West Heath Primary parent victory against forced academy

Governors, Headteachers, and above all the new administration at Birmingham City Council take note – West Heath parents have shown there is everything to fight for.

On 26th September West Heath parents learned that they had won their campaign against forced academy. Sadly the Headteacher and Governors fell at the first post, caving in to pressure from the DfE, but parents simply refused to accept what was being imposed upon them and stood up to Gove. Congratulations to Edna Dawson and all the parents who have campaigned long and hard for their school.

Parents had been campaigning to save their community school since May 2012, but the good news came when they were least expecting it. The fortnight leading up to their victory had been a rollercoaster of emotions for parents.  On 13th September they were informed by  their Councillor Brett O’Reilly that the Head Teacher and Chair of Governors had told him that an academy order had been signed almost a year before and that this was irreversible.  Parents felt betrayed, were despondent,  and thought the battle was lost. But unanswered questions kept hope alive, how could an academy order have been signed without a sponsor in place? Was this even legally possible? When supporters raised the issue at a local Ward Committee meeting, they were told that in fact no academy order had been signed – parents were jubilant – there was everything to fight for.  They went along to the parents’ meeting at school the following afternoon with  many questions, prepared to argue their case once again. But to everyone’s surprise a Local Authority officer began by announcing to the meeting that because of improved SATS results the Local Authority had decided that the school would not be forced to convert. The parents had won!

There followed a lot of speculation as to why the officer said that the Local Authority had made the decision when everyone knew that it was not their decision to make, but on 28th September Councillor Brigid Jones confirmed in a meeting with Ask Parents First representatives that it had in fact been the DfE’s decision. Why the Headteacher and Chair of Governors stated to Councillor Brett O’Reilly that an irreversible academy order had been signed still remains a mystery.

Improved SATS results are to be celebrated, but we already knew that West Heath was an improving school. OFSTED have been telling us so in a series of reports and monitoring visits since 2006. In January 2012 OFSTED confirmed that West Heath was meeting the Government’s floor standards and said;

The school’s aims and expectations are epitomised in its motto, ‘Believe, Achieve and Succeed’. The headteacher and deputy headteacher have steered the school carefully over the last three years in a bid to drive up standards, and they have been particularly successful in mathematics. Standards have been more difficult to raise in English. Nevertheless, leaders at all levels are developing their management skills and supporting staff closely to help them become more effective practitioners. This, along with senior leaders’ rigorous monitoring procedures, ensures that there is equality of opportunity for pupils and the school is closing the gap in attainment. The school has helped a number of pupils whose circumstances make them more vulnerable to achieve success.

Schools have been targeted for forced academy conversion based on old data from 2010 or even 2009, with no regard whatsoever for subsequent improved SATS results or for the findings of OFSTED. Citing improved SATS results is merely a way for the DfE to save face. The same reason was given when Gove backed down when Coventry City Council sought permission for judicial review over attempts to force academy on Henley Green Primary.

West Heath parents were fortunate in having a raft of support that included their MP Richard Burden, their local Councillor Brett O’Reilly, The Alliance Against Birmingham Academies, and critical on-the-ground campaigning support from the local anti-cuts party Communities Against The Cuts. But in truth the parents of West Heath Primary were fortunate in having the opportunity to campaign at all. They were not informed by the school about the threat of forced academy, but were alerted to it at a public meeting  organised by Ask Parents First and the NUT on 10th May 2012. The Headteacher’s hand was forced and he wrote to parents the next day offering to hold a meeting after the Whitsun break.

Many, many other school communities are even now unaware of what lies in store for them. A recent Local Authority Fortnightly Academy Summary Sheet shows that 63 Primary Schools are in the process of converting. With the 19 that have already converted this represents a total of 27% of Primary Schools in Birmingham. The vast majority of these are being forced to convert and will have been acting in total secrecy from parents and the community. Only the DfE and the Local Authority know in advance which schools are being targeted for forced academy conversion, but this information is deemed confidential until the deal has been done. 34 schools in the process of converting are named, but 29 schools are unnamed because they are still negotiating with sponsors and the DfE. This is explained in the documents as follows;

There is a list of other Primary schools that may go forward for conversion in the near future but these are still confidential.  The number of schools has still been included to give the full picture of the number of schools involved.

As the forced academy process nears completion schools lift the veil of secrecy and make announcements to parents. A recent example is Mansfield Green Primary, but a flood of similar announcements can be expected over the coming weeks.

If the new administration in Birmingham is serious about its new offer to schools, then it must act now to protect these 63 school communities. It is not too late to save them – they are not academies until the funding agreement is signed. Each school represents hundreds of real lives, real people, parents and children – citizens of Birmingham whose rights have been ignored, who have been denied a stake in their own futures, whose fate has been decided for them behind closed doors. They must not be written off.

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