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.