By Mathew Bailey
Parents, teachers and students of Northcliffe School, serving Conisbrough and Denaby near Doncaster, have recently stopped their school from being turned into an academy run by a religious organisation, the Emmanuel Schools Foundation (ESF). This is the first time proposals for an academy have been overturned. It is, as the Yorkshire Post put it, a “huge blow to Blair”.
New Labour’s academies are a way of bringing the market into education. Only 12 currently exist but the Government wants 200.
Academies are directly funded by central government with private sponsors running the schools. The sponsor puts in 10% of the capital cost of building a new school, invariably in place of a school deemed to be “failing” by Ofsted and at roughly twice the cost (in excess of £20 million, compared to about £10 million for a new maintained school).
All local democratic control goes — sponsors get control of hiring and firing staff, the ethos of the school, and even the curriculum.
Academies have specialisms — nearly always a business specialism.
Academies are not bound by union-negotiated pay and conditions. They have changed working times and pay of new staff.
Staff transferring from the old public employer are supposed to be protected by European Union regulations (TUPE), but this is no guarantee if there is a staff reorganisation — which there usually is. Staff employed by contractors (catering, cleaning, some learning support assistants) are not protected by TUPE. And these low paid workers are often the first to lose their jobs in the transfer.
Academies are not bound by same restrictions on exclusions as state schools. The King’s Academy in Middlesborough (ESF’s only other academy) excluded 28 students in the first few months of opening — an exclusion rate that is ten times the national average! These students are often the most vulnerable and challenging. Academies do not suffer the financial penalties of getting rid of “less desirable” students. Excluding 28 students would cost a maintained school over £100,000 in fines.
Academies can select up to 10% of their intake by aptitude. Academies will thus skew their intake and become something very different to true community schools.
The Emmanuel Schools Foundation was set up by evangelical Christian Sir Peter Vardy ,of Vardy Cars. In Vardy’s schools the fundamentalist religious ethos rules: Harry Potter has been banned from libraries (it’s satanic), and students have their own bibles stored in their form room. “Fire and brimstone” school assemblies are apparently justified as a way of warning children about the dangers they face in life — “saving your soul” is similar to crossing the road.
Then there is a 1950s regime: the denier of girls’ tights is specified, there is no hair gel and no hair colouring, hair must not touch the collar, long hair on girls must be tied back, there will be no jewellery and no make up, you will suffer a brutal discipline system (permanent exclusion for being caught smoking a second time).
But the big deal about a Vardy school is the Biblical literalism. This perversion of education (described as “educational debauchery” by Richard Dawkins) includes: teaching creationism as equally valid as evolutionism in “science” lessons and the proposition that God intervened to stop the Nazis from invading England in World War Two. And of course they’re opposed to homosexuality, sex outside marriage, abortion, divorce etc.
Blair opened the King’s academy, unveiling a plaque that read “fear of the lord is the beginning of wisdom”. Blair has defended the teaching of creationism at King’s.
The Foundation wants a chain of academies in white working class areas in the North, with a “strong Christian ethos”.
The campaign to stop Vardy was successful for a number of reasons.
We involved all the unions (NUT, NASUWT, UNISON, GMB), and a mix of teaching and non-teaching staff.
We linked up with an active parents’ group who organised three public meetings in different areas of the community under the slogan “They took your pits, they took your jobs, don’t let them take your school”. These meetings attracted 200 people each.
We challenged the apathy of local councillors. The chair of the campaign stood in local elections as an independent against the academy proposal. She gained over 6% and beat the Tory candidate.
Our campaign got lots of media coverage: local press and TV, national radio and national newspapers.
The students played an active part of the campaign — speaking in meetings, making banners and placards, organising debates in school.
The primary concern of the campaign was anti-privatisation with secularism secondary A focus solely on the fundamentalist sponsor would have allowed the Local Education Authority to undercut our arguments and find a less Christian sponsor.
Many of the campaigners learned their political lessons in the miners’ strike — Conisbrough is an ex-pit village, now third generation unemployed, but with plenty of spirit. Consequently trade union and socialist experience helped guide the strategy of the campaign from the start.
The campaign meeting on the night of the announcement that the plans had been withdrawn agreed to continue by linking up with other anti PFI campaigns, and to help organise opposition elsewhere in the country to academies.