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.