and exhaustion are so overwhelming?

For many teaching is a vocation; for all it is a profession.  By definition, professionals should be accountable. Of course I want to know that all teachers follow a professional code and I certainly want to know that my child’s teacher is fully qualified.  But the problem comes when professionals are accountable to a system that undermines and contradicts the very values we want instilled in our children.  I don’t want the people who spend more time with my child than I do, spending more time proving they’re doing the job than doing the job itself. 
I support the OCOS charter because like our children, teachers and support staff need space for reflection; to try out new ideas that will make the next lesson better than the last; to be nurtured and supported so that they can grow and perform to the best of their ability. Like our children, teachers and support staff need to be respected, valued and listened to and have working conditions that are conducive to a positive learning environment. Like our children, teachers and support staff need to be treated equally regardless of gender, age, race or religion.  Because like our children, we want our teachers and support staff to represent our vibrant and diverse community where everyone has a voice that is equally valued.



Tuesday, 7 October 2014

A roundup of local and national stories on Academies and Free Schools (2): Silver Birches, shiny chairs and conflicts of interest

In April 2014, the Education Funding Agency published a report into a whistleblower’s allegations of financial mismanagement at the Silver Birches Academy Trust, which controls the Chingford Hall and Whittingham primary academies.  The report concluded that the school had awarded a contract for ICT services to a company which the Chair of Governors worked for, in spite of the fact that there were two lower offers. The Agency concluded that there was insufficient documentary evidence supporting the school’s decision. In addition, refurbishment work was undertaken at Whittingham Primary at a value of £56,000, for which there was no tendering process, in breach of the trust’s own contracting policy. Of this total, £25,000 was accounted for by the purchase of a range of items for the Executive Headteacher’s office, including 14 executive armchairs. As the agency rather mildly put it, ‘We have not seen a business case to support the assertion that this represented value for money’.

It would be tempting to say of course that this was an anomaly, or a case of people making mistakes and it’s all better now, but the truth is that the findings of the EFA report into Silver Birches mirror a national problem with academies. That’s pretty much the conclusion of a report commissioned by the Education Select Committee, a powerful committee of MPs who oversee education policy. Their report, published in September highlighted a series of areas where governors of academy trusts were acting in ways that conflicted with the public interest. These included:

  • Connected or related party transactions, in which people on Trust Boards benefited personally, or through their companies from their positions
  • Sponsors providing paid services through arrangements that prevent schools using other services
  • Inappropriate levels of control over school decision making
  • Poor skills or capabilities on trust boards
  • Inattention to or ignoring of rules on conflicts of interests, particularly among ‘young’ or fast growing trusts
  • Over-powerful executives and governing bodies too small to hold them to account
  • Failure to implement competitive tendering or have regard to value for money (pp. 4-6)

Much of this echoes other analysis of the problems of academies, including our own briefing to the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s and our analysis of Free Schools which you can read here.

The fact is that there is growing recognition that the academies and free schools policies are broken and are in urgent need of fixing. Yet regardless of this, groups of governors, with the connivance and active support of the government, are continuing to remove our schools from our communities and place them in the hands of small groups of people who are not being properly held to account for their actions. This is a recipe for more and more problems in our schools.

It’s time for a change. Some of this is about technical fixes in the law or the school system to mend gaping holes that encourage bad practice. But it’s also about more than that. We need to move the debate on and rebuild our school system around a new mass consensus about what it is that our schools are for and how they should be run. Competition and consumer choice have been tried and are failing, day in, day out.

That’s one reason why we’ve launched our Charter for Education - to start a debate that we can all get involved in that can shape the behaviour of our schools locally now and that can play a part in shaping the ideas of the future. Get involved in the debate!

Academies and Free Schools in Waltham Forest – a roundup of local and national news (1)

Our Community Our Schools was set up in part to oppose moves to establish Free Schools and to convert our community maintained schools into academies. We were pleased when it became clear back in March this year that one of the proposed Free Schools was not going to happen, but the truth is that it’s very difficult for communities or even for teachers to defend their schools. The legislation has been drafted in such a way that small groups of people in Whitehall can collude with sponsors to set up Free Schools or convert schools to academy status almost at will. There continue to be great successes for communities, such as the recent campaign in Hove, but the fact is that the dice are heavily loaded against local communities and democracy.

Tauheedul Free School opens and St Mary’s/St Saviour’s convert

In Waltham Forest, we’ve seen Tauheedul Free Schools Trust open their new ‘Eden School for Girls’ at the Silver Birches site, in spite of considerable opposition and what we said was a disastrously flawed consultation process. It remains to be seen how it will fare in its current premises and how it is able to fulfil its aspiration to recruit 50% non-Muslim pupils.

In addition, St Mary’s and St Saviour’s primary schools announced in September that following consultation they were proceeding with academy conversion. The decision to convert followed meetings at which a total of 28 people were present and a consultation to which 14 people responded. Even assuming that there was no duplication among these people (not a particularly sound assumption), that’s a total response rate of around 9% of the potential parent body. Hardly a rousing episode in our democratic history and certainly it looks appalling when compared with the turnout in a parent ballot to resist the academisation of Thomas Gamuel primary for example. Yet the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s appear content with their mandate and as a result, yet another community school is being removed from our community to become part of an academy trust. And of course it’s worth remembering that the rest of the community had no say in this whatsoever, in spite of the impact it will have on the rest of the borough.


Meanwhile the academy chain that started in Walthamstow, Reach2 aims to extend its rapidly growing empire of schools by opening a new primary Free School in Leyton. Reach2 has only existed since 2012 when it was established by Steve Lancashire, the head of Hillyfield school following its conversion to academy status. The chain had two schools by the end of 2012 and 27 by 2014, including Chapel End and Woodside in Waltham Forest. Reach2 has powerful friends in the Department for Education, who have seconded a member of their staff to the academy chain and written a glowing report on their unique model (full of praise for their mission and core values embodied in the concepts of ‘touchstone’ and ‘cornerstone’, etc etc etc). Teaching unions seem less keen. The NUT and NASUWT have been convening Trust level talks to try to get acceptable pay and appraisal schemes across the trust’s schools, but so far without success. Reach2 are also currently refusing to pay into borough-wide schemes that pay for union reps to have facilities time.


Reach2 appear to operate by taking over ‘struggling’ schools, often as a result of forced conversions and then grouping them within a regional Multi-Academy Trust. This is seen as a way of negotiating the problems that arise when a chain grows fast and takes over individual schools across huge geographic distances (someone really ought to invent some local borough-based way of organising schools, some sort of accountable local body….).

Even the DfE’s glowing account of the rise of Reach2 includes an admission that growing fast and covering huge distances has caused problems for the management of the chain. And this should ring alarm bells for Reach2 as the fast growth of academy chains was criticised in 2013 by the Academies Commission and earlier this year by Ofsted. Basically, it is widely recognised now that there is a real problem providing public oversight of unaccountable academy chains and it’s proving almost impossible to monitor what’s going on.

One result of this is the emergence of scandalous situations such as were seen with the chain AET which had to have schools removed because they were performing so badly.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Launching our draft Charter for Education in Waltham Forest

Our Community, Our Schools is a parent-led campaign, set up to defend our community schools against attempts to set up Free Schools and to convert our community schools to academies. But we weren’t defending community schools for the sake of it.

We believe that our community schools are a historic achievement. It was not so very long ago that the idea that everyone was entitled to a common, shared education, regardless of their background and their wealth, was considered dangerous and radical.

However, successive governments have failed to support our community schools and now the Coalition government actively attacks them at every turn. Whoever forms the next government will inherit a fragmented, divided and partially privatised school system. They will need to work hard to restore parents’ faith and teachers’ confidence.

Yet in spite of the attacks on them, our schools continue to perform heroically. And in spite of the fear-mongering, people continue to believe in the ideas that motivated the great education reforms of the past because they are basic, common-sense, powerful and democratic ideas.

Every great advance in education was won by people standing up to fight for it. We believe that it’s time to start uniting people and campaigning positively around a vision of education. It’s time to start a debate and a discussion in our communities about the kind of education system and the kind of schools we want.

That’s why we have launched our draft Charter for education in Waltham Forest.

This is not a finished document. It’s a starting point for a wide-ranging discussion in our community and we want that discussion to take many different forms. We will be proposing meetings, articles, discussion, and opening up the document to you to comment on and discuss online.

But what we want to do is play our part in building a local movement that can be a powerful force in the community, helping all our schools to meet the highest standards we should expect and that can help build pressure on local and national policy-makers and decision-makers to listen to us. 

We want to know what you think, so please join the discussion.

Monday, 22 September 2014

‘What do we want from our Schools? Building a Charter for Education - New speakers announced and how to book your place

What do we want from our Schools? Building a Charter for Education

Tuesday 21 October 2014
7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow

  • Melissa Benn, education writer and author of School Wars: the battle for Britain's Education
  • John Cryer, MP for Leyton and Wanstead
  • Jenny Smith, Headteacher, Frederick Bremer School, stars of ‘Educating the East End'
  • Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, National Union of Teachers.
We believe that it’s time to start a discussion about how we build a new, positive and progressive vision for our education system.

We’re delighted to have a stellar line up of speakers to start that debate at our public meeting, including education expert and writer Melissa Benn, Kevin Courtney, the Deputy General Secretary of the NUT, John Cryer, local MP for Leyton and Wanstead and Jenny Smith, headteacher of our own Frederick Bremer School, currently starring in ‘Educating the East End’.

We'll be asking:

  • How should we measure success in schools?
  • Are our kids being ‘measured’ and tested too much?
  • How should schools be run?
  • Who should our schools be accountable to?
  • How do we ensure that all kids get the same chances?
  • Should we, as parents, be more involved in our schools?

Come and join the discussion. Help us to shape a Charter for education in our borough.

Reserve your place at this FREE event now by booking tickets online here. Make sure to bring your tickets with you on the day.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Great new speakers announced for our public meeting on 21st October

‘What do we want from our Schools? Building a Charter for Education’
Tuesday 21 October 2014
7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow  

  • Melissa Benn, education writer and author of School Wars: the battle for Britain's Education)
  •  John Cryer MP for Leyton and Wanstead
  •  Jenny Smith, Headteacher, Frederick Bremer School, stars of ‘Educating the East End’
  • Kevin Courtney, Deputy General Secretary, National Union of Teachers

We believe that it’s time to start a discussion about how we build a new, positive and progressive vision for our education system.

We’re delighted to have a stellar line up of speakers to start that debate at our public meeting, including education expert and writer Melissa Benn, Kevin Courtney, the Deputy General Secretary of the NUT, John Cryer, local MP for Leyton and Wanstead and Jenny Smith, headteacher of our own Frederick Bremer School, currently starring in ‘Educating the East End’.  

We'll be asking: 
  • How should we measure success in schools?
  • Are our kids being ‘measured’ and tested too much?
  • How should schools be run?
  • Who should our schools be accountable to?
  • How do we ensure that all kids get the same chances?
  • Should we, as parents, be more involved in our schools? 
Come and join the discussion. Help us to shape a Charter for education in our borough.



Thursday, 11 September 2014

PUBLIC MEETING ‘What do we want from our Schools? A Charter for Schools’

OCOS Public Meeting, Tuesday 21 October 2014
‘What do we want from our Schools? A Charter for Schools’
7.30pm, Harmony Hall, Truro Road, Walthamstow
Speakers include Melissa Benn (education writer and author of School Wars: the battle for Britain's Education) with other speakers to be confirmed shortly…

After a summer break., Our Community Our Schools is back with a new public meeting. It’s almost exactly two years since our campaign was set up, prompted by the proposals to establish two Free Schools in the borough. We saw Free Schools, like Academies, as a dangerous way of fragmenting our school system, taking schools out of the hands of their communities and increasing social divisions of all kinds in our diverse borough.
Yet right from the start, we have tried hard to promote a positive vision of education and schooling as an alternative to the policies being pushed by the Coalition. Now, as Free Schools and academies come increasingly under the spotlight and their achievements are thrown into question, we want to start to build that alternative vision of education by starting a discussion in our borough about what people really want from their schools.

Our schools are answerable to national politicians, but shouldn't they also be organic parts of their communities?

What should our schools be trying to achieve? How should they be run? How should we be involved in our schools?
To help start this discussion off, we are hosting a new public meeting on 21st October and we’re delighted that one of our main speakers will be Melissa Benn, education expert, writer and author of the excellent book ‘School Wars: The battle for Britain's Education’. Other great speakers will be announced shortly.
We’ll also be publishing a discussion document in the form of a draft Charter for our Schools to help kick off the debate.
More details very soon. Watch this space!

Can you help us leaflet and promote this meeting? If you’re prepared to help us by joining a leafleting team or leafleting your street to help promote this meeting, please email and let us know.

Friday, 13 June 2014

An open letter to the governors of St Mary’s and St Saviour’s schools

Our Community, Our Schools is taking the step of publishing an open letter to you for two reasons. 

Firstly, we have been contacted by a number of concerned parents from St Mary’s school asking for our advice on the ramifications of Academy Conversion. We have now published this advice here.
Secondly, we are publishing this advice because we believe that the proposal to convert these schools to being part of a Multi-Academy Trust is one that affects all of us in Waltham Forest.
As you are well aware, the issue of the freedoms of Free Schools and Academy schools is very rarely out of the news at the moment. Their academic performance is being questioned, academy chains are coming under tremendous fire and academy and free school governing bodies are being scrutinised for mismanagement, high senior staff salaries and allegations of cronyism.
Our research leads us to believe that one of the most important reasons for this is the structural weaknesses of both Academies and Free Schools - legally the same thing.
If St Mary’s and St Saviour’s schools do decide to become academies we believe they will be taking a major gamble and the effects of failure will be felt not only by the school’s children, but by all the whole community and all our schools.
For these reasons, at the very least, we believe it is absolutely vital that the school governors consult widely and meaningfully with the whole range of stakeholders in the community and to reflect in an open transparent way on the responses they receive.
Please feel free to contact us if you want more information.

Our Community, Our Schools

Download our briefing here.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The truth about Waltham Forest’s schools

Every parent wants to know that their child will have access to a good school and that the people running those schools take their job seriously. This is the common-sense anxiety on which the current government has mercilessly and shamelessly played in order to stoke up demand for ‘Free Schools’.

This is not to say that nothing about our school system needs improvement – of course it does, but the drive to create demand for Free Schools depended on establishing that there was something fundamentally rotten about comprehensive schools. If current trends are anything to go by, the truth appears to be almost the reverse. As proportionately more Free Schools are falling foul of Ofsted, it appears that there is something fundamentally wrong with the new kids on the block.

Tackling the legacy of this fear-mongering is difficult because there are huge problems in our education system, many of which are nothing to do with our schools. For example, can any form of school offset the effects of 30 years in which social and economic inequality has got worse? But as the unfolding policy disaster that is the Free Schools project shows, fear-mongering only worsens the situation.

It's disappointing then, to find a recent local Liberal Democrat party election leaflet making some deeply unfair claims about the performance of our schools based on distorted statistics. The leaflet claimed that Waltham Forest’s schools have the lowest percentage of pupils passing 5 GCSE’s at A-C grade including English and Maths in London and that  in Key Stage 2 exams (11 tests of 11 year olds), Waltham Forest is the lowest performing borough in London. This is, they claim, a damning indictment of our schools under the current council. “It’s a competitive world out there” one Lib Dem Councillor is quoted as saying, while another claims to “see no reason why our children can’t be the best in London”.  Both quotes are in fact fairly meaningless but they seem calculated to play on anxieties that our schools are failing.

So what is the truth about Waltham Forest schools?

Firstly, we went back to the same statistics used by the Liberal Democrats to see what they told us. We looked at the most recent statistical reports on educational performance in Waltham Forest by the Council officers to the Children and Young People Overview and Scrutiny sub-committee (see the documents under item 45 in particular). What they show us, perhaps predictably, is that the truth is more complicated but it’s also much more encouraging. For example: 

  • Our schools are meeting their improvement targets for Key Stage 1 reading and writing,
  • While it’s true that Waltham Forest’s schools are currently running fairly consistently below the London average on most indices, the gap seems to be narrowing on most measures.
  • At Key Stage 1 Reading, Writing and Maths our schools are meeting their improvement targets and the gap between them and the London average is almost non-existent.
  • Waltham Forest’s schools are meeting their targets to reduce the gap between the levels of educational attainment of pupil premium pupils and their peers at Key Stages 2 and 4. 
  • At Key Stage 2, Waltham Forest is below the London average but only by 4% and is equal to the National Average.
  • At Key Stage 4, the percentage of pupils reaching 5 or more GCSEs with grades A to C is below the London average and the National Average but only by 2% and the gap is narrowing.
  • Indeed, what’s most striking from the statistics is that the rate of improvement of Waltham Forest Schools over the last three years in particular is comparable with the London average in general,  often outstrips the rate of improvement of the National Average and sometimes outstrips the rate of improvement of the London average. At Key Stage 1 the rate of improvement is quite dramatic and is still impressive at Key Stage 2.
In short, Waltham Forest’s schools are still behind the London average but they are on a good trajectory, improving steadily across most measures and rapidly on many others. Certainly not the disaster narrative being fed by the local Liberal Democrats’ leaflet.

It’s also worth bearing in mind, that this isn’t some abstract race. Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived boroughs in the capital and the country as a whole. By the Council’s chosen index, Waltham Forest is the 6th most deprived borough in London, while London’s Poverty Profile identifies Waltham Forest as one of the four most impoverished boroughs in the capital. Comparison of schools performance that are crudely indexed against Kensington and Chelsea, Wandsworth and Westminster are not going to tell us that much. When the borough’s deprivation is taken into account the rate of improvement in Waltham Forest’s schools is more impressive.

Statistics should be used with great care. If you really wanted to know what was happening in Waltham Forest’s schools and wanted to draw meaningful comparisons, you would have to compare schools in boroughs with comparable socio-economic profiles and similar resources. And you’d have to agree in advance what the measure of a good school actually is.

The statistics show that our schools have room to improve in simple raw academic performance indicators but that’s not the only measure of a good school. The statistics also show that even measured on their simple academic performance, our schools are improving impressively in spite of the borough’s socio-economic profile and resource issues.

Our schools are doing well and they deserve – and need - our support.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Just what is the real problem with Free Schools?

The revelation that Michael Gove has been raiding the budget for primary schools of £400 million to fund his free schools shows once again that the current government’s real objective is not about building new schools or fulfilling its duty to provide children with school places. It’s not even really about choice. It’s about using its time in government to cause the maximum possible damage to the comprehensive school system.

Gove has done everything possible to provide a sheltered environment for his new schools. He’s used legislation to ensure that no one can build any other kind of new school. He’s provided Free Schools with privileged funding and raided other budgets to support them. He’s allowed them to overrun their projected capital start-up costs. Perhaps more importantly, he’s been frantically busy inside the DfE reallocating resources to try to hide their desperate shortcomings. As the evidence grows of a disproportionate failure rate, it also emerged that Free schools,are getting extra support and resources to help them survive, resources that are unavailable for other struggling schools.

As well as revealing the nakedly ideological project underpinning the Free Schools policy, what this has also shown is that the Department knows there is something very wrong with Free Schools. Even the government has had to admit this with the Schools Minister John Nash recently quoted as saying ‘Experience has shown us that free schools in their first years of operation are different from other open academies and face problems that are not educational in origin.’

We think that parents and all those who are thinking about getting involved with these schools deserve to know what it is that’s so problematic about this school. That’s why we have published this briefing note on Free Schools. Our briefing focuses on what we think are fundamental structural flaws that stem from the way these schools have been set up in law and outside the local authority system. We argue that far from representing a few bad apples, the recent scandals that have engulfed several Free Schools tell us something very important about them, something that the Department for Education does not want you to know.

Our message is, if you’re thinking about signing your child up for a Free School, about getting involved in governing a Free School, or even  about setting one up, read this briefing - and think again. 

Thursday, 10 April 2014

Oasis in the news for establishing churches in their schools

For the last 12 months, people in Waltham Forest have been debating whether or not Walthamstow needs more schools. They have not been debating whether it needs another church. And they certainly weren’t aware that in the case of Oasis, if they got one, they might very well get the other too.

Tuesday’s Guardian carried a story about Oasis Community Learning that raised serious questions about whether the group, which now runs more than 40 academy schools and which wanted to set up a Free School in Walthamstow, was in fact using these schools as a base to set up churches.

This story has its origin in research and a Freedom of Information request undertaken by Our Community Our Schools toward the end of last year. Wanting to know more about Oasis we delved into their activities in other academy schools and looked in more detail at the way they run their academies.

Oasis is structured as a series of charitable companies, including Oasis Community Learning, which runs the academies, underneath Oasis Charitable Trust. The Trust’s aims are: the advancement of Christianity, the advancement of education; the advancement of health and the preservation and protection of public health generally'.

They aim to achieve this by building Oasis ‘hubs’, which include their schools. As far as the Trust is concerned, the Hub is as important as ‘Community Learning’, even though the latter is the source of the vast majority of the funds and assets controlled by Oasis as a whole and the hubs are completely dependent on the Academies for sites, resources and focuses of activities.

So, what do the hubs do? The 2012Financial Statements for the Oasis Charitable Trust, the ultimate body at the top of Oasis’s group of companies, describe the Hub as: ‘A Christ-centred place of activity that provides integrated, high quality and diverse services to benefit the whole person and the whole community’. More intriguingly, the statement goes on ‘...the aim of OCT and the national teams of OUK, OCL (Community Learning), Oasis College and STOP THE TRAFFIK is to support and serve the Oasis Hubs.’ It would seem fairly clear then that in the views of Oasis’s highest body, the schools are supposed to serve the hubs, not the other way around.

A key player in building the ‘hubs’ is the chaplain. The Charitable Trust works to recruit and appoint chaplains to serve each hub, sometimes more than one. According to Oasis Charitable Trust’s 2012 financial statement, ‘Chaplains build chaplaincy teams in our Academies to support staff and students. They are also responsible for building churches in order to engage the wider community in the Hub.’ The job description we’ve seen for an Oasis chaplain confirms that part of their role is to ‘Develop and grow an Oasis Church within the Hub setting’.

We wanted to know more about these churches, so we asked Oasis. In their FOI response, Oasis explained “Oasis churches are not what would be understood as traditional church groups. They are small groups of local people who are keen to serve the Academy students, their families and the wider community as an expression of their faith. They are made up of parents, teachers and members of the local community who are committed to the Oasis ethos and the process of community transformation.” Stripped of its language about keenness and community transformation, that’s pretty much a description of any evangelical church. But more importantly, as we’ve seen above, as far as Oasis are concerned Oasis Community Learning - and its academies - are there to support and serve the hubs.

Our initial research indicated that many of these churches were meeting on academy school premises (take for example, the Oasis Academy in Enfield). So we asked Oasis to confirm this and confirmed that ‘some of our churches do meet in academies at various points in the week but on days and times when the academies are not functioning as schools;. So we asked do they pay any rent? To which the answer was ‘No. The church groups are treated like other local groups who use our academies who either pay a reduced rent or no rent at all, depending on the conditions set by the local lettings arrangements.’

We also asked more about the chaplains who are tasked with building the churches. In their response, Oasis were very clear, they are not paid for by the academies but are funded out of private donations. Yet there is some very worrying ambiguity about their role. We asked which chaplains had responsibility for any pastoral, pedagogical or curricular input into academies? Oasis’s answer was:

“None have overall responsibility for any of these areas. However, they all contribute to the curriculum and pedagogy through RE lessons (which reflect the SACRE (the standing advisory council on RE) standards, PSHE (personal, social, health and economic ) education and SMSC (social, moral, spiritual and cultural) education and all have a pastoral function for staff and students.”

To us, that’s quite a wide remit which bleeds at crucial points into contributing toward curriculum and pedagogy. It’s particularly worrying as they are not required to be qualified to teach.

To summarise. Oasis Charitable Trust aims to establish ‘Christ-centred’ hubs, which all the arms of Oasis, including its academies under Oasis Community Learning, are supposed to serve. The Trust is recruiting (out of private money), chaplains, who are supposed to establish churches as part of the ‘hub’. These churches meet, at a reduced rent, or entirely rent free, using academy premises, and the chaplains, who are not qualified teachers, have a role in some areas of pedagogy and curriculum development.

This raised serious questions about what people in Waltham Forest were signing their children up to supporting. Were they aware that the school would most probably be acting to provide premises for a church and to support evangelically inspired social activism?

And what about the role of the chaplains? From the results of the FOI request and the job descriptions we’d seen it is clear that they had some role in advising on at least religious aspects of the curriculum. This takes us back to the old issue of where the church ends and the schools begin.

And finally, is it appropriate that public funds be used to support the establishment of churches? It’s quite clear that public assets in the form of school estate, are being used to support churches in the Oasis academies. It is also clear that the EFA purchased a site in Waltham Forest that would have been used by Oasis to establish a church.

As the British Humanists Association commented when this story broke,

“we are deeply alarmed to have discovered that the state-funded Academy system is enabling this organisation to establish a parallel network of churches, often rent-free. This raises questions as to whether proselytising is taking place thanks to public funds. We are also alarmed by the employment of chaplains to work at the schools. We are not aware of any other schools that are not designated as religious behaving in this manner and we believe that it is extremely bizarre and a misuse of public property.”

They further commented,

“the establishment of the chain of Academies has allowed Oasis’s network of churches to grow considerably from the one church Oasis ran a few years ago. More people are attending Oasis churches than would be if it were not for the wholly state-funded Academies that the organisation now runs. These churches are promoted through the schools’ websites which variously describe them as ‘inspired by the life, teachings and ministry of Jesus Christ’ and say ‘We are spiritual people, which means that we believe that spirituality is real – and behave accordingly, looking for God in unexpected places, and shaping our lives to listen.’  This does not seem to us to be appropriate given that the churches have only been able to come into existence thanks to state funds for the Academies.”

We would tend to agree. How many of the parents who were encouraged to add their names to the list of supporters of this school, whose names were used to evidence local demand and led to this school getting to the point of opening its admissions, really knew what they were signing up for?

In the end, the real culprit in this story is the government, whose destructive legislation and practices have created this situation and which is now resulting in almost daily press stories concerning the disastrous consequences of the Free Schools policy. About which more soon...