Barrow students walk out to stop Academy plan

Submitted by martin on 6 June, 2009 - 12:04 Author: Martin Thomas
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On Monday 1 June, the first day back after half-term, hundreds of students at Parkview School in Barrow-in-Furness walked out of their school hall to stage a protest on the school sports fields.

Erin Thompson, Shona Thompson, Laura Storey and Megan Rose, the students who led the protest at Parkview School

The head teacher, who had previously licensed students expressing opposition to the school being closed to make way for an Academy, told the Year 7 to 10 students in assembly that the protest must not go ahead. But, as year 10 student Megan Rose said, "They tried to talk us down to stop us from protesting. This is determination. If we didn't come out it would have shown we had lost, but we are going to win". Phil Solloway, an anti-academies activist and father of a student at Parkview, told Solidarity: "The Year 10s had organised it all, and pulled the whole school together". Year 11 students joined them after a GCSE exam.

The head teacher decided to close the school on Tuesday morning after students said they would strike. The local North-West Evening Mail reported: "On hearing the news that the school was closed in the morning some pupils said they were planning to arrive at school at about 1pm to protest again with banners. Laura Storey, 15, said: 'We want to show we were not just doing it yesterday to get out of lessons'."

Students at Thorncliffe School, which also faces closure to be replaced by the Academy, also protested on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Mike Stephenson, a activist in the anti-academies campaign "Our Schools Are Not For Sale" (OSANFS), and father of a student at Thorncliffe, told Solidarity: "I went to Parkview on Monday. The kids' behaviour was impeccable. I'm proud of them. The best thing from this campaign will be if the children come out of it learning that if you protest, then you can make a difference. The shame is that adults are trying to stamp them down".

25 students at Thorncliffe have been suspended for four days (though the head teacher says this is for "disruptive behaviour", not for protesting). Phil Solloway says: "The head teacher at Parkview has denied that there will be any retaliation against pupils who protested, but it looks as if that may not be true". Mike Stephenson says that at the third school due to be closed, Alfred Barrow, "a few students tried to get up a petition, but the head teacher clamped down straight away".

Mike Stephenson explained some of the background to Solidarity. "We have been campaigning against the closure of the schools for 18 months now. We haven't manipulated the children in any way. We've been active as parents and grandparents.

"The action this week has come purely from the pupils themselves".

According to the local paper, "Pupils decided to organise [the] protest as they broke up for half-term on May 22 [after] they heard some of their teachers did not get jobs in the Academy".

Mike Stephenson continued: "Unfortunately, on Monday, the teachers were told to stay by the school buildings, and I didn't see any of them coming down to support the students. Our campaign had some backing from the teachers' union reps - NUT, NASUWT, and ATL - a year ago, but since then they seem to have got cold feet.

"The county council is trying to justify the closures on grounds of falling rolls, but as far as we can see the rolls are not actually falling. Three schools are due to close to be replaced by an Academy to be run on two of the existing sites, Parkview and Thorncliffe, while the third site, Alfred Barrow, will be shut completely. New buildings are promised, but not until three years' time.

"Why fewer teachers, if there are the same number of students? And especially when the new Academy, according to the plans, will be very heavy on management jobs?

"Despite the fact that the Academy is supposed to be about raising standards for the students who most need help, it looks as if many of the students from Alfred Barrow, which serves quite deprived areas and has 50% of its student with "special educational needs", won't necessarily get into the Academy. The admissions criteria for the Academy are to be regulated by proximity to the nearest available alternative school, which means that many of the students from Alfred Barrow will have to go to Walney School, on Walney Island, which is scheduled to have its numbers rise from 600 to 900.

"Our campaign has ran candidates in several wards in the County Council elections on 4 June. I'm disappointed that I didn't win in my ward [Mike Stephenson got 724 votes in Hawcoat, beaten by a Tory with 899], but after all, we're only a group of mums and dads, running against the big parties. Lisa Hammond won in Parkside, the ward covering Parkview School.

"Another independent has been elected, separately from our campaign, who is against the Academy, and the Socialist People's Party [a local left party] won Ormsgill, the ward covering Thorncliffe School.

"Labour and Conservatives are both for the Academy. [From October 2008, and up to 4 June, Labour was running a minority administration in Cumbria County Council, but for most of the last eight years there has been a Lib Dem-Tory coalition. After 4 June, the Tories are the biggest party, but without a majority].

"The Lib-Dems were for the Academy, but now one of them is against. If you add up the votes for all the anti-Academy candidates, it's about 6000.

"Four of us were elected to the borough council last year. There is a group of about a dozen of us, who meet weekly. We ran a petition, and collected six thousand signatures on the streets, up to Christmas 2007. We've lobbied councillors, and we're supporting a legel challenge in the High Court on the grounds that the sponsorship for the Academy should have been tendered for rather than done by invitation.

"At first it looked like a business would be running the new Academy, which I was very opposed to. BAE is still putting in £400,000, as far as we know, but is not formally a sponsor (and Cumbria County Council is putting in £1 million to make up for the withdrawal of commercial sponsors). The sponsors are the Sixth Form College, Furness College, and the University of Cumbria. But they are run as businesses, too. We believe that some Year 11 courses will be moved to Furness College or the Sixth Form College.

"Our local MP is John Hutton [former Defence Minister, who announced on 5 June that he was quitting the Government and would quit as an MP at the next election]. He doesn't take too kindly to us.

"He thinks we're naive. But we can see that maybe we will have to have an Academy of some sort. So we have asked him to support delay so we can get a better scheme. [OSAFNS has suggested a scheme for a "collegiate" Academy, keeping the three schools as "colleges" on their existing sites under an umbrella Academy administration].

"John Hutton hasn't committed himself either way. He's very much one for cosying up to the City and the rich.

"I'm not a big political person myself. But if anything good can come of the present crisis, I'd like to see Labour go back more to the grass roots, to working-class people, to what the unions stand for.

"Otherwise you can get people like the BNP. They stood in my ward in the County Council elections, saying that they were concerned about the 'Islamification of Hawcoat'. They're stirring up trouble where it doesn't exist".

Phil Solloway spoke to Solidarity about the experience on the borough council of the independent councillors elected on the anti-academies ticket. "We don't really have a lot of politics in common apart from the Academy issue. Our group included people who had been staunch Labour or staunch Lib-Dem supporters, but they weren't bothered about our decision to run for the borough council [in May 2008].

"We were bothered that people might come to see us as a political group, rather than a campaign. But getting elected to the borough council has raised our profile a bit. We've tried to talk to the councillors of other parties, and often find they agree in private, but then toe the party line when it comes to a vote. They don't seem to be under any pressure from their ordinary party members or supporters.

"We knew that the only issue we can definitely agree on is the Academy. When other issues come up on the council - we all live in the wards we represent, we pretty much know what local people think, so we take the issues at face value and vote independently.

"On the council budget, for example, the only party that had a proper costed budget was the Conservatives. It looked sensible, and we didn't see any proper alternative from Labour or the Socialist People's Party, so we voted for it.

"We've done newsletters and flyer drops, but usually we don't get a huge amount of people to meetings. Our biggest problem is apathy. But the County Council campaign went well. We obliterated the Labour vote and, over the six wards where we stood, were only a few hundred votes behind the Conservatives. There was a problem of the anti-Academy vote being split with the Socialist People's Party, but everyone is entitled to stand if they want to".

Mike Stephenson also gave his view on the council experience. "We realise that in the long term you have to have an opinion all across the board, on the whole range of issues. On the borough council, we've just taken each issue as it comes and tried to reflect the views of our constituents.

"The Socialist People's Party were upset because we voted with the Tories on the council budget, but then the Tories see us as allied to the Socialist People's Party. We don't necessarily align ourselves with any party.

"I wouldn't say we are a socialist group. Jim Hamezeian of the Socialist People's Party was involved in setting up OSANFS, but when we decided to run for the council we went our separate ways. Apart from that there hasn't been anyone involved in the campaign with any strong political-party background.

"Getting elected to the borough council made people think we were serious. It served us well, and gave us more profile, including in the media. It's around then that we got the Academy proposal modified to two sites, rather than just one.

"Now we have a member in the County Council, we will work to lobby others in the council, and to unite all the strands of opposition to the Academy - students, teachers, parents".

Jim Hamezein is the leader of the Socialist People's Party. He spoke to Solidarity about the SPP's view on the Academy campaign and the background and perspectives of the SPP.

"The anti-Academy campaign started soon after Cumbria County Council decide to put forward a proposal to close down three schools in Barrow and replace them by an Academy.

"They said they would consult people extensively, but the consultation was a whitewash. The people of Barrow do not want the Academy. Academies are run by privated sponsors. We've seen the experience with other Academies, where parents, teachers, and students have lost rights to the power of the private sponsors.

"The £40 million public money promised for the Academy should be used to restore, repair, and maintain the existing schools.

"We helped to organise the Furness-wide petition against the Academy in late 2007. But the County Council took no notice. It was very undemocratic.

"As the Socialist People's Party we have lots of issues to campaign on: home repossessions, unemployment, a host of issues about how the County Council is spending its money. The Academy is just one of those issues.

"Unfortunately we haven't been able to work together with the anti-Academy independents in the borough council. We put forward an alternative budget to reduce the salaries, expenses, and car allowances for the council's senior officers and cut the council tax. We feel that in a time like this the council should give a lead. We got no backing from the anti-Academy councillors. It seems to me they've become a middle-class type of campaign grouping.

"I was a member of the Labour Party for many years. In 1993 I recruited a lot of people to my ward in Ormsgill, and we had been campaigning against the poll tax. I stood for the council and was elected, but soon the borough council [then Labour-controlled] dramatically cut many services. Four of us voted against the Labour whip on those cuts. The Labour Party suspended the four councillors from the party and then expelled us, and suspended the whole Ormsgill ward. John Hutton was one of those who instigated our expulsion.

"That was in 1995, and we have been going ever since. We still have four councillors.

"Our party operates only in Barrow-in-Furness. At the peak we had over 120 members. The active core now is about 20. We have monthly meetings, and we're campaigning, for example, on local hospital services.

"We did have contact with the Socialist Alliance in 2001-4. We went to some meetings, but we really haven't had enough time to take things further.

"We are for nationalisation of the public assets and we want NHS services to be expanded. The NHS is being starved of resources while fantastic amounts of money are being put into the banks. Now public transport is being put beyond the reach of ordinary people - not many people can afford to use the railways.

"The capitalist system is collapsing around us. It hasn't worked.

"Because we were much more vocal in supporting working-class people, a lot of people in the Labour Party who were on career ladders turned against us. The Labour Party, whether locally or nationally, now just competes with the Tories to see which of them can run the rotten capitalist system. The Labour Party has lost its way. New Labour is completely divorced from its core constituency.

"There are no active Labour Party members here any more. They hardly meet. It's pretty wishy-washy. I can't see much hope for them. Hopefully we'll be the people to fill the gap. We feel there should be a big socialist alliance nationwide to combat the Tories".

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