Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Our Community, Our Schools – campaigning for OUR schools (and against Michael Gove’s)

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for Our Community, Our Schools supporters. We’ve been raising the profile of the issue of Free Schools and countering the misconceptions about our community schools in both the local and national press – and now we’re taking our case to Parliament.

Kiri Tunks, local parent and Tower Hamlets teacher was recorded as part of the Waltham Forest Guardian’s ‘Speak Out’ series of 2 minute videos, making a powerful plea for people to turn away from backing Free Schools. You can watch Kiri’s short film here. Kiri spoke about her experience of improving schools in Tower Hamlets without any Free Schools or Academies – a theme that was picked up by Jonathan White in this week’s Waltham Forest Guardian.

The Guardian featured revealing figures showing that the vast majority of primary schools in Waltham Forest have met a tougher new government literacy and numeracy target. 75% of pupils in all but two schools are reaching the required levels and as Jonathan pointed out, this flies in the face of the government’s disaster narrative which insists that Free Schools and Academies are necessary to drive up standards.

Meanwhile, in the national press, OCOS supporter Scarlet Harris featured in Zoe Williams’ latest piece for the Guardian. Scarlet was quoted discussing the farcical process of local consultation used by sponsors and the DfE to set up a Free School and highlighting the dangers of allowing groups like Oasis and Tauheedul to essentially design their own consultations.

Zoe’s article, which details the growing local opposition to Free Schools, also quotes education expert Laura McInerny highlighting the plight of the children suffering under Gove’s experiment: ‘these kids have one shot at education. I’m not minded to sacrifice 400 children in al-Madinah so that a minister can learn a hard lesson’.

OCOS supporters are taking the campaign into Westminster this week as we have written a submission to the Education Select Committee’s call for evidence as part of a new inquiry on Academies and the processes for setting up Free Schools. We have always maintained that the process of setting up a Free School is fatally flawed, perverse and profoundly undemocratic and that’s what we’re telling the Select Committee. We'll publish our evidence or refer you to it, as soon as we're able to.

More than 800 people have now signed our petition and we have ambitious plans for a new phase of campaigning, including a new letter writing campaign, more leafleting in the New Year campaign and more public meetings, so watch this space for more details soon.

Free Schools - the wheels are coming off

There is a paradox at work at the moment. The Department for Education is driving forward its Free Schools policy as hard as possible, while every day the evidence is mounting that these schools are structurally flawed and a represent a dangerous gamble with our childrens’ futures.

It’s been a hectic few weeks with one Free School closing, another in chaos and yet another the subject of a fraud investigation. The National Audit Office has uncovered the real costs of the Free Schools project while exposing the fact that these are not delivering places where they’re needed most, and in Westminster there is a growing political backlash against Michael Gove’s out of control ideological experiment.

Free to gamble with taxpayers’ money:

On 11 December, the National  Audit Office published a report into the cost-effectiveness of the Free Schools programme. The thrust of the National Audit Office report can be interpreted as a criticism of the Department for Education for being fixated on driving forward its policy of opening new Free Schools at the expense of considerations of value for money or local need. As the NAO put it, ‘The primary factor in decision-making has been opening schools at pace, rather than maximizing value for money.’

The NAO report showed that:

1. 30% of Free School places were being provided in areas with no local need for them, meaning that £241 million in capital funding is being used to fund schools that are not being built where they are most needed.

2. The DfE has been so desperate to drive its new schools forward that it has incurred extra costs. 60% of its Free Schools have opened in temporary premises to secure an early opening time, at a cost of £27 million, while it has seriously underestimated the start up costs of the schools overall.

3. Each Free School has cost, on average £6.6 million to set up, double what the DfE forecast. 

4. On average, 1 in 4 places at the these Free Schools remains unfilled.

As the NAO and the press recognized, this raises huge questions about whether the programme is good value for taxpayers’ money.

In their attempts to drive down the costs of new schools, the DfE has made it easier for sponsors to use a huge range of existing buildings including office buildings, council buildings, surplus hospital buildings, fire stations, warehouses, a garden centre and a builder’s yard!

It’s also worth recalling that the funds for Building Schools for the Future, earmarked for the development of new capacity in our existing excellent community schools, were cut so that the Department could pump taxpayers money into this nonsensical ideological project to smash up local authority-led community schooling.

Perhaps all this would be forgiveable if the schools that emerged at the other end of the process were robust and of high quality. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is a real problem with Free Schools.

Free to gamble with your child’s education:

The NAO found that ‘on the whole these Free Schools’ pupils are less likely to be entitled to free school meals than pupils in neighbouring schools’, are less likely to have English as an additional language and are likely to travel twice as far to reach their schools as those in neighbouring schools. (NAO report, p. 42) The evidence seems to indicate that free schools are creating greater social segregation and skewing their intakes toward the ‘middle classes’. 

Some people might see this as a good thing  (we don’t agree ) but socially skewed intakes are symptoms of the government’s peculiar fetish for giving schools ‘freedoms’ and this also produces a whole range of other problems.

On 13 December, it was reported that the Discovery Free School in Crawley, Sussex, would be the first Free School to close its doors, instructed so to do by Lord Nash (the Private Equity fund ‘entrepreneur’ ennobled so that Michael Gove could make him a minister) on the basis that it was ‘unable to deliver even the most basic level of teaching and learning’. The job of training the teaching staff was so great, Lord Nash admitted, that it was impossible to imagine that they could run a school at the same time.

The Al-Madinah Free School in Derby is now ‘safe’ according to Ofsted’, but it’s
still officially in ‘chaos’ with ‘no signs of improvement’ and a failure to address the real problems in leadership and teaching.

Three men have been questioned in relation to a police investigation into suspected fraud at the King’s Science Academy, a free school set up in Bradford. Whistleblowers alleged ‘sustained financial mismanagement’, while there have been calls for the DfE to explain why it failed to pass allegations in connection with suspected fraud on to the police for five months.

These are not accidents, or statistical anomalies. They are the logical results of allowing untrained and inexperienced people and organizations to set up Free Schools outside of the Local Authority, directly managing them from the Department for Education (alongside thousands of academies) and allowing them to recruit untrained teachers.

Political backlash:

That’s one reason why political momentum gaining for an end to Michael Gove’s policy. As we reported recently, leading figures in Labour and the Liberal Democrats are calling for new ‘restraints’ over these schools.

In November, Labour MP Ian Mearns was granted time for a House of Commons debate on Free Schools in which Labour MPs queued up to slam the policy. Labour MP Kevin Brennan nailed the dangers of Free Schools in a particularly sharp contribution:

“the lack of oversight is not an accident, as the hon. Member for Bradford East pointed out; it is part of the design of this ideological experiment. According to the Government, a bit of failure is fine, if there are unqualified teachers, and some financial fraud its okay: in the long run, presumably, some good schools will emerge from the carnage of the experiment. The fact that pupils’ education is disrupted along the way—as with the Al-Madinah free school, which had to close for a week—is presumably just collateral damage and a price worth paying.”

Around the same time, the Education Select Committee announced that it was holding a new inquiry into Free Schools and Academies focusing in particular on the process for setting up a Free School, a process we have previously characterized as ‘perverse’, ‘inverted’ and undemocratic.

The wheels are coming off this policy fast and it’s time for those people who have supported the planned Free Schools in Waltham Forest to rethink.

Monday, 9 December 2013

DV8 – the free school that isn’t a school

By Scarlet Harris

While the evangelical Christian free school, Oasis, and the Muslim girls’ free school, Tauheedul, have received a good deal of attention and comment already, the proposed DV8 free school seems to have generated less controversy.

As a non-denominational provider, it is arguable that DV8 will not have the same damaging effects on community cohesion as Oasis and Tauheedul. As a co-educational provider, it is true that it will not have the same impact on gender balance in existing schools (as is the case with Tauheedul which will leave existing mixed schools alarmingly short of girls). However, that’s not to say DV8’s proposal is a welcome one.

Our main concerns regarding the DV8 proposal are as follows:

1. We believe DV8 is already operating successfully as a private provider and can see no benefit to the learners or to the wider community in DV8 becoming a free school. DV8 has been operating as a private business for many years in Walthamstow. It provides vocational training in subjects relating to the music and creative industries. It offers apprenticeships to young people as well as entry level training. It currently operates from a site near Billet Road. We have sought advice from further education experts and the advice we have been given is that there is no logical reason why an existing private 16-19 provider should become a free school and that the main advantage for DV8 would be access to start up and capital funding from the Department for Education.

2. We are concerned that such a move may have a detrimental impact on existing, local 16-19 providers who will be competing with DV8. We have three local colleges (Monoux, Waltham Forest, and Epping colleges) which are all facing significant funding pressures and are being forced to compete for students. Giving further funding to a private provider who will be in direct competition with these colleges does not seem to be a good solution. Investing more funding into our existing colleges would seem like a better way of expanding and improving the post-16 offer available to young people in the borough.

The consultation survey asks for views on the curriculum offered by DV8 but there is very little in the way of information about the curriculum in the consultation document. This in itself is worrying. The DV8 website offers more in the way of employer facing information (about how cheap it is to employ an apprentice and how little off-the-job training is involved) than it does in the way of course content or links to sector skills council apprenticeship frameworks. As parents we would be concerned if our children’s college appeared to be more focused on selling cheap labour to employers than it did in promoting high quality training and education opportunities to young people and their parents.

Bizarrely the consultation survey also seeks views on the site of the college when – as far as we are aware - there is no site currently proposed. No site is mentioned in the consultation document. Although we know that DV8 currently operate from an existing site, it is not clear whether or not the proposed free school would be based at this same site or whether a new site is being sought.

If you are a local parent or resident who shares our concerns about the use of public funding to support existing private companies in providing post-16 training, please respond to the short DV8 consultation survey which is currently online. It closes on 14th December 2013.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Would-be Waltham Forest Free School sponsor accused of ‘undermining community cohesion’ and filtering out poorer children

Tauheedul Free Schools, one of the organisations that wants to set up a ‘Free School’ in Waltham Forest was this week accused of undermining community cohesion and taking in fewer poorer children than other schools in the community. The charge of undermining community cohesion was made by a local NUT rep who pointed to the fact that Tauheedul claim to want to attract non-Muslim girls in the face of the fact that none have applied. This is a point we made on this site a while back. It may have something to do with the fact that the schools’ code of conduct for students includes the expectation that outside of school, students will “Perform 5-times Salaah punctually at home; wear the Hijaab outside of the school and home; Recite the Qur'aan at least once a week; desist from listening to any form of music or nasheeds that are not compliant with the Deobandi Hanafi Tablighi School of Thought;desist unislamic communication and relationships.”

The charge of manipulating its admissions procedures is new however. The Mirror revealed that in its Blackburn girls school, which rightly boasts of its excellent academic results, only 8.7% of pupils are entitled to free school meals, compared with a local average of 30%. In other words, Tauheedul’s Free School appears to be more socially segregated on social class lines than surrounding community schools.

This is part of a wider issue to do with the so-called freedoms enjoyed by Free Schools. One of the most fundamental freedoms they enjoy is to control their own admissions processes, rather than fitting into the Local Authority system. They also have the power to agree variations to their admissions processes and codes with the Secretary of State as part of their contractual relationship with the government. Some Free Schools, for example, include in their agreements provisions that mean that the children of ‘founders’ get privileged access in the case of oversubscribed schools. There have also been accusations that such schools devise complex admissions procedures designed to deter those parents without the time or the skills to navigate them.

The early evidence from analysis of Free School intakes suggests that the power to control admissions is allowing them to operate covert social selecton. For example, analysis of the intake of the first wave of 24 Free Schools showed that in only two Free Schools had a proportion of pupils on Free School Meals (FSM) that matches their Local Authority. On average 11% of pupils in Free Schools were eligible for FSM compared with 23% in their Local Area. Out of 55 ‘second wave’ Free Schools opening in 2012, 29 (52%) were still recruiting lower intakes of FSM children than the local authority average. Much of this information is contained in the National Union of Teachers’ excellent new publication on Free Schools.

Free Schools share this power to control their admissions with Academies. Research into the way this has helped Academies to ‘weed out’ poorer children is more advanced and reinforces this picture of covert selection. The recent report by the Academies Commission ‘Unleashing Greatness’, (not a hostile report, it should be noted) said, ‘there is evidence that schools that control their own admissions are likely to be more socially selective than community schools’ (p. 65). The Commission also said ‘as the pace of academisation leads to a rapid rise in the number of schools that are their own admissions authorities, there is a risk that admissions ‘game playing’ may be extended further. As the Commission pointed out this would further entrench segregation between more affluent and ‘disadvantaged’ children.

Some people might consider this social segregation a price worth paying for a good school for their children. But it’s worth noting that there’s absolutely no guarantee this will happen. Leaving aside the argument that education is not just about the government’s definition of standards, the evidence suggests that being a Free School makes you no more likely to academically excel than being a community school. In fact the latest evidence suggests that Free Schools are underperforming in  relation to community schools.

So, in summary, what Tauheedul are accused of doing appears to be a common feature of Free Schools – whatever they say they are doing, these schools, which control their own admissions procedures, are taking in far fewer children who are eligible for free school meals than they should be. In doing so, they are increasing social segregation in our communities and they cannot even claim to be better academically than our community schools.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Stop this chaotic and dysfunctional experiment now

The Free Schools experiment is descending into chaos. In the space of one week, it was revealed that one Free School in Derby was being threatened with having its funding cut off having been described as ‘chaotic and dysfunctional by Ofsted, while the headteacher of another ‘pioneering’ Free School in Crawley resigned from the school she and her husband set up after Ofsted condemned the school’s performance and then described the recovery plan as ‘not fit for purpose’. The Shadow Education Secretary Tristram Hunt wrote to Michael Gove calling for greater accountability and transparency for Free Schools, and saying that ‘a dangerous ideological experiment has been allowed to run out of control’. Then, to cap it all off at the weekend, the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said it ‘made no sense to him’ to allow Free Schools to employ unqualified teachers and be able to diverge from the national curriculum (as an aside, while we welcome Nick Clegg’s realisation that the policy he voted through is fundamentally flawed, it doesn’t say much for the Deputy Prime Minister’s judgment that it took till now for him to work this out).

So what’s going on? While the Conservative Party would like to dismiss this as a few duds, it is becoming clear that, as Laura McInerny argued recently, what’s taking place is the entirely predictable result of the ‘freedoms’ granted to Free Schools and the policy of railroading them through in defiance of any democratic process.

To understand why that’s the case, it’s worth looking at what happened with the Al-Madinah Free School in Derby in a bit more detail.

A case study in chaos

In September 2012, the Al-Madinah Free School opened in Derby and later that month the local press broke stories that non-Muslim teachers were being obliged to wear the hijab. By the end of the month, further allegations had resulted in the Department for Education conducting two separate investigations and Ofsted brought forward an inspection, on the first day of which the school was closed for ‘Health and Safety’ reasons when it was found that the school had failed to carry out adequate child protection checks on staff. In early October, Lord Nash, the minister for schools, wrote to the school threatening to terminate its funding agreement, effectively closing it, if it didn’t undertake immediate emergency measures.

The reports from the Department and Ofsted were devastating. On teaching standards, Ofsted said that the school was inadequate in every category and ‘dysfunctional’. Pupils were given the same work to do despite very different abilities, while classes were delivered by inexperienced teachers without proper training, sold to parents as ‘industry experts’. Almost all the Early Years Foundation stage teaching was found to be inadequate. The school was also unable to say how many special needs pupils it had in its intake.

The original investigations were launched as a result of allegations of that female teachers were obliged to wear the hijab and boys and girls were segregated in lessons and lunchtimes. Lord Nash’s letter to the governors made clear that staff were to be told that they did not have to cover their hair, and that the school had to cease any practices that had as their reason, cause or effect that women and girls were treated less favourably than men and boys.

Both Ofsted and The DfE identified the fact that the school was appallingly governed. Ofsted found that the school had ‘been set up by representatives of the community with limited knowledge and experience’. Inexperienced and untrained Governors had ‘failed to ensure children were safe in the school, failed to appoint properly qualified staff and as a result had been unable to monitor the school or hold it properly to account. The Governors, Ofsted said ‘had failed the parents of this community who have placed trust in them’.

On every count these are the consequences of the so-called freedoms of the Free School: the ‘right’ to hire unqualified teachers, the promotion of state-funded faith schools operating outside local authority regulation and most of all the flawed governance and the complete absence of democratic oversight.

How did the supporters of the Al-Madinah school ever get approval from the DfE? As we’ve pointed out repeatedly in relation to Oasis and Tauheedul’s applications, the process for getting approval to open a Free School is completely absurd and utterly opaque. There is no genuine, open local consultation, no real coordination with the Local Authority and the dealings between Free School promoters and the Department for Education are clouded in mystery. Once the promoters of the Al-Madinah school got approval from the DfE, there was no way for parents to hold their school to account. If local teachers hadn’t gone to the press, how long would children gone on being treated like this? Who was there to hold the governors to account on behalf of the children, the parents, the community and the parents?

No one takes any pleasure in this. Reading through the Ofsted report on Al-Madinah, it’s impossible to feel anything but deeply sad and angry for the 400 children at this school and their parents. But the fact that the Education Secretary continues to drive forward this policy without regard for any warnings, either before or since this week’s revelations demonstrates just how dangerous he is.

What does all this mean for the people of Waltham Forest?

Education is a big issue in this borough. We know this from the fact that meetings on schools in Waltham Forest are getting bigger all the time. There are a lot of anxious parents out there.

If you are a parent and you are opposed to these schools, we would ask you to help us to build our petition in favour of a Local Authority led alternative involving our community schools. We know that they have a plan to provide a place for everyone who needs it in our community schools and to build a new school that would be accountable to our community.

If you are a parent who has actively supported one of the proposed Free Schools, we would beg you to think again. Everyone wants the best for their children but this is not necessary and it’s not the right way, either for your child or for the others who will be affected by a new Free School.

If you are a parent who is thinking about putting your child’s name down for one of the proposed Free Schools we would ask you a few questions:

· Are you confident that you really know about the people who are going to run this school?

· Are you confident that the proposed school has been subjected to proper independent oversight by the Department for Education? It certainly hasn’t been scrutinised by anyone else.

· Are you prepared to take the risk that your child will not be like the 400 children in Derby?

· Are you confident that you know how you will hold this school to account?

If the answer to any of these questions is no, then sign our petition instead and join the campaign for good schools for all our children in Waltham Forest.


Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Why we support our teachers

Tomorrow morning, most of the schools in our community in Waltham Forest will be closed due to the strike action being taken by members of the NUT and the NASUWT unions. For many of us, that’s something of a pain. Nonetheless, we would ask our supporters to show their support for the teachers tomorrow, and this is why.

Our Community, Our Schools is a campaign group that brings together parents, teachers and local residents in supporting our community schools and raising awareness of the threat posed by the proposed ‘Free Schools’. One of the really inspirational things to come out of our mass meeting on 8th October was to hear how proud people in Waltham Forest are of our community schools and how angry they are about the way they are endlessly denigrated in rumours stoked up by the mass media and, most disgracefully of all, by the government. As Zoe Williams wrote so powerfully in the Guardian following the meeting, the Education Secretary Michael Gove is engaged in a sustained drive to tell a disaster narrative about our schools, very similar to the one being waged against the NHS in the right wing newspapers. This creates a climate of fear that provides him with the justification for pumping money and resources into driving forward his forced academisation and his Free Schools project. It is also this which prompts anxious parents to contemplate Free Schools as a solution.

He is doing exactly the same thing to the people who teach our children. Teachers have been subjected to a shameful propaganda war designed to try to drive a wedge between us and them, as though many teachers are not parents and as though we don’t talk to each other in our communities. Michael Gove even stooped to describing teachers who opposed him as ‘enemies of promise’. We think that the Education Secretary’s undoubted gift for headline grabbing nonsense like this has led him to overreach himself, badly. Is this really the experience of any parent in our community schools? Are the teachers who teach our children day in day out really enemies of promise, working to stifle our children’s ambitions?

No. As parents, we think it is despicable to subject the people who teach our children to such vicious public attacks. We’re also really uncomfortable at the attacks on their daily working lives. Many teachers are already having to work longer and pay more into their pension schemes, in return for less at the end of it. Now they are being told that the way they are paid has to be changed so that they have ‘performance –related pay’ because that will apparently incentivise them to be better teachers. No one enters teaching because they want to make a fast and big buck. It’s a vocation and a profession. Yet government ministers appear to think that they need to import into teaching the morality of the FTSE listed companies in the City of London where, apparently, senior CEOs can’t get out of bed unless they have the prospect of a six figure bonus dangling before them. Teachers are also facing the threat of changes to the hours they work and increases to their workloads. You can read more about why exactly they are striking here. But the key point is a really basic one. Teachers are not the enemy. They are not failing in their work. In fact, they achieve amazing things every day, in the face of malicious public slurs, attacks on their working conditions and a punitive Ofsted regime that seems to be geared entirely to promoting Michael Gove’s failure narrative and helping him to smash up our school system. We stand with our teachers just as we stand with our community schools. And we know who are the real enemies of promise.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Packed house hears devastating attack on proposed Free Schools in Waltham Forest

It surpassed all our expectations. More than 150 people packed out the Vestry House Museum meeting room on Tuesday night. The room was filled, with people sitting on the floors and standing at least two-deep outside the doors listening to the proceedings inside.

Guardian columnist and campaigner Zoe Williams kicked off by pointing to the press reports about the Free School in Derby that was closed recently. She read from an extraordinary letter that education minister Lord Nash had had to write to the school asking a series of basic questions about their procedures, their policies and practices for employing staff, ensuring their qualification, conducting CRB checks and so on. Her point was that you would never have had to do this with a community school because they are transparent and accountable. The government and the supporters of Free Schools are creating a system that will fail and we will have to reinvent community schools all over again. "There is no way for the people who use Free Schools to hold them to account” she said. The question for parents and teachers who wanted good community schools was "how to mobilise to get a system in which you are heard" and she urged parents and teachers to make links with each other's campaigns across boroughs and across the country.

Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the NUT stressed that her union regarded Michael Gove's Free Schools policy as undermining basic democratic rights by creating a chaotic system of unaccountable schools that are inefficient and expensive. She pointed out that 1 in 10 teachers in existing Free Schools are unqualified and that a third of the total government budget for new school places was being used to promote building new Free Schools, often in areas where they are not needed or where they can't answer the need for more places. She also pointed to the perversity of a situation in which Local Authorities have the responsibility to provide a place for every child but cannot build more community schools or coordinate provision. She pointed to NUT research which showed that 91% of Local Authorities thought they needed the power to establish new community schools and she praised the London Challenge initiative which showed that collaboration among schools could actually meet the need for more places. Channelling public money toward Free Schools, paid for by us but accountable to no one but themselves was "basically robbery", she said.

Councillor Clare Coghill followed this with a robust defence of Waltham Forest Schools. She argued that it was vital to break down the idea that there is a problem with community schools in the borough. Waltham Forest schools are fantastic" she said, "and don't let anybody tell you otherwise.” Like Christine, she stressed the perversity of a system where Local Authorities are responsible for providing places but can’t build new community school. Sending a message to the Education Secretary, she said, “I’ve got the duty to provide places, now give me the right to build a new community school”.

Patrick Edwards, a school governor at Norlington school in Leyton, gave a barnstorming performance in which he talked about how active parents, involved in their community schools could have a positive impact on their schools, driving up standards by collaborating and supporting each other, not through destructive competition. He derided the future system envisaged by the government and the supporters of Free Schools in which competition would drive schools out of business and he urged people to get behind their community schools:. They want us to feel so threatened that we only want to look after our own kids but that would be like cutting our own throats” he said.

In the discussion that followed several teachers explained why they were so angry, why they were striking on the 17th and why they were campaigning for education, making the point that they were being attacked every day by the government and appealed for parents to support them. Several parents spoke movingly about the anxiety they experienced at the shortage of places in the borough and as a result of widespread misconceptions about Waltham Forest’s community schools. Representatives of the East London Humanist society talked about the divisiveness of faith schools, noting that the majority of Free School sponsors are religious organisations. There were lots of ideas about things that could be done in the future but there was a general agreement on the need to build the campaign against the proposed Free Schools and to make links across London and England with other local campaigns and start to build a movement for a more democratic education system that looks after all its children.

This was an absolutely inspirational meeting at which we heard voices from across our borough expressing their anger and frustration, but also their determination to fight for better schools and for community schools. Sign up to get involved here and watch this space for more soon.

Postscript: Zoe Williams mentioned our meeting in a coruscating attack in the Guardian on Michael Gove’s attempt to denigrate systematically our community school system.  You must read this article!

Thursday, 19 September 2013

'Our Community, Our Schools: Education through collaboration' - Public meeting update

An update on our public meeting, being held on Tuesday 8 October at the Vestry House meeting room at 7pm.

We are really proud to be hosting Zoe Williams, writer and Guardian columnist and Christine Blower, the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers. Zoe has published on a range of social issues, but recently wrote a powerful condemnation of the myths of the educational underclass being peddled by right wing think tanks like the Centre for Social Justice. Christine Blower is the General Secretary of the National Union of Teachers which has played a leading role in campaigning against academies and Free Schools and which this week launched a new campaign around London's school places crisis. The campaign identifies, rightly, that the growing crisis of school places in the capital is being seriously aggravated by the government's policy of undermining, weakening and obstructing local authorities, making it harder for them to build new schools, while it pushes its Free School dogma. So these two speakers will give a great national perspective on what's happening in Waltham Forest.

We also have two new speakers to announce including, Patrick Edwards, a local parent and Councillor Clare Coghill, the Local Authority's Lead Member for Children and Young People. Clare will be able to give valuable insight into the Council's alternative plan and why they are opposed to Oasis and Tauheedul's proposed Free Schools, while Patrick will be able to talk as a local parent in the community, facing the same issues as the rest of us.

This is going to be a fascinating meeting. Make sure that you are there.

Tuesday, 8th October, 7pm, Vestry House Museum meeting room.

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Public Meeting - Our Community, Our Schools, 7-9pm, Tuesday 8 October, Vestry House Museum meeting room

Speakers: Zoe Williams, writer, journalist and Guardian columnist, Christine Blower, General Secretary, National Union of Teachers

Our Community, Our Schools is hosting a second public meeting in Waltham Forest on Tuesday 8th October and we’re proud to have two brilliant speakers: Guardian columnist Zoe Williams, and Christine Blower, the general secretary of the National Union of Teachers. This will be a great opportunity to discuss the issues thrown up by the attempt to open ‘Free’ Schools in Waltham Forest in their national context. We’ll be discussing the crisis in our education system, the threats to our community schools and the attack on democracy. It looks like being a really good evening, so make sure you’re there.

Monday, 26 August 2013

Who are Oasis and why are we concerned about their proposed Free School?

Oasis Community Learning is a charitable company linked to the Oasis Charitable Trust, an evangelical Baptist organisation which delivers education, healthcare, housing, training and youth work projects to local authorities and national governments throughout the world.

The Oasis Charitable Trust (known as ‘Oasis’) was founded by Reverend Steve Chalke in 1985. Over the last 22 years Oasis Trust has developed into a family of charities now working on five continents and 11 countries around the world, to deliver housing, education, training, youth work and healthcare. Oasis provides services for, local authorities and national governments, as well as self funded initiatives aimed at providing opportunity to people across the globe.

Academy Schools and Free Schools:

Oasis Community Learning describe themselves as ‘one of the largest and fastest growing multi-Academy sponsors in England’, having taken over 28 Academy schools since 2004. ‘Our mission is to create and sustain a network of excellent learning communities where pupils can realise their full potential.’

Oasis are now interested in setting up new Free Schools, including the one they are proposing to sponsor in Waltham Forest, with WSSI (Walthamstow Secondary School Initiative), a local parents group.

Oasis’s performance: below the national average and below the borough average:
Oasis are one of a growing group of education ‘chains’ alongside ARK, E-Act and United Learning Trust.

Yet this growth seems to say more about the government’s enthusiasm for such chain companies and less about their ability to run successful schools.

Analysis of the Academies’ performance has shown that they tend to make disproportionate use of GCSE equivalent qualifications to inflate their academic performance and that when these qualifications are taken out of the equation and only GCSE performance is taken into account, academies perform far less well than community schools.

The Oasis chain was among the worst performing, with fewer than 30% of their pupils achieving 5 GCSEs.

Even when value added was measured (crudely, that’s a government measure of how a school has helped a student progress through the various stages of educational attainment), Oasis schools score below the national average.

Even more troubling, the Local Authority has identified that Oasis’s results are below the average for Waltham Forest.

The Local Authority’s plan notes that:

“We are concerned that, on average, outcomes across the existing Oasis Community Learning secondary schools have been consistently lower than those in Waltham Forest secondary schools....Wealso have significant concerns that too much of the current secondary provisionwithin the Oasis Community Learning Trust requires improvement or isinadequate.” (For the tables, click here and go to pages 23 and 24)

Problems in specific Oasis schools:

In October 2008 when it was reportedthat 150 pupils had ‘rampaged’ through the corridors of the new Oasis AcademyMayfield in Southampton. According to the Times Educational Supplement report, the pupils complained that promised improvements to the curriculum had not been delivered. The academy was created from the merger of Woolston and Grove Park schools and teachers complained that the split-site arrangements meant that contact with pupils had been lost. They also said the school’s management had been “arrogant” in refusing to listen to their views. Staff threatened to ballot for industrial action unless urgent changes were made to the way the school was organised. John Denham, the local Southampton MP and the former Communities Secretary, questioned whether the sponsor had the experience to run the school.

In 2011, Oasis’s MediaCity Academy inSalford hit the news when pupils disrupted lessons after news broke that 14 staff members were facing redundancy. Members of the NUT and NASUWT teaching unions took a day’s strike action in protest at the staff cuts, which were announced just ahead of Christmas 2011.

Oasis: faith inspired or faith school?

Oasis insist that their schools are inclusive to those of all religion or none, citing their ‘Oasis Charter’ as justification. This is no more than a legal necessity however. The question is how they police the boundaries between being a faith inspired school and allowing their faith to intrude into the form and content of their schooling.
For example, while insisting that they never seek to impose their beliefs on staff or students, their Charter says:

“Oasis’ identity or organisational behaviours are rooted in, and flow from the Christian faith. Oasis’ work is motivated by the life, message and example of Jesus Christ. How Oasis as an organisation behaves has a direct relationship to what Oasis as an organisation believes. Oasis’ beliefs direct and shape the organisation’s behaviours.”

Given that ‘the organisation’s behaviours’ presumably includes the behaviour, teaching and attitudes of its staff while at work, this is beginning to look more like a faith school than a secular school. This impression is reinforced by Oasis's even more explicitly religious 'Ethos' document.

Sexual and Relationship Education:
This impression is heightened by Oasis' Sexual and Relationship Education Policy which states:

‘The SRE programme will teach about love and care in relationships and the possible outcomes of sex including pregnancy, HIV and other STI’s. Students will be taught about the responsibilities of parenthood and will be helped to develop a clear understanding of the arguments for delaying sexual activity, for faithfulness and for resisting pressure.’

In April this year, one of Oasis’s academy schools included a session led by Challenge Team UK as part of their SRE. Challenge Team UK are a pro-sexual abstinence group who promote sex only within marriage and argue that all forms of contraception are unreliable, that government strategies to reduce teen pregnancies have been a failure and that cohabitation is inferior to marriage.

One of the main trustees of ChallengeTeamUK is Trevor Stammers, a prominent Christian anti-abortionist.

Trevor Stammers also maintains that homosexuality contravenes God’s injunctions:

“We cannot compromise on what God says about sex. From passages such as Matthew 19:4-6 and 1 Corinthians 7:1-9 it seems clear that biblically, coitus is only permitted within the commitment of heterosexual marriage. This is a challenge for all of us, whether gay or straight. We need to ensure that those who fall short of God's standard have a compassionate and gentle reception from those 'who are spiritual' (Gal 6:1), but the aim should be restoration to holy living.”

Admissions policy:

Oasis have not yet published their admissions criteria for their planned Free School in Walthamstow but they have already said that they are not taking part in the Pan London Admissions Process for admissions for September 2014.  Instead they will conduct their own admissions. It is impossible to know why this is, but one possibility is that they are looking to use their freedom as a Free School to depart from the part of the admissions code in order to privilege access to ‘founders’ children. Founders might here be supporters of WSSI, for example, the parents’ group that called Oasis in. There is a precedent for this in the case of the Canary Wharf Free School. This is pure speculation, but Oasis could clear it up by publishing their admissions criteria.

The bottom line is that people in Waltham Forest who may be about to end up with a Free School run by a chain which is:

  • underperforming against national and borough benchmarks of standards
  • which has questions to answer about the relationship between its faith and its schooling
  • and which is currently not being entirely clear about its admissions policy. 
None of this has stopped them advertising for staff, including a principal at their planned new school.

We think that families and children in Waltham Forest deserve better than this. We think that every child should have a place at one of our community schools or at a school controlled by a community school. We now know that can be done.

It’s time to make the Department for Education listen.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

We've passed 500

More than 550 people have now signed our petition with quite a surge in the wake of the news that there is an alternative to the proposed Free Schools.

Please help us to make it much bigger.

Circulate the online petition link as widely as you can:

Can you help us by downloading a petition and collecting signatures locally?
Download our hard copy petition here

And here are just a few of the comments we've received on the petition from local residents and parents :

"I support LBWF in their proposal to provide state back secondary education for all in Walthamstow and hope the DfE will do the same."

"I would like the whole community to stay together after primary into secondary school. Otherwise it's segregation. The council needs the funds to set up inclusive community schools for all. Secondary education must be a priority. Let excellent primary schools become through schools so they can also provide the secondary years and give parents confidence that children will be looked after well from 11 years up. Keep religion out of schools. Tolerate everyone's beliefs but don't promote religions in school time. Just let children and families practice their religions at home and in their own individual way at school. There is a urgency to provide more secondary quality education. There is a big
demand on primary places and this is going to carry through to secondary."

"My children currently attend Buxton Primary and will go through to the Secondary phase. I fully support this school not only as a parent, but as Primary Staff and in the past as a Parent Governor."

"We have good community schools serving the entire community. Let us not undermine this by pandering to religious groups and middle class parents whose fears are based mainly on ignorance of what the state system has to offer."

"Please consider this petition and the very sensible points it raises. Don't destroy our local school system."
"Support existing schools, and promote integration, rather than segregation."

"We have a 19 month toddler and would like to settle in Waltham Forest long term. We are soon to be moving to Leytonstone. However, we need to be sure that there will be enough secondary school places and good enough schools in the borough. I don't believe in 'free' schools run by, and for, a select few. Quality education should be available to all, this should be a basic right like the National Health service."
"Creating new schools, allowing them to select, thus "proving" they work does not raise standards for all, only widens the gap."
"I feel that all options should be explored before resorting to a free school. In this incredibly diverse community there is such a strong argument for community schools that bring everyone together rather than specialist schools which could drive people apart."

"I am a School Governor in Waltham Forest. Both schools where I am a Governor are Waltham Forest LA schools. There is already provision for single sex education for Secondary School students. I believe that all children in this Borough should have access to the National Curriculum and have fully trained Teachers and Support Staff."

"We need to focus investment on our existing secondary schools and, in particular, invest in some proper sixth form provision as all the secondary schools only run to 16 and therefore limit the pool of possible applicants for teaching posts as the best secondary teachers often prefer to have some A level teaching opportuniities."

"The proposed Free Schools are not necessary, will divide our community and will take scarce resources away from our existing schools. All local schools need to be under local control accountable to tax payers."

Monday, 22 July 2013

A former Waltham Forest headteacher speaks out

Eve Wilson, formerly the headteacher of Willowfields Humanities College, one of our community schools in Waltham Forest, has responded to Tauheedul Free Schools' consultation and has given us permission to post a copy of her response on our blogsite. So here it is in full below. We think you'll agree that it's a powerful and compelling contribution to the public debate in Waltham Forest:

Response to Consultation – Walthamstow Leadership Academy for Girls, Tauheedul Free School:

Tauheedul sets out a compelling vision for its new school in Waltham Forest but despite that  I do not feel that it will serve the best interests of the community.  I have a number of reasons for my views on this matter. 

Firstly, I believe that opening a girls’ school will have a negative impact on the education offered to girls and boys in the borough.  There are already two popular girls’ schools in Waltham Forest, between them admitting 1,500 girls.  I recognise that more parents would like their daughters to attend a girls’ school but unfortunately they would also like their sons to attend a mixed school.  Originally the borough planned to offer exactly the same number of places to boys as to girls but the 6fe boys’ school first became a 4fe school because of lack of demand and then closed altogether leaving only a 4fe boys’ school which has been very undersubscribed for many years despite being academically successful in recent years. 

Until 2011, I was the headteacher of Willowfield Humanities College.  Willowfield is a popular and respected school but nevertheless, because of its proximity to Walthamstow Girls’ School, it had a gender imbalance in favour of boys which was rarely less than 60:40 and occasionally as imbalanced as 70:30.  This resulted in a number of challenges for us in both pedagogical and practical terms, both inside the classroom and in social areas in order to ensure all our students made excellent progress academically and were happy, confident members of our community.  For example, our teachers became proficient at planning to ensure that girls and boys received equal attention inside the classroom but it was more difficult to manage the pressure on boys’ changing room space during PE lessons because of the excess numbers of boys.  This situation would be greatly exacerbated were there to be additional school places for girls that were fully subscribed and it seems very unfair on the many families wishing to choose mixed education for their sons and daughters that genuine mixed education would effectively disappear from Waltham Forest.  Your proposal would, I believe, increase choice for a minority of parents while reducing choice for the majority.

My second concern is the impact on community cohesion.  I recognise that it is Tauheedul’s ambition to attract students of all faiths or none and welcome this.  In practice, however, it has failed to achieve this aim in its schools in Blackburn despite their undoubted academic success.  Currently the quality of social cohesion is an exceptional strength of schools in Walthamstow and indeed in Waltham Forest generally.  There is ample evidence of this in OfSTED reports.  You will, I am sure, agree that there has never been a time when this was more important.  I have no doubt that this is a result of the very diverse communities in schools (currently there is only one faith school in Waltham Forest) and if you speak to young people at school in the borough you will find that this is one of the things they most value about their schools.  They describe how much they value being able to learn from each other about their different cultures and religions.  We often said that at Willowfield we could have taught the people of the world how to live together – the atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance and rejection of any form of stereotyping was something that could, I am certain, be achieved only through students learning and playing together.

Finally, I should like to point out that the Walthamstow schools have a long established partnership which brings significant benefits for students and for staff development through collaboration rather than competition.  They operate with openness and trust and understand they have a responsibility for all the children in Waltham Forest schools as well as the particular one they have for the students enrolled at their own schools.  It is disappointing that Tauheedul, despite its stated wish to work in partnership with other local schools, has made no effort as far as I am aware to discuss its proposals with existing schools.  Indeed, in the consultation document, the only indication of how this partnership might work is where Tauheedul suggests that it will look to other schools and colleges to provide the curriculum for students unsuited to the one it offers.  This is worrying since it does not resemble the way in which the existing partnership operates.

In short then, because of local circumstances, I believe that despite its track record as an excellent provider of education in other parts of the country, if the Tauheedul free school opens in Waltham Forest, it will disrupt and undermine educational provision across the borough.  I have no doubt that as an organisation of integrity and repute this is not its intention and hope that achieving a greater understanding of the needs of Waltham Forest will cause it to reconsider its proposal.

Eve Wilson

July 2013