The unanimous decision against academy conversion by Hove Park School’s Governing Body on 22nd September – six months after controversially proposing to become an academy – was a spectacular U turn and a victory for staff and parents.(1)
In May the Head had written: ‘We believe that in order to create the world class provision that the students deserve, we need to consider moving forward as an academy …’ Four months later, after the decisive Governors meeting, he said: ‘I’m delighted that we were able to make a unanimous decision that at this point academy conversion is not the right way forward’ adding that conversion would be off the table for the ‘foreseeable future’.
This land mark success was achieved by a determined ‘Hands Off Hove Park’ (2) and means Hove Park School will continue as a successful Local Authority community school – but we should not underestimate the seismic national impact of the Hove Park campaign. It is a blow to the academy programme, a victory for democracy and proof that academy conversion is not inevitable and cannot be justified.
Conversion is not inevitable: Ministers boast that many schools are academies but more than two thirds of all schools are still NOT academies. Academy apologists point out that a majority of secondary schools are now academies but a bigger majority of primary schools are still NOT academies. In the South East more than three quarters of schools remain local authority schools, in Brighton & Hove 95% of schools are still local authority schools and the decision by Hove Park not to convert means that there is still not a single convertor academy in the authority.
The argument for conversion is hollow: The Hove Park proposal quoted success and achievement statistics without baselines or comparisons suggesting many academies were rated good or outstanding. This is true but as Henry Stewart from the Local Skills Network says: Converter academies ‘are those Good and Outstanding schools encouraged by Gove to convert in the last two years. These were, by definition, the better performing schools. They therefore had better GCSE results and will, unless disaster has struck, continue to have better GCSE results. To claim their higher results are due to academy status is about as sensible as selecting a group of people based on being above average height and then boasting that they are taller than the average’.(3)
And since Hove Park School, as a local authority community school, has been one of the most improved schools in the country it seemed unlikely conversion would make much difference. Indeed, campaigner pointed to the risk that performance would decline following conversion – as it did at schools elsewhere. A Birmingham school rated ‘good’ in 2012 by Ofsted before converting was ‘inadequate’ by 2013. A High School judged ‘outstanding’ in 2011 and converted to an academy in 2012 was judged to ‘require improvement’ by 2014.
To their credit, the Governors and Head bemoaned the cutting of LA funding and never tried to make the case that conversion would, when additional costs were taken into account, benefit the school financially. As the Head said in March: [conversion] ‘doesn’t guarantee money’. But the Head and Governors did play the ‘freedom’ card. ‘It’s more about creating freedoms’ ’Academy status brings greater freedoms’ they said. Yet the ‘freedoms’ to employ unqualified staff, alter terms and conditions of staff, abandon the local authority admissions code or restructure the school day were unpopular with parents and staff and the Head had to clarify that, if the school converted, it would not use these ‘freedoms’. So what was the point of having them? And then a week before the Governor’s decision the risks of de regulation were illustrated when a neighbouring academy suspended its head pending an investigation into pupil registrations.(4)
It seemed the more the proposers of academy conversion tried to distance themselves from the collapse of academy chains like Prospects, the outright privatisation of services by the AET chain or the appalling performance of E-ACT academies the weaker their argument for conversion became. And the longer the campaign went on the more it became apparent that the conversion process designed by the DfE is deeply undemocratic.
The process of conversion is undemocratic: The Editor of ‘The Brighton & Hove Independent’ articulated his concerns that a decision to convert to an academy would be wrong: ‘Not because – or not just because – academies are a fundamental anti-democratic perversion of schools with a track record of serving local communities. It will be the wrong decision because of the way it has been reached: a one-way conversation, frequently conducted behind closed doors by people who appear – if only by their muteness – to be deaf and blind to the concerns of a significant proportion of parents, staff, and the wider citizenry.’(5)
This deafness and blindness was not imagined. The Chair of Governors consistently refused to meet the parents’ campaign or discuss the proposal with them. This despite the campaign collecting more than 2,000 signatures against conversion, persuading the City Council to organise a ballot of parents when refused one by the Chair of Governors – and then winning the ballot on a turnout higher than for many local elections with fewer than 160 voting to convert and more than 70% of those voting against conversion. Inside the school the story was the same: 91% of the school’s NUT members voted against conversion but were ignored forcing the NUT to call strike action against conversion, with Unison members at the school poised to ballot for action if the conversion went ahead. Meanwhile, the campaign had to fight for elections to fill vacant parent governor positions – elections in which the four candidates (of nine) who were resolutely against academy status won the highest number of votes.
Academy status is not about standards, education or vision: After the decision to convert was rejected the campaign commented ‘the Governing Body have clearly recognised that the reality of academies is that they weaken governance and accountability and offer nothing in terms of raising standards or improving the educational environment for children, parents, teachers and communities’. Even the Chair of Governors was forced to admit: ‘The vision is more important than the vehicle’.(6) And, you know, that’s why the academy programme’s obsession with governance and privatisation has never been about improving schools or a better vision of learning for our children.
Below we publish views on the campaign from a parent campaigner and from the NUT.
THE ‘HANDS OFF HOVE PARK SCHOOL STORY’: A CLEAR AND CONSISTENT MESSAGE – SAY NO TO ACADEMY STATUS
THE PARENTS’ VIEW
When parents of students at Hove Park School first heard of the plans to turn it into an academy, back in March, a couple of us contacted the Anti Academies Alliance and asked for advice. A lobby was organised outside the school gates as a governors’ meeting was taking place and people turned up – just fifteen or so at first but people nevertheless. We set up an email address, mailing list and an online petition and began discussing a need for a public meeting. A few of us met in a local park cafe and we got organised. Two weeks later we had a public meeting in a church hall. Again, people turned up – almost 170 of them – and they voted unanimously against the proposals with a show of hands.
Then in May, Brighton & Hove City Council passed a motion to oppose academies in principle and agreed to hold the parent ballot we wanted but the school was refusing to consider. Later that month we discovered that the Governing Body was missing three parent governors. Parents hadn’t been told that 50% of their representation on the board was missing. We insisted they hold elections but, as with our other correspondence, they just ignored us. So, we asked the Director of Children’s Services to step in and he did. Elections were insisted upon and the vote on academy status postponed until after the summer holidays.
Throughout the summer term, students and parents voiced their opposition in a variety of imaginative ways from protesting on the school fields to composing a protest song. July kicked off with a great turnout to a good-natured HOHPS March against the proposals through Hove (even the local police sent a message commenting on the congenial nature of the protest). This was followed by a fantastic Stand-Up comedy show and rally with Mark Steel, Shappi Khorsandi, Caroline Lucas and others in Hove Park.
Things came to a head just as the summer term was drawing to a close… On July 15, the parent ballot, organised by the local authority, in which nearly 600 families voted, returned a result of 71% in opposition to the academisation of the school. The following day the school closed because of a strike by teachers, who are overwhelmingly opposed to these proposals and later that same day three anti-academy candidates standing as parent governors were elected to the Governing Body in a landslide victory – sending yet another very clear message to the school leaders.
We were sure the governors were hoping we would forget about our rabble-rousing over the sleepy summer months but we were having none of it. In September we were straight back to it: sending out newsletters, emailing the governors, social networking, organising meetings to discuss our strategy and contacting our local press contacts who were keen to pick up the story again. Then, as we began the countdown to the governors’ vote a few things happened. Our new elected anti-academy governors attended their first meeting and spoke passionately, articulately and rationally on the behalf of the collective about why we didn’t want our school to become an academy. The editor of a respected local paper put us on the front page and wrote a comment piece supporting us and our campaign, declaring that a yes vote by the governors would be the wrong decision. Coincidently, that same week the much-lauded head of the academy down the road was suspended pending investigation into discrepancies with pupil registration numbers.
We all had a nerve-wracking weekend as Monday’s vote approached. We tried to guess the ratio of yes to no voters and conveyed our worst fears to one-another; we exchanged supportive emails and phone-calls; drank too much wine and sent the governors a firm email indicating that a ‘yes’ vote was clearly not the right decision for the students of Hove Park School and would inevitably invite yet more disruption, disaffection and uncertainty into the school community. They didn’t respond.
And then…. on Monday morning, by total surprise, a rumour emerged that Mr Trimmer, the head teacher and the driving force behind the academy proposal, was now advising the governors to vote No to academy status. We were elated but not certain if it was true. Later that afternoon, the u-turn was all over the local paper. The governors still had to vote. At 5.30pm, dozens of us turned up at the school gates to wait for the formal decision. We were joined by the press, union reps and local councillors and together we sang our song and we waited… and waited…and waited. At 8pm, the following statement appeared in our smart-phone in boxes:
Dear Parents and Carers,
The Governors have tonight unanimously decided, after a long and exhaustive consultation process, that Hove Park School will not convert to an academy. We want to thank the students, parents and carers for their passionate contribution to this debate. We also want to thank the staff and senior team for their professionalism and dedication to the school throughout this consultation. Hove Park is a dynamic and improving school. We are excited about its future and we want to build on the community engagement that we have inspired during the consultation.
Mike Nicholls, Chair of Governors
What a result –17 – 0! We had just won an incredible victory for all the children and young people at the school, for our whole community, for our city and for education. It still hasn’t sunk in.
So, throughout our campaign we have made banners, written letters, composed songs, tweeted, posted, marched, rallied, lobbied, laughed, performed, donated, banged wheelie bins and stood at the school gates night after night to ensure this conversion didn’t take place. At times it has taken over our lives but it has brought us together as a loud and strong collective voice. It has demonstrated that Hove Park has a fantastic community who clearly care about the school and the education of all children in the community, regardless of background or ability.
We hope other parents across the country involved in similar battles against the deregulation of state education will draw encouragement and hope from our campaign. We hope that people will take similar action where the public services they cherish and depend on are threatened. It’s been hard work but it’s been a lot of fun and ultimately we won – so can you.
(Sharon Duggal – Hands Off Hove Park)
THE TEACHERS’ VIEW
The unanimous decision by the governors of Hove Park School to reject academisation follows a long and hard-fought campaign in Brighton and Hove. Not only is it a vote of confidence in democratically-controlled public education but it will make any school in the area think seriously before diverting valuable time and resources into an academy consultation for which there is no appetite or desire in the community.
Only three of Brighton and Hove’s seventy schools are academies and only one of those converted under this government. The DfE has been promoting academisation and provided consultants to push the alleged benefits of conversion. The government will be fuming that local people and school staff has stood up to prevent the fragmentation of the education system.
So why was this campaign successful? Overall, because there was an effective alliance of community forces that made it politically untenable for the governing body to take the school outside the local authority umbrella. The parents immediately organised a well-attended public meeting and set up the ‘Hands Off Hove Park’ campaign, using traditional and social media, as well as stalls, social events and leafleting to hammer home the message. Students at the school also showed their disapproval independently.
The NUT group was strong and took strike action, coordinated by two determined reps. NUT and UNISON worked together throughout. The Council passed a resolution opposing schools converting to academies and agreed to hold a proper parental ballot that secured a 71% majority against conversion. Finally, in timely elections for vacant parent governor positions, all three candidates elected stood on the basis of opposition to academisation.
Governing bodies are in a powerful position. It is possible for them to ignore local feeling and concede to government pressure, claiming that becoming an academy is the norm and the only way forward. The victory at Hove Park should boost our confidence, in this pre-election period, that the democratic arguments can win out: a barrier against privatisation in the future.
Paul Shellard (Secretary, Brighton and Hove NUT)