Wednesday 11 March 2015

Give Prendergast parents a vote to decide on academy conversion

Parents, staff and students have taken part in a series of protests to show their opposition to the proposed conversion of the three Prendergast schools into academies. With news expected soon from the Governors on a formal consultation timetable, that campaign is now having to step up even further. 

For now, Ladywell Fields, Hilly Fields and Prendergast Vale are all schools ‘maintained’ by the elected Local Authority. Academies are quite different. They are, in law, ‘independent’ schools governed by Funding Agreements drawn up between them and the Secretary of State. 

This Government vowed to put ‘rocket-boosters’ under the academies programme. In some boroughs, this has already led to the fragmentation of local schooling into different academies and academy chains. SAiL, the ‘Stop Academies in Lewisham’ campaign, is determined to make sure our schools don’t suffer the same fate. 

This debate is not just about the Prendergast schools. If they convert, SAiL understands that other Lewisham schools could follow suit, for fear of being left behind in a rush to academise. The future of education right across the borough is at stake.  

Prendergast Governors claim their proposal is based on the facts about what is best for ‘their’ schools. Yet even their own Working Party Report admitted that academies are ‘controversial and unproven’ and that ‘there was no funding advantage to being an academy”. 

As SAiL has shown in a detailed rebuttal of the Governors’ claims (‘Response to Prendergast Report’ on its website, there is increasing evidence questioning the claimed advantages of academy status. Many experts also point out the dangers of giving power over admissions, school budgets and staff conditions to an unaccountable Academy Trust. 

The extent of opposition seems to have taken Prendergast Governors and the Leathersellers’ Company by surprise. However, as things stand, they appear to be pushing ahead regardless. With the outgoing Government apparently keen to encourage as much academisation as possible while they can, the Department of Education has already granted the ‘Academy Order’ that the Governors rushed to apply for.

Under the Academy Act introduced under Michael Gove, all the Governors now need to do is to carry out a rudimentary ‘consultation’, get the Funding Agreement signed, and then the conversion would be complete. Unless the law changes, this is an irreversible decision. 

Parents are awaiting an imminent Governors' announcement on the precise timescales for consultation. There are suggestions that this process may begin shortly, rather than being postponed until after the General Election as Governors originally seemed to be suggesting to staff (see updated earlier post: ).

What happens at the Prendergast schools could trigger the break-up of maintained schooling across Lewisham. A small group of Governors should not be allowed to take such a serious decision alone. A full and genuine consultation now needs to take place. Opponents of the academy proposal should be given as much opportunity as the Governors to distribute information and to present their case at consultation meetings. 

Under a previous Conservative Government’s similar model of ‘Grant-Maintained Schools’, any transfer had to be agreed by a ballot of parents. Surely the same opportunity should be given to Prendergast parents too.

If the Governors are so sure of their arguments, how can they object to balloting parents? If they won’t, then, just as Brighton Council did over the plans to academise Hove Park School, surely Lewisham Council should step in and conduct a ballot themselves.

An online petition has just been launched demanding such a ballot. Please go to the SAIL website to find the link, sign and share!

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