Tuesday, 20 March 2012
Downhills School Govenors Sacked by Government
Six months ago I volunteered to become a local authority-appointed community governor at Downhills primary school in Tottenham, north London. Last Thursday, I tuned in to BBC radio to learn that I had been fired. Our governing body was dissolved without notice and I, a "big society" governor who is not a parent at the school, may not be allowed to set foot inside again. Many of my former colleagues have been reduced to tears: what had we done to deserve to be despatched in such a ruthless manner?
The reality is that we were victims of our own success. The secretary of state had to remove us, using his sweeping powers under the new Academies Act, because of the resistance we had put up to plans to force the school to become an academy. With our parent-led protest and threats of judicial review, we were in danger of setting a precedent for other schools opposed to a forced academy conversion.
On 8 March, shortly after the Downhills Ofsted report was published (which judged the school inadequate and put it in special measures), my fellow governors met department of education officials and were told that Michael Gove was minded to impose an academy order. Under this order a school can be forced to become an academy governed under an interim executive board (IEB).
The following Monday we wrote to Mr Gove. We said we did not rule out becoming an academy but also considered remaining a community school in local authority control a viable option. We wanted to consult the school community on both options before making a decision. In the end we conducted our own ballot, which showed that 90% of parents who responded were against academy conversion.
In our letter we presented our action plan to address the serious failings identified in the Ofsted report. We recruited an executive head from an outstanding school in Haringey to assist our deputy head, who had been praised by Ofsted. We suggested the governors ourselves should be mentored by the governors at the outstanding school.
We asked for more information about the Harris Federation– the government's preferred sponsor – and for an explanation of why they were considered right for Downhills. We requested raw data for each Harris academy showing progress in maths and English, particularly for disadvantaged children.
Instead we were dismissed without answers. The summary justice dispensed by Gove to our governing body and that of neighbouring Nightingale school indicates that he will not let anything stand in the way of his grand design. But he is making a serious mistake in treating parents and governors who question his plans with such brazen contempt.
We are not Trotskyites or political extremists – far from it. One of my colleagues is a hedge-fund trader who spends every Wednesday evening on football training classes. I am a lawyer who has spent the past five years working at a UN war-crimes tribunal. I joined Downhills governing body because I wanted to do some useful work in the local community. I knew next to nothing about education policy and had no bias against academies. My own poorly performing state secondary school became an academy years after I left, and I only wish it had changed earlier.
I have nothing against the Harris Federation, whose track record is by all accounts impressive. What I do not accept is the argument that academies are the only means of achieving a good education for our children. There are plenty of outstanding schools in local authority control. How a school is run is what's important, not whether an academy or the local authority is in charge.
What persuaded me to join the Downhills campaign were the views of the other governors, parents, staff and the local community. They had legitimate concerns and felt the school could be turned around under local authority control. Many of their arguments I disagreed with, but as the majority wanted the school to remain under a democratically elected, accountable local authority, I was persuaded they were right. At the very least I believed they were entitled to have some say on who should be in charge of the school when such dramatic changes were under consideration.
No doubt Gove's supporters will say Downhills was a failing school that needed dramatic intervention. I find that argument unconvincing. Downhills is certainly not among the worst performing schools as our key stage 1 results for 2011, which at 61% were above the national floor standard, indicate. And it cannot be right that every underperforming school needs to be converted to an academy. Where there are strong arguments for an alternative this should be properly considered. The views of parents and the local community should also be taken into account.
It seems that we will never know the answers to the questions we asked. Our dissolution and replacement with an (Interim Executive Board) IEB, highlights the academies' lack of transparency. As David Wolfe, a leading education lawyer points out, academies do not want to disclose information about how they are run and often back out of legal challenges to avoid so doing. We have league tables for primary and secondary schools and we now need them for academies too. Otherwise parents and governors can have no way of gauging whether a centrally selected "chain" academy provider is a suitable match for their school.
The big guns that have been brought in on the new IEB running Downhills will be under tremendous pressure to deliver results. No one would question their credentials – the new IEB members include "superhead" Dame Sylvia Morris, honoured for her work at a primary school in Southwark, Dan Moynihan, the CEO of the Harris Federation, as well as Robin Bosher, its primary director. But they have never been seen at the school before and we can only wonder how much they know about Tottenham, what links they have with the local community and what sort of welcome they expect from parents who have so overwhelmingly backed our campaign against forced academy conversion.
Written by Roger Sahota
First published at The Guardian here