By Douglas Johnson
Joint area panel meeting debates Parkwood School’s bid to become an Academy
It was an unusual area panel meeting in several ways. First of all, it was a joint meeting with Southey & Owlerton area panel. This was because of the single-item agenda: the debate whether Parkwood School should become an Academy. It meant that there was a large panel of 9 speakers and also – not least – the meeting kept strictly to time.
The timing of the meeting – Thursday 2nd October 2008 – was arranged to coincide with the ballot of parents of pupils at Parkwood School and its 3 feeder schools, which closes on 22nd October. Parents of children at these schools have been sent formal ballot papers to vote “yes” or “no” to the question, “should Parkwood become an Academy?”
Local people in the driving seat
After a brief introduction by Councillor Alan Law of the Southey / Owlerton Panel, Councillor Jackie Drayton introduced the rest of the panel. The audience had been invited to submit written questions but those who were to speak were implored not to make long speeches as so often happens in community meetings.
Councillor Andrew Sangar spoke first, cautiously reiterating the Lib-Dems commitment to “put local people in the driving seat for changes in the local area.” He said the ballot of parents was their delivery of this commitment and that “whatever way people vote, they have my support.” He gave a commitment to work tirelessly for the school and its rebuilding whether the vote was “yes” or “no”.
Greater control over admissions
Education officer Peter Mucklow then spoke in favour of Academy status, pointing to the low levels of attainment in the area and the need for “expertise from outside.” The school’s “greater control over admissions and curriculum” would be a “significant change”
Paul Holmes MP spoke passionately and articulately against Academies. His background as a teacher at a Derbyshire comprehensive for many years had led him, as an MP, to be appointed to the House of Commons Education Select Committee. He explained counter-arguments to each of the main reasons for promoting academies: the promise of a new school building only if they became an academy is an artificial barrier created by Government that could be changed if they wanted; the £15million offered for rebuilding is going to be “on the cheap” compared with the £25 million provided to Academies originally; the “freedom to innovate” is a sham, as councils no longer have power to micro-manage schools anyway; the promoters of academies have no experience of providing education. He went on to talk of the “used car salesman” behind Academies in the North-East where the religious doctrine of creationism is taught in his Academies.
Chris Mallaband, Parkwood’s headteacher spoke of his motivation and how he believes the best next step is to continue with Edutrust. He wanted to put distance between Edutrust and the shadier organisations Paul Holmes had referred to, saying Parkwood School is a “great place to be” and that he wouldn’t want to be Principal of an Academy “if its values were going to change.”
Viv Lockwood, for many years a teacher, then spoke as the representative of the local anti-academies campaign. He said Edutrust were property developers, bankers and conservative party donors and questioned their experience of education: “schools are not businesses,” he said. The most significant question for him was about the much-quoted “partnership”. Noting that Edutrust has some fabulously wealthy people who might well be able to contribute something, he asked, could they not just do that? Why do they have to own the school?
“Good and strong relationship”
Further speakers from the floor followed: the Governors had a “good and strong relationship with Edutrust,” said their Chair, Claire Holden. Parent and critic of the Academy proposal, Mick Ibbotson asked how simply converting Parkwood into an Academy could deliver the “magical improvements” that were promised. Chris Mallaband replied, saying that some things won’t change. He cited the school’s radical and successful approach to the Year 7 curriculum. But Paul Holmes showed that Edutrust had been vague about their plans and had “no answers” to the key questions. “There is no way back,” he warned.
One parent from Fir Vale asked why they didn’t get a vote when Fir Vale was oversubscribed so they might well have to send their child to Parkwood. Another asked what guarantees there were for children excluded in the past. Chris Mallaband replied by saying he was proud that Parkwood had reduced exclusions greatly, thanks in part to their “turnstile” project.
The debate took a more sinister turn when Mick Ibbotson’s daughter, Holly, a pupil at the school, complained of hostile treatment by 2 other pupils, both children of Governors. But another parent, who also works at the school, said it “works both ways” and mentioned her mother being bombarded by anti-academy campaigners and their leaflets.
“Break-up of the comprehensive system”
Ben Morris, of the Nation Union to Teachers executive, described Academies as the “break-up of the comprehensive system” and argued that those who lose out are always those families on council estates.
A number of other questions and points were made with the Chair needing to remind people several times of the Area Panel’s ground rules on respect for other speakers.
As the meeting neared the end, Peter Horton – the director of Academies at the DCFS (Department for Children, Families and Schools) gave some statistics that showed Academies are close to the national average figures for children with Free School meals (FSM) and Special Educational Needs (SEN). His aim of allaying fears that Academies would dump more needy children to raise attainment was countered by Paul Holmes who pointed out that most Academies are in deprived areas. If Academies reflect the population of those areas, they should have figures significantly above the national average for FSM and SEN. Accepting this point as a challenge, Chris Mallaband referred to his disappointment at the loss of 100 children in the catchment area who went to other schools. “who are the most mobile people in the catchment?” he asked, indicating his hoped they would be attracted back to an Academy and would go on to become high-status professionals from Parkwood.
But who was all this intense and well-regulated debate really for. One of the 60 people in the room had asked how may were parents of children at Parkwood or its feeder school – those who had a vote? The answer was: five.