Report from the Conference Against City Academies

A report of a conference organised by Birmingham NUT and Islington Campaign against Academies, on October 8th. It was attended by 85 delegates, from 6 parents action groups, 27 NUT associations, two other unions, three universities and one Labour Party branch. Approximately 15 current campaigns were represented.

First session chaired by Jackie Ranger- Birmingham NUT past president
Ken Jones from Keele University gave an overview of the city academies programme, its intended design and impact on existing structures. He quoted Tony Travers, the foremost expert on public policy as saying that the public sector was being passed into the hands of voluntary, charitable, private and cooperative hands away from the direct control of the state. Ken posed the question of how local opposition springing up as a reaction in local conditions could be generalized into national opposition to this privatization programme (a summary of Ken’s speech should be available in the near future).
Richard Hatcher from the University of Central England and a Birmingham NUT executive member, gave an introduction to research which he and Ken have been conducting in two North London boroughs among campaigners against academies. He gave direct quotations from parents, teachers and others to illustrate the methods being used by academy supporters to substitute PR for proper consultation. He also demonstrated the negative impact such manoeuvres had on parents. An Islington delegate confirmed that academy supporters are using a DfES manual, ’Academies; marketing tool kit.’ He reported that a parents’ meeting had been successful because it had been held on the estate where most of them lived. It thwarted the attempts by the academy supporters to stage manage the consultation process. He also pointed out how important it was to gat at the sponsors, who in this case were city financiers with no expertise in public services or education.

A Natfhe speaker warned of the dangers to national pay and conditions, with city academies being in the forefront of the ‘new flexibilities’ to fragment national agreements.

A representative from the Conisbrough & District Parents Action Group (CADPAG) described the first victory against academies in their part of South Yorkshire. In the consultative ballot, 90% of the parents had been opposed to the academies proposal. She stressed the importance of teacher and student involvement and a sympathetic local press.

A Lambeth delegate reported the success around Glenbrook primary school, detailing the attempt to take over one of the few green spaces in that part of London whilst cramming 1500 pupils into a smaller unsuitable site elsewhere. A ballot of parents in the area showed 84% opposed to the proposal.

A parent from South Durham spoke of the city academy to be set up in Alan Milburn’s constituency, involving the closure of two other schools, one of which is in the Prime Minister’s Sedgefield Constituency and is ‘one of the best performing schools’ in the country. This fed into the story from the previous day in the Times Educational Supplement of the how schools described as failing by the government and replaced by academies had, in fact been performing satisfactorily.

Parents from the Isle of Sheppey described their initial isolation, both physically and politically on hearing that their one secondary school run by a so called super head, who was only prepared to stay if the school became an academy, was to have its status changed. They described how heartened they were when 300 parents turned up to an initial meeting to discuss the proposals. They have had a number of other successful meetings since and their campaign goes on

Liverpool delegates reported on the valuable lessons that had been learned from the imposition of an academy in their area. One sponsor had withdrawn but the academy proposal was going ahead, sponsored by Liverpool University. Barnsley said that an attempt to set up an all-through 3-19 academy had stirred up great opposition there and had been withdrawn. The United Learning Trust now proposed a secondary academy to be built right next to a primary school in the hope that there could be ‘close collaboration’ in the future.

Manchester Parents reported that one ULT academy had been set up with 6 more proposed- 200 people had attended an initial consultation meeting

In Merton, where two academies are proposed, a delegate talked of the ‘3 cousins syndrome’. His son and two cousins, all living very close to one another, clocked up 30 miles per day between them, going to different schools because they could not get into the school on their doorstep. One academy sponsor is the carpet retailer, Lord Harris. He stressed that any campaign should emphasise the positive aspects of the comprehensive system. Coventry reported on the proposal to set up two academies at the expense of three existing schools. One of the academies would be run by the same religious fundamentalists already running an academy in the less affluent part of Solihull. In Nottingham three further academies are proposed in addition to the Djanogly Academy which is an ex-city technology college.

Waltham Forest referred to their victory over Jasper Conran’s attempt to sponsor an academy, pointing out the extreme sensitivity sponsors have to adverse publicity. The area now faced a more serious threat from the United Learning Trust, an Anglican education foundation with the stated aim of setting up 20 academies nationally. The delegate reported that in response to a question from the Schools’ Adjudicator (an official charged to oversee changes to schools’ status) as to the advantages that an academy would bring to the existing school curriculum, ULT representatives were unable to give any sensible answer.

One parent from London, with children at an academy stressed the importance of continuing to campaign within existing academies because of the attacks on staff conditions and pay levels, but significantly because democratic accountability to parents is weak.

Some publicity materials were circulated which included Brent NUT’s ‘white elephant demonstration’ on the steps of the workplace of a proposed sponsor of a second academy in Brent. It had been reported elsewhere that the sponsor had rung the organizer of the demonstration urging him to call it off.

General points that emerged from the reports included;
• The attempts to suppress democratic consultation is causing an opposite reaction among some parents and other interested parties.
• There is an optimistic feeling about these campaigns – almost as if this is the Government’s step too far.
• The sensitivity of sponsors to having their intentions and motives held up to public scrutiny is their weakness.
• The consultation process is where they are at their most vulnerable.
• The need to research the sponsors’ backgrounds & to share information is essential.
• Head teachers are putting pressure on staff in schools threatened with takeover not to speak out.
• Falling rolls are being used as an excuse to establish academies.
• The need to exchange information, ideas and tactics.
• To emphasise the positive arguments about comprehensive education.
• The need to get campaigns started early and to mobilize as widely as possible.
• The central importance of parent-teacher alliances to avoid isolation.
• Campaigns to be action based; the most effective campaigns are imaginative, using wit and humour to get their message across.

A summary of the ideas from the workshops and decisions taken by the Conference. Session chaired by Jane Nellist, Coventry NUT and nominee for NUT national vice president

• A national network to be set up as an umbrella group to support campaigns both around existing academies and against proposals to set up new academies.
• To broaden the base of campaigning and to seek to participate in other campaigns organized by the TUC, NUT CASE et al.
• A steering committee to be set up open to representatives from existing and new campaigns against academies, to be entirely in the hands of the constituent campaign groups.
• First steering committee to be set up within one month of the conference; date and venue to be decided by Birmingham NUT. The steering committee to be responsible for ;
• naming the organization
• to consider proposals coming from the working groups including;
• drawing up a campaigning guide
• to draft an open letter, statement of intent to be signed by as many people as possible and publicized as widely as possible,
• setting up regional groups
• intervention in next year’s local government elections
• forming links with other groups campaigning against privatization
• boycott campaigns against academy sponsors
• organization of a national demonstration—may be in Sedgefield.
• Seek donations and affiliations

Birmingham NUT were asked to do the following; (All done as of time of writing)
? Issue a press release
? Circulate a report of the conference to all participants
? Circulate the report to all NUT branches
? Send the report and a covering letter to the NUT General Secretary
? Convene the first steering committee meeting.

Organisations in attendance;

Parents groups; Conisbrough & District, South Durham, Barnsley campaign against academies, Merton, South Manchester – Longsight & Levenshulme,

National Organizations; CASE

Unions;Natfhe West Midlands; AUT

NUT Associations & Divisions
Barnsley, Birmingham, Bolton, Bradford, Brent, Bristol, City of Nottingham, Coventry, Dudley, Ealing, Enfield, Hackney, Hull, Islington, Lambeth, Leeds, Liverpool, Merton, Redbridge, Rochdale, Salford, Sandwell, Slough, Stockport, Swindon, Waltham Forest, Westminster