By Dave Cohen
Noel Park Primary School is one of several primary schools in the London Borough of Haringey at the centre of a mounting controversy over government plans to convert them to so-called Academy status. Education is an emotive subject and both sides of the Academies debate bandy around accusations of ideological dogmatism. My perspective has been informed by my experience as a parent of a child attending one of the schools being threatened with forced conversion to Academy status.
An Academy is a school that is publicly funded, but is outside the control of a Local Education Authority. Academies were introduced by the Labour government in 2000 to enable an alternative method of managing secondary schools with a perceived history of entrenched failure. The current Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has stated his intention to have all schools convert to Academy status regardless of their achievement level. A school that elects to become an Academy becomes an independent institution and the existing governing body forms the basis of a new Trust created to run the Academy. In the case of a school forced to become an academy, the DfE appoints a “sponsor” to run the school and the existing governing body is expected to oversee the transition. Should the governors reject the Academy order, the Secretary of State has the power to summarily dismiss them and appoint an interim executive board to administer the transition.
No parent at Noel Park believes the school is as good as it could be, and no parent objects to efforts to raise standards. Certainly few parents at Noel Park could be characterised, as Michael Gove seemed to imply, as being “satisfied with failure” or “an enemy of promise”. There may well be a debate to be had regarding taking Noel Park out of LEA control, but the objections from parents to the forced Academy policy stem from deep a sense of injustice, caused by two main factors – the lack of any meaningful consultation on the future of the school and a feeling that the school is being willfully misrepresented in an attempt to justify the way this policy is being implemented. This has led to a sense of being used as a test-bed for an ideologically-motivated policy.
Noel Park’s governors were informed of the decision to enforce Academy status in early December, and that they had until 20th January to agree with the decision or be removed. In this six-week period over Christmas they were expected to consult with parents, staff and the LEA, identify a potential sponsor (despite it taking until the middle of January for the DfE to provide a shortlist of one), and explain both the Academy proposal and the merits of the sponsor to the parents and staff. In the only meeting the prospective sponsor has had so far with the existing governors, they demonstrated no background of running schools in Haringey or similar areas, no knowledge of the current teaching standards or pupil demographics, and their stated reason for wanting to take over the school was “because we were asked to”.
From my perspective, it seems clear that the Government is rushing through this policy. They are paying minimal lip-service to the idea of a consultation whilst clearly displaying their lack of interest in the views of the people the school and their programme is meant to benefit. They have been unwilling or unable to display any confidence in the foundation the policy is built on. We would welcome the opportunity to hear why and how becoming an Academy would improve Noel Park – however the DfE have avoided any opportunity to do so, leaving us to assume the worst about their motivations. The available facts about the advantages of academies are equivocal at best.
Beyond the disregard for the interests and views of the parents, there is an underlying feeling that the school’s (and by extension our children’s) genuine achievements are being denigrated by a manipulation of the school inspection system in order to justify this policy. Three years ago Noel Park was judged as “Good with outstanding features”. In November, following a change in the rating system to emphasise academic achievement above all else, it had fallen to “Inadequate”. It is clear that the goalposts have been moved to make it as difficult as possible for a school like Noel Park to make the grade and no consideration is made for the challenges the school faces – a very high level of mobility in the pupil body, and a very high proportion of children who speak a language other than English at home.
These events have generated a sense of anger among parents who feel disenfranchised and patronised by the process imposed on the school. Since there is no recourse under the law to oppose the Education Secretary’s decision, parents have been forced to organize a grass-roots campaign to raise awareness of the plans for the schools and the objections. Along with other nearby affected schools, parents have organized public meetings and enlisted the support of local politicians, including David Lammy MP. The issue has been raised on numerous occasions in the media, including on Newsnight, Women’s Hour and Channel 4 News. A demonstration is planned for Saturday 28th January, and for the last few weekends parents and staff of the schools have handed out leaflets on nearby Wood Green High Road. Although the prospect of the DfE backing down seems remote at this stage, the campaign has galvanised the parents at the school, and generated a renewed sense of community and shared purpose. Whatever the future holds for Noel Park Primary, whoever is running the school can be assured that they will be expected to improve on current standards, and will be held to account if they fail to do so.
Dave Cohen is recently elected parent-governor of Noel Park Primary School in Haringey. He has written this article in a personal capacity.