Friday, 13 July 2007

Defending "outdated" comprehensive education in 'New Labour' Lewisham

Lewisham voters may have hoped that they were electing their Council to run local schools and services. But it seems that Lewisham's "New Labour" councillors think their job is to give schools away to private bidders instead!

A long-running parental campaign finally convinced Lewisham Council that a new secondary school was needed to provide additional places in the north of the borough. But there was never any suggestion that the ‘New School’ would be anything but a Local Authority run community school. But of course the Education Act now means that Council is being told to hold a ‘competition’ to see who should run it. If the New School is given away to become a Trust, Academy or Foundation School, then employment of staff, ownership of the site and admissions arrangements will no longer be in the hands of the elected Council. But instead of fighting this threat, Lewisham's Mayor, Sir Steve Bullock, is accepting it.

The New School would become the fifth secondary school in Lewisham not to participate in the borough’s ‘area-banding’ system. Instead of a planned comprehensive system, admissions will start to splinter into the kind of “free-for-all” that already blights education in some other boroughs. The gap between the ‘best’ schools and the rest will widen further. But that means many families and children will lose out. It could also result in the scandalous situation in Lewisham that over £10 million will have to be found from Council resources to help fund the new school. But the school won’t be owned by Lewisham! How can the Mayor explain that to council tax payers?

I was granted five minutes to speak to the July 11th Mayor and Cabinet on behalf of the joint teacher unions. But Cllr.Massey, responsible for schools, responded by saying that I was defending an "outdated" idea from 40 years ago. What would previous generations of Labour campaigners for comprehensive education have said to that ? Instead of persuading Gordon Brown to change Government policy, Cllr.Massey wants to "celebrate it" !

But, unlike Lewisham, some Councils have at least shown the political will to fight to hold on to their schools. The London Borough of Haringey decided to put in its own ‘bid’ to run its new school as a community school. It successfully beat off other bidders, including Lewisham-based Academy sponsor Haberdashers’ Aske’s, so it can now run the school as a Local Authority comprehensive school.

Clad in bright yellow ‘Defend Education in Lewisham’ campaign t-shirts, parents and staff lobbied last night's meeting. We believe the Mayor should be fighting the whole damaging ‘competition’ legislation. But, if the Labour Council won’t challenge its own Government’s policies, we at least expect them to try and follow Haringey’s lead. Regrettably, the Mayor rejected that approach on July 11th. There will be a further debate at the Council meeting on July 18th where sympathetic socialist councillors are again proposing the Council seeks approval to submit its own bid.

If the Council isn’t prepared to defend Lewisham’s schools, then the Defend Education Campaign is !

Martin Powell-Davies

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