Calling all parents, prospective parents and school communities across Birmingham

I am starting a new group to bring parents and community across the city together to campaign for proper consultation on educational change, and I would like to invite you to get involved. As you may already be aware, parents’ experience of academy consultation in Birmingham has been seriously flawed with consultation often taking place after the decision has been made. For a fairly typical example see this post about the experience at Kingswinford School. A few of us have been fortunate in being able to make our voices heard at last – including my school community at Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre, but things are set to get a lot worse for parents across Birmingham.

In the 2011 Education Act the Secretary of State for Education gave himself new powers to bypass governing bodies and impose a sponsor of his own choice on schools. Michael Gove is now ruthlessly using his new powers and his first target is primary schools. My local MP Steve McCabe has written to the DfE to express concerns that the schools are being selected on the basis of out-of-date data – for example on the basis of 2009 SATS results, with subsequent school improvements being ignored. You may have followed the plight of Downhills School in Haringey, which is being given to the sponsor Harris Federation despite being above the government’s floor targets and despite sustained and overwhelming opposition from parents who have not been consulted. On Thursday a Downhills parent posted the following tribute to their (now removed) governing body on their Facebook group;

‘I think the Save Downhills Campaign should place on record its thanks to our governing body. These volunteers have really stuck their necks on the line. They’ve worked tirelessly, they’ve been bullied and bad-mouthed but they’ve responded with reason and dignity. Their principled stand was based on achieving sustainable school improvement – which they’d already proved they could oversee, with standards increasing 24% 2009-11. They dared to ask for evidence that an academy would be better because they have always, always had the best interests of the children at heart.’

 

Now the Government has turned its attention to Birmingham and our city is being particularly heavily targeted. There is a Birmingham Mail article about this here. This has already happened to one Birmingham school, Montgomery Primary school in Sparkbrook, which is being taken over by the sponsor AET against the wishes of parents, community and teachers at the school. Like Downhills, there has been no consultation with parents or community and their voices have been ignored. Montgomery parent Mohammed Ashraf posted the following account of ‘consultation’ on their Facebook group recently;

‘..we asked for a consultation meeting so parents and community could have an input, that we didn’t get, but instead representatives from the parent group, local mosques and local resident forum were invited to talk to sponsors. I have had an email from the school and have spoken to governors and they have said that if they didn’t make a decision of sponsor a day before ofsted, the school was at risk of going into special measures and the governors being removed and a interim board being implemented (Gove’s master plan) as (with) the school in Haringey, London. So they said they waited to the last moment to give Gove a (chance for a) change of mind.’

Academy status for primary schools is totally untried and untested, but there are now 29 Primary schools across the city being threatened with forced academy status. Parents and community at most of these schools do not even know they are on the list, and the chances are that they will neither be told nor consulted. This is wrong.

The situation is urgent – some of these schools are already in discussion with sponsors while parents are being kept in the dark. We must do something on a wider than individual school basis because individual school communities are being ruthlessly dismissed and ignored. But parents’ voices can be powerful and if we can work together with parents across the city we can make ourselves heard. If you would like to get involved in the new group or would like to be kept updated with developments please email me (Sarah) at handsoffbournvilleschool@yahoo.co.uk.

NB. The group is so new that it doesn’t have a name yet – suggestions welcome.

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Ark Academy Bid for Kings Norton High School

The following report of a public consultation meeting at Kings Norton High School was submitted by a father of two young children who lives in South Birmingham, and was originally published on the B31 Blog

ON 10 October 2010 I attended a public consultation meeting at Kings Norton High School on the proposal to turn it into an ARK academy school. I have to say that it was far worse than I had actually imagined it would be!

I had thought that, whilst academies would be a form of privatisation, there would be enough safeguards in place and enough self-restraint by the people running the academies for it to avoid being too radically different from schools as they are currently run. Having heard from the people pushing this academy agenda I now think that is quite naive.

The 1-hour public ‘consultation’ meeting basically consisted of a 30 minutes of an incredibly one-sided sales-pitch given by 4 academy fundamentalists, followed by an attempt to shut down any form of criticism that came from the floor. The academy fundamentalists consisted of the ARK project director, the chair of the governors of Kings Norton High School, the Head Teacher of Kings Norton High School , and another head teacher from an existing ARK school in Birmingham.

The head teacher from the existing ARK school was apparently brought in to give an independent overview of how excellent ARK academies were – the irony that he was a high-paid ARK employee [and therefore clearly unlikely to stray from the ARK line!) was apparently lost on the organisers of the ‘consultation’. Indeed, the ARK school head teacher didn’t fail to disappoint – his opening sentence was “I can honestly say that becoming an ARK academy school is the best thing that has happened to our school in its history”!

The whole ethos underpinning the ARK academies was really quite disturbing – in fact the whole thing seemed incredibly sinister. In what appeared to echo some kind of bizarre 19th century workhouse logic, ARK announced that basically they have decided that if working class children are going to be able to get the same jobs as affluent children then they need to be treated ‘harder’, be subject to greater discipline, and made to work longer and harder than children at other schools. These were pretty much the exact words used (except they talked about ‘deprived’ or poor children rather than working class). ARK schools introduce more detentions, including Saturday morning detentions, simplify the process of handing out detentions, and extend the school timetable so that it runs from 8.30am to 4.30pm or 5pm. So it’s basically work harder, experience more discipline, and work longer. This disciplinarian approach was fully endorsed by the ARK head teacher, without any mention or question of whether it might have any detrimental effect.

During the meeting, the question of who was funding ARK came up – and especially the rumour that ARK was funded by hedge-fund managers. In fact, the ARK projects director seemed completely unashamed to admit that indeed this was a charity set up by hedge-fund managers. In fact, it appears that main funding source for the entire charity is an annual gala for the super-rich – http://www.arkonline.org/about-us/news/ark-10th-anniversary-gala-dinner. So, it’s basically some super-rich hob-nobbing event, where the rich devise and fund projects to take their draconian disciplinarian ‘flog them harder’ educational approach to working class schools. That, in my view, is genuinely obscene!

The response by the 4 academy fundamentalists to questions from the floor was in my view quite shocking. The first question from the floor was from a mother who felt that the children might get tired, and not have enough time to relax or play as a result of the extra hours in the timetable, especially if they are expected to do homework as well. As she pointed out, they would be working longer than she herself was as an adult. The head teacher of Kings Norton High School basically responded by saying that if children are going to learn to compete in the adult job market then they need to start learning the skills and behaviour necessary to do so now. When it was pointed out to her that obviously the reason children are treated differently from adults is because they are children and not adults (and they might start adopting adult behaviour when they’re adults, rather than when they’re children) the basic response was an accusation that anyone who failed to stick to this doctrine is letting down the children. In fact this was the response throughout – if you don’t agree to our doctrine then you’re basically responsible for the failure of your own, and the community’s, children!

And failure means not going to University – this is the carrot that kept being dangling under the noses of parents – to such an absurd extent that those on the panel felt inclined to defend the Government’s fees policy. According to this argument, if we just think about it as a debt to be paid off in small amounts over a career, then it’s really not that much after all!

The response to questions on the democratic governance of an ARK academy school was also quite disturbing. The Head Teacher had been talking about how important it was to incorporate parents’ opinions into the running of the new academy. She refused to give any details, for instance, on the new timetable, as she claimed this would be worked out by the school in partnership with the parents. When it was pointed out to her that one of the problems with the academy schools is precisely that parent governors are sidelined, and ARK have a majority on the school board, the ARK project director pointed out that the new governing board will have 1 LEA governor, 1 parent governor, 1 staff governor, 1 community governor, and 6 (SIX!) ARK employees. This she claimed, again without a hint of irony, would ensure a good balance of representation on the board.

It was then put to the 4 academy fundamentalists that this was therefore a form of privatisation. In giving his sales pitch at the beginning of the meeting, the head of the already existing ARK school had spoken about how the parents at his school had taken a vote and decided that an academy was the best way to save their school. It was therefore asked whether there would be a similar vote on what was to be a big decision to quasi-privatise Kings Norton High School. At this point, the ARK Head admitted that it had been a mistake to use the word ‘vote’; instead he had meant ‘consultation’! And, the answer was no, there would be no vote – although no reason was given. Instead, though, the Head of Kings Norton High School reassured us that in a prior parents’ consultation (in which it turned out after some questioning that only academy fundamentalists had been invited to speak on the panel), she had personally asked parents leaving the well-scripted sales pitch whether they now agreed that Kings Norton High School should be turned into an academy – according to her own survey, 90% of parents did agree with her. It was then asked from the floor if it would not be more democratic to have a full referendum of parents, in which the arguments for and against could be aired, and then a decision taken – i.e. not a sales pitch followed by a survey conducted by herself! – the answer to this request was no, there would be no vote for parents on the quasi-privatisation of their school.

The question of staff opinions on the academy was then raised. Some staff were present at the meeting, but it was obviously difficult for any staff opposition to be voiced in a room in which current and future employers were present and making such a strong case in favour of the need for the change.

Finally, having denied that parents would have any say in whether the school would be handed over to ARK, having refused to accept that children should be expected to work less hard than adults, having refused to admit that it was at all sinister that hedge fund managers wanted to use their wealth to buy the right to run schools for working class children according to some kind of workhouse logic, it then transpired in the final question that the Head Teacher had already informed all the parents what uniforms to buy as the transition is due to occur in January 2012. Grinning, the chair of governors announced that he certainly hoped it would all go ahead – so basically the entire public consultation was publicly admitted to being an outright sham!

I should add that the Head Teacher and the chair of governors repeatedly pointed out that Birmingham City Council has failed to properly support Kings Norton High School, and that they felt that the only viable option facing them was to turn to ARK support. Whilst I have no doubt that Kings Norton High School is facing problems, and certainly see no reason to defend Birmingham City Council’s reckless approach to the school, this should not detract from our concern about the way in which control of the school is being handed to hedge-fund managers with a penchant for disciplining working class children.

Kingswinford School to convert to Academy after a period of non-consultation featuring no meeting for parents

Governors of The Kingswinford School are intent on pushing through their Academy plans and have announced a date for conversion of 1st January 2012. The decision has been taken despite overwhelming opposition from staff who held a one-day strike on 18th October, and despite serious concerns raised by parents at a public meeting on 27th September about the lack of information and consultation.

I attended and spoke at the public meeting on 27th September. I had been asked to present a parents’ perspective on Academy status. The meeting had been called, not by the school leadership, as might be expected as part of a consultation process, but by staff and parents concerned about the lack of communication, information and opportunity for discussion. It was chaired by local Councillor Tim Crumpton. Incredibly not one single meeting for parents had been held by the school as part of the consultation.

There was an uneasy atmosphere ahead of the meeting, which was being held at a nearby Primary school. There had been pressure in school the previous day from Governors unhappy about the public meeting, and the staff I encountered were nervous about repercussions back in school. There was apprehension that some staff might be too fearful to attend.

At the meeting I listened as parents spoke of having been totally unaware that consultation had even been taking place. They were stunned to discover that the consultation period was due to end the very next day. Parents spoke of having received a letter in January informing them that the school would be looking into Academy status, and that ‘further details and opportunities for full consultation with all stakeholders will be provided in due course.’  One parent explained that they had been waiting for more information, but no further letter had been received.

Before the meeting I had trawled through the school website looking for any references I could find to the Academy proposals. Tucked away towards the bottom right of the school website is a notice about Academy status. To find it, you actually have to be looking for it (as I was). Academy status – the biggest proposed change in The Kingswinford School’s history, a decision that will affect generations of children to come – appears 6 news items down in small font. You actually have to scroll down to find it.  When you click on the link you reach the following cheery message;

The Governing Body have decided to proceed with an application for us to become an Academy School. This is a very exciting moment in The Kingswinford School’s history!

The Governors have taken their decision in the best interests of the students, families and staff of The Kingswinford School.’

As more information becomes available, the Governing Body and I will keep you informed as to the progress we are making with this.

Would you like to give us your views about The Kingswinford School becoming an Academy?

(Followed by a downloadable PDF form and some glib and insubstantial information about Academy status).

Incredibly parents are actually invited to comment on a decision that has already been made. To do so they must have internet access and a printer and a habit of regularly scouring the school website. You could be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that governors don’t actually want to hear parents’ views, and presumably, since the decision has already been made, wouldn’t be taking them into consideration in any case. Unsurprisingly we heard at the meeting that only one parental response had been submitted during the whole of the consultation up until that point.

Governors would not agree following the meeting to extend the consultation period, but one parent did succeed in persuading the school to hold a meeting for parents. This meeting took place on the 18th October, but it was labelled as an ‘information’ meeting and was not part of the consultation process as that had officially ended on 28th September. Weirdly the meeting was ‘ticket only’. Could it be that Governors didn’t actually want parents to attend?

A letter has recently been sent by post to every parent promoting the virtues of conversion. I understand that this is the first letter parents have had from the school about Academy status since the initial letter in January informing them that further details of consultation would be provided. No letter was sent out to parents informing them of the start or duration of the consultation, or of how they could contribute. No information was distributed to parents on which to base a consultation. The ‘consultation’ for parents consisted of a hard-to-find notice on the school website inviting them to comment on a decision that had already been made.

The lawyer David Wolfe on his excellent blog ‘A can of worms’ makes the following points about the legal requirements of consultation;

The law lays down some important requirements whenever a public body consults (i.e. they do not just apply to academy consultations). As for what they might mean in the context of consultation about an academy conversion:

  • it is hard to see how an academy could lawfully not consult parents (and potentially pupils) at the school already; also at feeder schools; and indeed those feeder schools themselves; also other, potentially affected, schools in the area
  • those consultees need to be given enough information about what is being proposed to understand why it is being proposed – why do the governors want the school to become an academy?
  • they need to be honest about their reasons; and provide proper explanations for them
  • those explanations need to withstand scrutiny – they cannot be nonsense
  • the information needs to be in a form which people can understand – not technical gibberish
  • people need to be given enough time to digest it; and the opportunity to ask questions and for more information
  • if something changes in the course of the consultation, then the consultation may need to be extended for the fresh information to be provided to everyone
  • the governors need to be open minded on the question of whether to go ahead when they consider consultation responses.

David Wolfe goes on to list the information that should as a legal minimum be provided to consultees;

  • the benefits of converting
  • the disadvantages of converting
  • the extra money, if any, the school would get, and on what basis
  • the extra responsibilities and costs the school would take on
  • the risks
  • the ‘freedoms’ (but asking themselves whether the things they might actually want to do with those freedoms are things they cannot do already)
  • the impact on pupils
  • the impact on teachers
  • the impact on other staff
  • the impact on the community
  • the impact on other schools

I am not a lawyer, but there must be very little doubt that the consultation at The Kingswinford School has fallen far short of this and would be very unlikely to withstand a legal challenge.

The NUT and NASUWT are holding a further public meeting on Monday October 31st at Kingswinford Community Centre, 7.30pm

Seven school governors quit over academy-status plans – Education – Yorkshire Post

Seven school governors quit over academy-status plans – Education – Yorkshire Post.

Some ponderings

Several things strike me about this article in the Yorkshire Post. Firstly, the stunning lack of democracy evident in a process where a decision is made to proceed with Academy conversion in the face of opposition – not just of parents teachers and the community – but of almost half the Governing Body.

Secondly, the phrase at the bottom of the article in which the Headteacher explains that the motivation behind Academy conversion is to “maintain all that is good about Prince Henry’s”. This phrase is becoming very familiar to me. The headteacher of Bournville School & Sixth Form Centre in Birmingham used a remarkably similar phrase ”to preserve all that is good about Bournville”. I heard it again from governors of The Kingswinford School in Dudley and from the Headteacher of Earls High School in Halesowen. Where is this remarkably similar language (used by different schools in different parts of the UK) coming from? Could this phrase be being whispered into the ears of Headteachers and governors by their friendly contacts at the DfE? If so, it must be happening at a  very early stage in the process. Bournville School used the phrase in the very first letter to parents informing them that the school was considering Academy status. I am imagining the conversation goes something like this;

HT: ‘But what reason do we give for converting? We are already an outstanding school and there isn’t any evidence that AS will make us any better’

DfE: ‘Scare them – tell them the LA is in decline, funding is being cut and this is the only way to preserve all that is good about your school’

HT: ‘Brilliant! I’ll draft a letter right away…’

Thirdly, this thought got me wondering just how much involvement the DfE has in the consultation and decision-making process of schools considering Academy conversion, and indeed in the initial decision to even think about consultation. How much arm-twisting of Headteachers and Chairs of Governors might be going on behind the scenes? Does this explain the extraordinary decision taken by Prince Henry’s Grammar School in Otley to proceed with Academy conversion against the wishes of its own Governors?

Your thoughts and comments welcome.