Friday, 4 April 2008

“The worst that can happen is that you don’t make the progress you wish”

Paul Thompson was one of the many faces in the crowd at the MIS public meeting last Wednesday. He kindly sent this report to NAME.

The consultation meeting on Wednesday 26th March felt more like a ‘presentation’ than a ‘consultation’. A surprisingly large number of people crammed into the hall at MIS, in fact so unexpected were the numbers that there weren’t enough seats available.

There was an opening statement by Dame Jocelyn Barrow on behalf of the independent consultants. Dame Jocelyn informed us that ‘focus groups’ would be held with current students to determine their preferences with regards to the academy proposal, something which I am surprised hasn’t yet happened considering how far through the process we are!

Robert Back from the LEA was the next to speak. He revealed that the LEA was “completely in favour of an academy”, but agreed that “there are lots of strengths in the three tier system”. It shocked me to see how little knowledge Mr. Back has of the area, as he commented about the difficulties of teachers having to travel between the three current schools, something which doesn’t happen as each school has its own teaching staff. He also said that the academy is “the only way to get a 21st century building”, which isn’t true as there is still the option of the ‘building schools for the future’ (BSF) programme. According to Mr. Back however, the academy will “give the same deal but much sooner” which clearly isn’t true, as having a set of state run schools is slightly different to having an education system run by private sponsors. Interestingly, the National Union of Teachers (NUT) has commented that in order for an area to be considered for the BSF programme, local authorities are forced to consider including an academy proposal as part of the consultation, indicating that this proposal is being pushed through by unknown hands at Westminster who have no knowledge of the local area. Robert Back also encouraged the audience to dispel any opinions of current academies because “what happens to city academies won’t apply here”, although it is still unclear as to what these differences are. There is apparently an alternative being considered, which involves having smaller school ‘units’ on one site, but there is no mention of this in either the WSCC or ULT’s proposal documents. Mr. Back’s local knowledge was called into question when he commented that “a minibus will be provided to take children home” – a minibus? Does he know how many children will require this service?! Another telling comment by Mr. Back was that “academies receive sufficient money over the first few years”, but no comment was made about funding after the initial stages. My personal favourite quote by Robert Back during the evening was, “the worst that can happen is that you don’t make the progress you wish”. This is completely false. Once the land is given over to the ULT, there is no going back. Also, due to the questionable assessments provided by OFSTED in relation to academies, changes would be slow to be implemented so if the academy begins to fail, problems will take a long time to be corrected. But I suppose we won’t necessarily know if it begins to fail will we? If academies are exempt from the freedom of information act, don’t have to release subject specific exam results and are accountable ONLY to the secretary of state, poor results and standards could quite easily be hidden from the public, including parents.

The ULT then made a presentation which felt more like part of an open evening for the proposed academy. The ULT representative, Mr. Baker, said that they will provide a “download service” allowing teaching plans to be accessed by students. This university style education will surely lead to pupils skipping lessons, and seeing as how the exclusion policy is so strict in academies, the students who take advantage of this system will simply be cast away from the education system entirely. Maybe this is what Mark Dunn meant when he said that the academy’s pupils would be better behaved, because the students in the Midhurst area who are apparently “genetically modified” to be badly behaved won’t be accepted by the academy at all. But of course, this isn’t in any way selective is it?! ULT repeatedly referred to what employers want from the education provided by academies, but no mention was made of what universities may require. Universities will surely find it hard to compare students who learn the national curriculum to those who don’t. Will the qualifications offered by the academy even be considered by universities who follow a strict admissions policy? I also find it hard to believe that universities will choose to enrol students from an education system labelled as ‘failing’, which is undoubtedly what the academy will do. This is confirmed by DfES themselves who say that academies are only considered in areas with failing education systems (or in areas where new schools are needed and seeing as how the local schools already accept the entire catchment area, there is no reasoning for this either). In terms of governance at the proposed academy, the ULT representative as good as admitted that only one parent governor will be retained and that the ten additional governors from the local community would be “technically appointed by ULT” (the other four governors being the principal, one teacher, one staff member and one LEA representative). Mr. Baker also commented that “academies are scrutinised and monitored far more than any school”, which I’m sure everyone will agree is absolute nonsense. Finally, the representative said that “the decision will be made from the feasibility stage”, which contradicts the comments made by a WSCC councillor who commented at a recent town council meeting that the decision HAD been made and that the academy WOULD open in name in September this year. She also said that the consultation process had been badly handled by WSCC, and that she would be referring the matter to County Hall. This comment, which I can only describe as damning for WSCC, calls the whole ‘consultation’ process into question.

Twice during the evening, Robert Back referred to the academy as “the only show in town”. He agreed that “schools like MGS should never have been in special measures and the LEA should have spotted this”. This comment is of course true, but why does WSCC want to label the area as ‘failing’ by putting an academy in the Rother Valley, if we all agree that the education system in the area only went through a glitch and was never really failing? Yet again during the evening the “strong public support for change” was justified by the number of parents wanting a “change towards a two tier system”. Unless I’m very much mistaken, the word ‘academy’ doesn’t feature in the initial consultation, so why is this being used as justification for an academy in Midhurst?

During the question and answer session at the end of the evening, there were only a select few people who spoke out in favour of the academy, with the large majority of those present airing their disapproval of the proposal. There were several excellent questions put to the panel, including very passionate comments by two sixth-formers and one current MGS student. The applause for audience members who spoke out against the proposal was deafening, showing once again that the majority of the local community are not in favour of the academy.

Robert Back agreed that the timescale of the consultation “militates” against students, but that the academy is required to replace the “crumbling edifice” that is the MGS site. Again, I would refer people to the BSF programme which will provide the option of new buildings in a few years. Surely waiting a few more years for nicer buildings is better than being stuck with a sub-standard education provided by unaccountable, private sponsors for decades in the future.

By Paul Thompson (Former pupil of MGS and university graduate)


Anonymous said...

A very interesting and accurate report of the meeting. I would recomend it to anyone who wasn't able to attend

Anonymous said...

I think that the worst that can happen is the experiment goes wrong, we're left to pick up the pieces, and there is no going back. I had been prepared until now to give some people in the Local Authority, like Mr Back, the benefit of the doubt. The end of the meeting, when we were all dismissed even though the majority wanted to hear and say more, showed a different, very unsympathetic side of these people. Mr Back was clearly annoyed that we didn't share his love of the academy and became rude and dismissive of people's views.

Trabb's Boy said...

And I was very offended by Mr. Back's comment- which echoed a similar sentiment made by Cllr Dunn at Lodsworth- that GOOD parents will want to send their children to an academy. Are we bad parents for not wanting an anti-democratic, unaccountable academy as the only option for our children!? How very dare they!

Anonymous said...

I was at that meeting and was frankly appalled at the 'consultation' process. I have written to DJB - the consultants asking if they have or have ever had a financial relationship with ULT. No answer. I also received an invite to another meeting, three days before it was due to be held (tonight)making it impossible to attend for busy parents. Mind you, as it was alleging that parents wanted to know more about the transition to academy status when; at the meeting I went to, actually most parents wanted to know how we avoid such status I continue to think that DJB and the whole process is corrupt - in the absence of evidence to the contrary of course. Has anyone thought about requesting a Judicial Review???

Trabb's Boy said...

Hello Anonymous poster #4
It was interesting that the meeting last night was supposed to be for parents- this point was only made very clearly in the meeting itself. But it must have been for just parents in the secondary systems already, because to my knowledge not all primary school parents knew about this. What's more, they posted it in the paper as a "public meeting", thereby upsetting a few people who came along only to be told their voices weren't necessarily welcomed.

On other matters, anonymous, would you please contact us at ? We'd be interested in exploring an idea with you.