With Lewisham NUT’s energies focussed on persuading governors at Tidemill School in Deptford not to become an Academy, it was a shock to find out this weekend that a Lewisham NUT member has been in discussions with the DfE about setting up a free school just along the river in Greenwich.
Gladys Delphin, until recently a teacher at my own children’s comprehensive school, co-hosted a parents’ meeting yesterday to build support for her proposal for an International Baccalaureate (IB) School to develop bilingual education for 5-18 year olds. However, the meeting quickly exposed both the dangers and the contradictions in the ‘Nouvelles Racines’ project.
This group of French-speaking teachers have, I understand, been running Saturday Schools in the area for a few years. Frustrated by what they see as limitations on languages teaching in secondary schools, they have wanted to develop a plan for a bilingual school teaching IB programmes.
The Government’s ‘free school’ plans have suddenly presented them with a way to set one up with state funding – and of course help their careers too. Unfortunately, while they may think that they are ‘using the Government’, a number of concerned voices at the meeting, including myself, pointed out that it was the Government that were using them as a ‘Trojan Horse’ to privatise education.
Gladys’ presentation soon revealed how the Government were seizing on this chance to spread their dangerous ‘free school’ agenda. Nouvelles Racines were having weekly meetings with a DfE adviser, supported from the (pro-privatisation) ‘New Schools Network’ who had put them in touch with Nord Anglia. This particular edu-business ‘vulture’, circling to grab state-funding for their private interests, has, as was pointed out by another teacher at the meeting, a questionable record on equal opportunities.
The presentation also revealed that, as has been rumoured, that the DfE were promising to quickly change school premises regulations so that they would be able to set up the school in some kind of renovated premises, aiming to open it as early as September 2011.
The discussion soon exposed two major contradictions between the naive wishes of Nouvelles Racines’ founders and the political and economic reality under this Con-Dem Government:
• Selection. Gladys, Frida and the other proposers say they want their school to cater for disadvantaged bilingual communities. However, there was little sign of the local Ivorian or other French-speaking communities at the meeting. Instead, residents of the new homes along the river between Deptford and Greenwich, and white European parents from elsewhere in London, seemed more in evidence. Discussion was dominated by white middle-class parents demanding to know whether their particular bilingualism would be supported – French? German? Russian? ... When Gladys explained that the school would be non-selective, they started to complain – “but we can’t support the school unless we can be sure that our children will get in” ...
• Funding. The parents were promised class sizes of 20, expert teaching in a range of languages and fully IB trained staff. As another teacher in the audience pointed out, the figures just won’t add up in reality. Of course, even if the Government helps fund some of their activities and building plans, those funds will be stolen from other schools that will be having their budgets cut. They will be taking a Government bribe to help the Tories allow their big business friends - like Nord Anglia - take over education.
A free school is not the way to address the needs of bilingual communities. Far from helping reduce disadvantage, the plan will help the Government introduce a plan which the Liberal Democrat Conference rightly agreed will ‘increase social divisiveness and inequity’.
Other teachers in Lewisham and Greenwich may not be so willing to give the Nouvelles Racines teachers’ the ‘benefit of the doubt’. Because, while Gladys and her colleagues may see a ‘free school’ as a way to help their own careers, they are embracing a Government agenda that is designed to tear up all teaching colleagues’ national pay and conditions.
At least one of my points seemed to hit home – when I warned these black French-speaking teachers that this was the ‘politics of Sarkozy’. Let’s hope that Gladys and Semi start to realise how they are being used by a vicious Government whose policies are all about increasing inequality and helping big business, not disadvantaged communities.
That’s why I made clear that, while we wanted to keep up a dialogue with Nouvelles Racines, the NUT and others had a duty to organise opposition to their proposal – and we will.