Sunday, 2 March 2008

NAME's first public meeting

Trabb's Boy's sincere apologies to you for the late date of publication... busy, busy week with proposal meetings and technical failures. Here's the report from a week ago:

Thursday 28th February

People lined the walls and huddled in the doorway of Easebourne Refectory - as there was not a spare seat to be had - to hear what campaigners had to say against the academy proposal for the Rother Valley. Some had come with established opinions and some had clearly come because they wanted to know more.

Derek Welsman, the vicar of Easebourne, opened the meeting by welcoming everyone and explaining his reason for hosting NAME's first public meeting. He told the assembled crowd that he was not necessarily against an academy, but that as a parent and governor, he welcomed the opportunity to hear the other side of the academy debate, which heretofore has been very one-sided from the Local Authority. He then introduced each of the speakers in turn before they were to speak.

Jane Eades, from the Anti-Academies Alliance, was first to speak. She began by saying that the thought of the academy made her so angry that morning she was compelled to write a rant, which she read. She spoke passionately about her former school and about teaching- the most skilled and demanding job of her life. She then proceeded to give a summary of her experiences with academies, specifically her particular experience with ULT when her school closed (North Westminster Community), now Paddington Academy (ULT sponsors) as well as Westminster Academy. She noted how difficult it is now to get information about the Academy because her views are well known and she reports that current staff are scared about speaking out. In addition, Ms Eades illustrated how ULT are very skilled at keeping adverse publicity at bay, giving the example of the stabbing in the playground of the Academy which seemed to not make it into the press. She was incensed at the way in which her former school has been completely misrepresented by ULT. She remembered the instructions given to the staff about transfer arrangements, which were followed, yet children's schoolwork and files went missing. She brought along a chart which she made showing the rapid rise in fortunes of ULT and stated that she'd like an independent accountant to scrutinise the figures. Since the meeting, Jane Eades has sent the NAME campaign a link to a newsnight item on Paddington Academy: (If you arrive at the main newsnight page for November, you need to scroll down towards the bottom of the page to the 7th November entries)

"The only real thing about a consultation is its first three letters- it's a con!" stated Hank Roberts, the next speaker. Hank gave a spirited speech, in which he outlined the road a school, sponsor and council travel on their way to academydom. Of particular interest was his own experience fighting an academy in Brent. After exhausting the traditional forms of protest, he and other protesters camped out on the land - a sports pitch used widely by the community - which was set to become the academy site. The sponsor decided then that he was no longer interested in academy sponsorship and went into tax exile in Switzerland. There were audible chuckles as Hank described the great expertise that a sponsor brings into running a school- like the carpet-sales giant Lord Harris, who decides on the phone to his friend Lord Adonis in the back of his limo whether or not he might like to add another academy to his portfolio. However, Hank was not joking about this. At the end of his speech, he showed the crowd a short independent film made about his "tent city" occupation.

Local NAME campaigner and former MGS pupil Simon Boxley was the next on the podium to speak. He gave a background to the campaign, and demonstrated through the Freedom of Information Act how, despite the Local Authority's widely quoted claim that the academy option became clear to them at Christmastime (coincidentally just after the first stage of consultation on the age of transfer), they had, in fact, discussed the possibility of an academy for the Rother Valley on May 22nd. Indeed, the grant from central government which would accompany an academy build was a motivating factor in county re-visiting the subject of change in age of transfer. The consultation, Simon Boxley claimed, was an exercise in managing consent: you will be told what to choose. The strong-arm tactics employed are meant to give the impression that if we reject the academy, we do not want the best for our schools and will receive no funding. "If this kind of thing happened in school, we would call it bullying". Nevertheless, he added, we should not give up on the consultation, but use it to communicate to the policy-makers our dissatisfaction with their take-it-or-leave-it 'preferred option'. Mr Boxley suggested that there are those in county hall who remain nervous about this experimental proposal - the first wholly rural academy - in which we are the guinea pigs.

Colin Hughes spoke not on behalf of NAME, but as chairman of Midhurst town council. He outlined the council's own journey en route to academy. They did not at first, Mr Hughes told all assembled, take seriously Mr Blair-Robinson's front page article about the vision for Midhurst and a new school. It did not seem likely, and the town council knew nothing of something which would have such a grave impact upon the community. Audience members grew visibly more disconcerted and shocked as Mr Hughes spoke, particularly of the disregard for consulting the public on the major changes with potentially grave consequences for the community which could result from the WSCC plans. The merger of the three existing schools into one and the resiting has not been thought through in terms of their practical management, he informed the residents who came. Traffic, infrastructure, parking and the effect on business were all examples given which caused the audience to stir.

Next to speak was Tony Sneller, a parent and school governor, who lectures at the University of Sussex and the University of Brighton. His talk was based on his area of expertise: community development, and on his passion: Petworth. He spoke of the increasing marketisation of schools and the resulting devaluation of the individual within the wider context of school within the community. This trend has led to students becoming units, a form of currency, wherein s/he is seen in terms of what s/he will bring to the school, instead of the student being a part of the whole. Mr. Sneller's vision was for a continuum of people, schools and community which all enable each other to give a sense of self. The academy agenda, by its nature, is contrary to that ideal.

Last on the platform was Lizz Tinder, who spoke as a citizen, Rother Valley teacher and parent. Her reasons for opposing the academy were on the grounds of its great lack of fairness, accountability and democracy. It came as a shock to many that the statutes for an academy are dictated by a funding agreement which is negotiated directly between the sponsor and Secretary of State, so our views are being sought on something for which we won't know the details. She also countered the widely-peddled claim that academies are good for communities, staff, parents and most of all pupils, giving many examples of how academies actually have detrimental effects for all involved, apart from the sponsor. People seemed shocked to hear how figures are skewed to make standards seem better at academies, by means such as including 1 GNVQ pass as equivalent to 4 A*-C GCSEs into their statistics.

The audience, some of whom had been standing for well over an hour, were then invited by the Rev. Chris Boxley to raise points, comment or ask questions. Many people had questions, such as what motivates a sponsor. Many were very interested in the consultation process and had questions which centred around the technicalities and logistics of implementing the academy. Unfortunately, these were questions which could not be answered, because there is no mention of the practicalities in the consultation document. Colin Hughes shared NAME's view, based on reports from people in the know, that the three schools would be merged onto one site where Midhurst Intermediate School now exists. A large proportion of the audience made it known how frustrated and angry they were about the lack of consultation with the whole community. One member of the audience voiced disgust at the thought that the £2 million new sports facility has just been built only to be wasted, a view others seemed to share. One woman was bothered by the inferences which might be drawn over ULT's financial situation, as ULT is classified as a charity and 'can't make a profit'. She said that she was not supporting academies, per se, but that the facts needed to be right. Hank Roberts rebutted with the fact that charities can and do have money-making arms, and he serves on one himself (TSN). Captain M O'Kelly, a governor from MGS stood up and gave a speech from the floor supporting the academy. He conceded that there would be a "loss" of democracy, but that a new build would not come for another 10 years if we didn't have an academy now. After speaking for over 5 minutes, Capt. O'Kelly was asked to sit down by a frustrated audience member. Rev Welsman pointed out that buildings were far less important to him as a parent than what the school embodied, what was best for the children.

Rev Boxley thanked Rev Welsman for hosting the event. He wanted to remind everyone that NAME campaigners are not "the bad guys" as they have been portrayed by academy supporters. The campaign seeks to find the best possible solution for our schools and the children they serve, and to open out the debate so that people have more information in order to form opinions. Pleas went from the platform that all get involved, go to meetings and fill out the response forms. The meeting broke and people left, still heavily in discussion with one another.


Anonymous said...

That seems to me to be a fair and accurate account of the meeting. It was a shame there wasn't more time to ask questions, but the speakers were very informative. WHen will we hear from someone from the ULT at a public meeting. Is that to be at the MIS meeting later this month? We want to hear NOW.

Trabb's Boy said...

I agree, anonymous- I wish in hindsight that there had been more time for questions. When we first organised the meeting, we were looking for as many different angles on the academy issue as we could find, as it has been totally one-sided from county so far. I think we did that. However, NAME wants this to be a local campaign, and we want our community to have its voice. We are working on another public meeting, the format of which, at this point, will be different from the last. We will definitely build in much more time for open questions and comments.

A ULT representative will speak to members of the public at the public consultation meeting at MIS. Although the rep has/will speak to governors and secondary school staff, I don't know of any other opportunity to question ULT.