We called this meeting 'Education Crisis?' Partly to question what was being said about an education crisis in Waltham Forest – we wanted to question some of the propaganda that was circulated by proponents of the new Free School.
But also to start a debate about what was happening to our school system in the borough – perhaps there is an education crisis in Waltham Forest – but if so, what is it?
1. Demographic timebomb:
When WFDSS was set up it was response to a proposal to set up a Free School, run by Oasis and WSSI. One of the things that was claimed in their propaganda was the statement ‘there is a demographic timebomb in the borough’ and the familiar refrain – ‘there is no alternative, we must have this new school’.
Yet it was quickly apparent to us that there were serious problems with their propaganda.
Firstly, Oasis and WSSI were using different figures to illustrate demand in the borough and not even the most authoritative. We suspected fearmongering.
One of the things we wanted to do when we set up the campaign was to have a proper look at that and start a proper debate about whether there is a demographic timebomb – to get beneath their propaganda and get a more nuanced debate in the borough.
So we looked at only figures available and they showed something quite interesting.
They showed a very large bulge in reception age children, peaking in 2014/15 and 2015/16 and then falling year on year. Demand drops substantially and is not projected to be a permanent feature.
These probably aren’t the latest figures and the Council will know better, but the fact is that these figures are more comprehensive and authoritative than any used by Oasis and WSSI, they have never been challenged by Oasis/WSSI nor have they been acknowledged or any other data used. So we think there is more than a bit of fearmongering going on here.
It seemed to us, for example, that not everyone who signed up to Oasis’s consultation knew what they were signing up for, and they certainly weren’t told in the consultation document – the website, for example, only asks you if you want a new school.
What’s happening is that the proposals for Free Schools are disproportionately from religious organisations – 39 out of 102 proposals identified last year, for example. People like Oasis.
Oasis, for example, like to claim that they are not really a religious school and that it’s particular to their ethos that no one will be discriminated against. Yet at the same time the Oasis ethos is described as being Christianity in action, it is said to pervade everything that goes on in their schools, Christian materials are openly promoted amongst the teaching staff and staff are expected to demonstrate their understanding of Oasis’s ethos. Confused?
Oasis are also a growing education chain like Ark, E-Act and Harris, the same chains that are dominating private academy sponsorship.
Some Free Schools are operating covert selection criteria, like setting their catchment areas around certain more affluent postcodes or application forms that weed out certain kinds of applicants.
The fact is that these schools fuel religious and social segregation.
Most people don’t want a Free School. Most people don’t want an academy. They DO want a good community school.
Most people believe that everyone has the right to the same level of access they have and only resort to climbing over others’ heads when that feels scarce.
Most people understand that local authorities and democratically accountable bodies would be better at coordinating a fair system of provision in the borough than a chaotic struggle among competing schools.
What’s being done to our education system in Waltham Forest and nationally, raises profound questions about choice – supposedly the heart of the government’s programme – and democracy.
Personally, I think the basis exists for those who believe in a broadly progressive, fair and equal education to unite, not just around campaigns to defend schools where they are still under democratic control, but to take the fight to those which are outside it.
I think there is a crisis of Education in Waltham Forest. But it’s not really a crisis of demand or supply – it’s a democratic crisis. It’s a crisis engendered by government and exploited by opportunistic carpet baggers who want to colonise our school system and turn it to their own ends and roll back the seismic achievements of the post-war period.
The only response is for local and national bodies of progressive people to come together around long-sighted campaigns that defend what we still have but which ultimately aim to return education to being a democratic right, a democratic tool and a democratic system.