Tuesday 19 May 2015
Fighting for 'what works for education' - to oppose academies
Debating what's best for education
The fading pomp of Brockley's Rivoli Ballroom must have seen a few contests in its time but, last Thursday, it hosted a packed education debate.
Over 200 people from the local community - including parents, staff, students and local councillors - packed into the ballroom to take part in a debate over the proposals from the Leathersellers' Governors to convert the three Prendergast Federation schools into academies.
The Federation's Executive Headteacher, David Sheppard agreed to present the Governors' case. I was given the task of putting forward the arguments against conversion on behalf of the unions and other campaigners.
The arguments were put, questions and contributions taken from the floor. By the end of the evening, I think it was clear that the overwhelming view of the meeting was AGAINST the academy plans.
No evidence to support the academy plans
The fact that the arguments against academies won the debate is no surprise. That's because there's no evidence to support the argument that academies benefit education.
As the NUT wrote in its letter to Councillors, the Governors' arguments about the supposed benefits of their proposals - in terms of 'accountability', 'curriculum', 'finance' and so on - simply don't hold water.
In speaking to the meeting on Thursday, I asked the Governors to put aside their claims about the benefits of conversion and to stick to the evidence.
They claim that their plans are driven by what’s best for children but the Parliamentary Select Committee is clear: “Current evidence does not allow us to draw conclusions on whether academies in themselves are a positive force for change”. After a decade of experience of academies, isn’t the obvious conclusion that the evidence just isn’t there?!
Ofsted's annual report for 2013/14 noted that there was no relationship between school type and performance and that the rate of improvement in KS4 attainment (5 A*-C in English and Maths) between 2010/11 and 2012/13 in LA maintained secondaries was twice that (at 2 percentage points ) of converter academies (1 percentage point).
Research quoted by 'Stop Academies In Lewisham' points out that among children with low prior achievement, the effects of a school becoming a sponsored academy on students in the bottom 10 and 20 per cent of the ability distribution were “insignificantly different from zero - and possibly negative for later [school] conversions…suggesting no beneficial effects on students in academies”(see S. Machin and O. Silva, (2013)
The School’s own Working Party’s report states: “the policy of academisation and its impact on raising school standards remains ... controversial and unproven”. So why pursue such a policy ?
Ideology not evidence
Regrettably, it seems that evidence about 'what works' doesn't matter to those who are ideologically determined to tear apart accountable local authority schooling and replace it with unaccountable academy chains.
Newly-returned Education Secretary Nicky Morgan has lost no time in declaring that she will now extend the threat of forced academisation to schools rated as "requiring improvement" or what she deems as being "coasting schools". She declared to the BBC that results show that "students do better in academies". Where's the evidence?
In response, a national NUT press release explained that:
“The Government is looking in completely the wrong place if they are interested in social justice. There is no convincing evidence that the academies programme has improved education overall or for disadvantaged children. However there is overwhelming evidence that the poverty and inequality many children face is a real obstacle to their educational achievement.
The Government should act on poverty reduction urgently ... Nicky Morgan should be using her office to argue for protection of the education budget – schools are facing 10% cuts. This, the teacher shortage and the failure to provide enough school places should be her main concerns – not continuing with these unproved experiments.”
Teachers and communities must defend education
We mustn't let privatising politicians put their ideology ahead of the education of young people. That means that school staff, parents and local communities have to step up the fight even further to oppose imposed academy plans.
In Lewisham, the tremendous campaign to oppose the Prendergast conversion plans has already seen student protests, local demonstrations, rallies and strikes. We have to make clear to Governors that, if they choose to impose their plans against this level of opposition, it will divide and alienate their own school community, damaging education.
We also need to make clear to Lewisham's Labour councillors that they also have a responsibility to oppose these plans and to support the demand for a ballot to judge their views of parents on the academy proposals.
Support the strike on June 3rd and 4th
Teachers don't want to be taking strike action but we know that we have a responsibility to do so to defend education.
After all, as one of the parents said from the floor of the debate, regrettably it's only when teachers strike that parents and the press get to hear what's happening. That's why we feel that we must take further action before the end of the Governors' formal 'consultation' period on June 8th. We want to make sure that everyone is aware of the urgent necessity to oppose the academy plans and to write in with their objections too.
Unions agreed not to call further strikes during the main exam preparation period up to half-term but both the NUT and NASUWT have called further two-day strike action on Wednesday June 3rd and Thursday June 4th. We hope that parents, students and fellow trade unionists can help build our activities:
Wednesday June 3rd
Pickets - so as not to disturb students taking exams that day, rather than hold large school-gate rallies, we will just have representatives directing people to the:
Strike Rally - from 9.00 am in Cornmill Gardens, opposite Prendergast Vale School, Elmira Street, SE13 7BN - close to Lewisham station.
After some refreshments, strikers and supporters will be heading to:
Lobby the Leathersellers' Company - from Midday, 21 Garlick Hill, EC4V 2 AU, to hand in a letter appealing to the Governors to reconsider their proposals. Locally, meeting at either Ladywell or Lewisham stations at 11 am to catch the 11.10/11.15 train to Cannon Street
In the evening, we are calling on Lewisham teachers and parents who have not been able to attend events during the day to join us at the:
Lobby of Lewisham's Mayor and Cabinet - from 5.15 pm, Civic Suite, Catford, SE6 4RU. The meeting, starting at 6pm, will be considering the Council's response to the consultation. Campaigners were pleased when, in March, the Mayor stated that "as things currently stand I would not expect to be able to support the proposal". Join us in the audience to help make sure the Mayor knows the strength of opposition to the Prendergast plans.
Thursday June 4th
Pickets - again, so as not to disturb students taking exams that day, rather than hold large school-gate rallies, we will just have representatives directing people to:
Meet at Le Delice, by Ladywell station for 9am for a coffee then collect leaflets and materials to go out to surrounding streets and High Street stalls to urge the local community to submit their responses to the academy plans by June 8th.
What is the community view? Ballot the parents!
At a meeting with Council Officers yesterday, unions were pressed as to what could convince us to call off our strike action. The only real answer is, of course, for Governors to resolve our trade dispute by making clear that they weren't pressing ahead with their proposed conversion to become an academy employer.
However, on behalf of the NUT, I offered that, if the Governors were to agree to a properly-conducted independent ballot of parents, then I would be happy to recommend that our action was withdrawn.
That's a serious offer for a trade union to make, and not without risk. I am saying that I am offering that parents should have their say on our dispute, despite the risks to members' terms and conditions should parents decide to support the academy conversion.
The offer has been made - but will the Governors agree to it? As I asked on Thursday night, backed up by several parents from the floor, "if the Governors are so sure of their arguments, why won't they agree to a ballot to judge the real balance of opinion?". The Mayor himself has already stated that "I would support a ballot in this case subject to resolving the practical issues".
Yes, the Law says that the Governors have to take the final decision but, like Thursday's debate, a proper ballot, with parents being presented with both sides of the argument, would show Governors and staff alike what parents really think.
Imposing unpopular policies, whether it be by central Government or by School Governors, will only alienate and divide communities. For the sake of education, let's have a proper debate and an independent ballot on the academy plans.