Thursday 19 January 2012

Brent Labour takes on fight for community schools as secondaries consider academy options

The academies battle field

It was a busy day on the academies front in Brent yesterday.

At lunchtime a joint meeting of unions at Alperton High School voted unanimously for strike action if the school's governing body decided to apply for academy status. They called for the governing body to support the unions' opposition to academy or trust status. If the decision was to consider academy status they demanded a fair public debate and a secret ballot of staff and parents.

In the evening the Alperton governing body decided not to go ahead with academy conversion at this stage but instead agreed to invite the Cooperative Trust to handle a consultation process with five options:

1. Seek other partners to become a Cooperative Education Partnership which would require no change in the school's status.
2. Become a single school Cooperative Trust School which means that the school would remain maintained but change from a Foundation to a Trust school.
3. Become a Cooperative Trust in partnership with other schools (eg neighbouring primary schools). The schools would remained in the maintained sector with one Trust Board bur separate governing bodies.
4. Become a Cooperative Trust as a lone school or in partnership with others with a view to moving on to Cooperative Academy conversion. This would gain the 'benefits' of academy status but embed Cooperative values and ethos.
5. Maintain the status quo, maintained Foundation school.

In the South of Brent, Queen's Park Community School governing body, is concerned that it will be the only secondary school not looking at academy status, but has made it clear that it would like to stay as it is - a community school in the Local Authority. Though they are keeping abreast of the Coop moves in the borough they will have been heartened to hear that Alperton has not decided yet whether to go down that route.

While the Alperton Governing Body was meeting, down in Stonebridge, Labour Councillors and Labour nominated governors were meeting with some local teachers to discuss the current issues in school organisation with particular reference to academies. I attended at the invitation of Cllr Mary Arnold, lead member for children and families.

Melissa Benn, who is the parent of a child at a local community secondary school, gave an over-view of the current situation and some of the contradictions of Coalition policy. Academies had been able to boost their results by using vocational qualifications but Michael Gove had criticised such qualifications. By changing the rules to convert 'good' and 'outstanding' schools to academy status, the government had made academy results look better. Michael Wilshaw had been appointed as an independent chief of Ofsted but was also linked with academy provider ARK. She suggested the long-term aim was destruction of local authorities with a substitute unelected 'middle tier'. Academy chains were likely to move in to fill that space with 'for profit' schools not far behind. Labour had been stuck for 18 months, failing to react. She quoted an overheard conversation between Labour MPs 'we don't have an education narrative any more'.

Mary Arnold said that they had to recognise the pressure for academy status for short-term gain. It was important to recognise the impact on the whole Brent community of schools of fragmentation and the financial loss to the authority through top-slicing of the budget. The latter would affect the LA's ability to provide viable services. She said that present academies cooperated in the Brent 'family of schools', one less so than the others. She said that the role of the LA was essential and needed to be publicised by governors. These included:
  • strategic planning of school places
  • tackling underperformance of schools and particular groups of pupils
  • meeting the needs of vulnerable children including looked after children, those with special education needs and those who had been excluded from school
In a key passage in her briefing paper she said:
The local authority believes that there will be overall adverse effects on children and young people if strong collaboration and collective responsibility is not maintained and if the LA education function reduces to the extent that statutory responsibilities cannot effectively be fulfilled.
Cllr Arnold said that she expected a good take-up of the council's traded services for schools in 2011-12 . (Schools 'buy-in' these services but can also go to other providers). I pointed out that it was hard to back-up calls to remain with the local authority when they were cutting their services and staff reductions were making them less efficient. The campaign against academies and campaign against cuts were part of the same struggle.

Hank Roberts said that the issue was one of democracy and the right of staff and parents to have a secret ballot on academy proposals, with the unions taking strike action if the demand was not met. I added that schools did not belong to individual headteachers or even governing bodies, but to the whole community. In a sense academy conversion meant that our schools were being stolen from us. The need to involve parents and inform them of the negative issues association with academies was stressed by a number of contributors with calls for joint meetings of parents and governors. I asked if the database of parents held by Brent Council could be used to initiate ballots of parents if schools refused to hold one.

Among the suggestions to make Labour more proactive on the issue were:

1. Support for the right to hear a balanced debate pro and anti-academy and a right to an indepenent ballot, for and against, or parents and staff. Governing bodies would be expected to take the result into consideration. There was also a sugegstion that student actionm such as that at Kingsbiry High, hould also be supported.
2. A leaflet about the issue for distribution to parents.
3. Lobbying by councillors of schools where there was no nominated Labour governor if they were considering conversion.
4. Promotion of the services offered by the education authority.
5. A Brent Governors' One Day Conference on the academies and free schools issue with a 'for and against' debate and information available.
6. The relaunch of an Association of Brent School Governors
7. The formation of a broad-based campaign to defend community schools in Brent.

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