Over the past year scores of Primary Schools in Brimingham, all situated in economically deprived areas, have come under intense pressure to convert to sponsored academy status as part of Michael Gove’s drive to expand the number of academies. This pressure, which has been described by MP Richard Burden as bullying, has typically been applied by the combined efforts of a DfE official accompanied by a Local Authority officer. But in May a Labour administration took office, and in July the new cabinet member for Children and Families, Brigid Jones, gave hope to this campaign and to school communities across the city in a letter to Headteachers that outlined a new vision for a co-operative model for the city’s schools. Crucially the model would include as one of its fundamental principles that no school should be forced to convert – the option to stay with current arrangements would be there for all. In a meeting with Ask Parents First representatives in September Brigid Jones reitterated this point, telling us that Local Authority officers were no longer involved in instructing schools to become academies. But reports of Local Authority officers applying pressure alongside the DfE to convert to academy have never-the-less continued.
A Mansfield Green parent has described how an LA Officer prevented a balanced presentation to parents at an academy consultation meeting.
The process of being forced to become an academy results in an insidious culture of absolute secrecy and so Mansfield Green parents, like other school communities, have until recently been unaware of the threat to their community school that has probably been building behind the scenes since January of this year or earlier. The Headteacher, Linda Howell, and Governors have negotiated with sponsors, applied for and received an academy order, all without a word being breathed to the parents or the pupils, the community to which their school actually belongs. No doubt like others they felt intimidated and believed that they had no choice. Only the funding agreement between the DfE and the chosen sponsor remains to be signed, but before this can happen a consultation must appear to have taken place, so a letter was sent to parents. The Letter to parents suggests that the school is making a rational choice of its own free-will and would like to consult with parents. But the following account of the subsequent meeting on 2nd October by parent Gargi Bhattacharyya reveals the truth, as well as the strong influence of the LA Officer and an apparent ignoring of new Council policy;
The meeting was very dispiriting – and designed to intimidate families into compliance. Also the LA officer (Karen Davis) prompted the head teacher and also spoke strongly in favour of academy transfer – so still strong interference from the full-time officer. And [Mrs] Howell told me to forget what Brigid Jones has said – that West Heath could show sustained improvement and Mansfield Green can’t yet – and that she was sent a letter meaning that they had no choice. Academy order has been signed – but don’t know about financial agreement yet.
Head teacher and GB are saying that they had no choice at all – and that whatever is said, we have been in effect ‘forced’. Still disquiet among families, but process designed to make people feel disempowered. We will try to push our councillors and MP and get a meeting of families together.
Karen Davis’ role [was] very uncomfortable and meant that there was no balance at all in the presentation and [there was] no mention of the future plans of the LEA.
APF is also aware that a Local Authority Officer visited Foundry Primary School in September to tell Governors that they had to convert to academy.
So what is going on here? Are Local Authority Officers ignoring Council policy and just doing their own thing? We have emailed Brigid Jones to express our concerns.
Support the Mansfield Green parents campaign
Mansfield Green parents are mobilising a campaign to save their school from forced conversion. Watch this space for further updates. If you are a member of the Mansfield Green school community and would like to be put in touch with other concerned parents from the school or can offer support please contact us.