10 Jan 2012

Primary schools vs Gove: the battle over academies

As four primary schools launch a legal challenge against Michael Gove for “forcing” them to accept academy status, Channel 4 News speaks to the parents battling to save their school.

As part of its growing campaign to take control of its future, Downhills Primary School hosted a meeting of over 400 people this week, who all came to listen to speeches from Labour MP David Lammy and the head of the NUT among others.

A fairly big deal for this small corner of Tottenham – and a measure of how strongly parents, teachers, and members of the community are opposed to proposals coming directly from Michael Gove.

The education secretary has given Downhills Primary until the end of January to accept academy status, threatening to remove the board of governors if it refuses.

In a speech last week, Mr Gove said that those opposed to academies are “ideologues happy with failure”. He singled out Haringey for being “obstructive” adding that the community is asking him “not to challenge the leadership of the lowest performing schools”.

Haringey schools battle against academy status

“It’s the bigoted backward bankrupt ideology of a leftwing establishment that perpetuates division and denies opportunity. And it’s an ideology that’s been proven wrong time and time again.”

Mr Gove wants to transform 200 of the country’s worst performing primary schools into academies, including Downhills and other Haringey primaries.

It’s the bigoted backward bankrupt ideology of a leftwing establishment that perpetuates division and denies opportunity. And it’s an ideology that’s been proven wrong time and time again. Michael Gove

However the schools are fighting back, and if successful, could halt the fast progression of the education secretary’s academy programme, in which failing schools are sponsored by private companies, but are funded directly from the government.

Downhills was given “notice to improve” by Ofsted in its report next year. But teachers – and parents – say the school has improved since then, and that no decision should be taken until Ofsted revisits the school over the next few months.

The school claims that Mr Gove has acted unlawfully by trying to force the school into becoming an academy, and contests the timing of the decision – made before the next Ofsted inspection. In total, four schools in the area, all in similar situations, are opposing the might of the education secretary and will launch a judicial review if they don’t have a response by Januray 19.

Read more: Do academy schools perform better? Factcheck investigates

Downhills: an ‘easy target’

Many of those involved are angry about the principle of academies in general; others are angry about the way the model is being forced onto a school that so clearly rejects it. But many of Downhill Primary’s parents feel the school is being victimised.

Downhills serves a largely socially disadvantaged community and with 40 different languages spoken at the school, it is very much ethnically mixed. The school community feels these things should be taken into consideration when looking its achievements.

Eva Atkins, whose child is at reception at Downhills, told Channel 4 News that the department of education is trying to “take advantage.”

“We’re not being given a chance to have a second go at the Ofsted,” she said. “It’s being forced on a weak school, in a weak area…They’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re in a disadvantaged community – not rich enough, not clever enough, not middle-class enough.”

This is what has particularly enraged members of the local community, said Allan Beavis from the Local Schools Network. He told Channel 4 News that the government sees Downhills as “an easy target”.

“People are extremely angry about the fact that the government has chosen this school to bully. But also at the fact that the school which is targeted as failing, receives £1,500 less per pupil that in neighbouring boroughs, like Hackney. Schools need resources if they’re going to improve.”

A battle of ideologues

The debate surrounding the status of Downhills has stoked the fire in the wider debate about academies and has attracted the support of those opposed to the principle, believing that academies allow private companies too much control over schools. The school model was first introduced by Labour as a means for underperforming schools get support, and has been embraced by the coalition government, which has created over 1,000 since it has been in power, compared to the 200 that existed in May 2010, and believes that academies help to improve standards.

Speaking at the Downhills campaign meeting, general secretary of the NUT, Christine Blower said that there is a “democratic deficit” in the government’s creation of academies and that it is an “ideological” programme.

Gove has given power to parents to open free schools, but not to parents in schools that already exist. Hazel Gould, Downhills parent

A lot of schools become academies, she said “with their arms up their backs because they thought they’d get more money this year. But the fact is, that so called more money is simply taking money from other schools in their local area.”

Channel 4 News reported in November that Lincolnshire County Council has advised all of its schools to apply for academy status.

But for Hazel Gould, whose son is at Downhills nursery, it is about parental choice. “[Gove] has given power to parents to open free schools, but not to parents in schools that already exist,” she told Channel 4 News. “We chose the school because we like the way it’s run – the management attitude of school, creative. What Downhills does really well, is make children with no experience of formal education, feel safe and welcome.”

Since its damning inspection last year, the school has hired new staff and says it has made other crucial changes. “But schools don’t change overnight. We don’t see how changing to academy status will improve it.”