Greenwich mean time: When Hawksmoor School decided to opt out, bitterness was unconfined. Sandra Barwick reports

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It was the day before April Fools' day. Lynn Tomlinson, parent and primary worker at Hawksmoor School in South East London, was relaxing at last. Finally, she thought, the struggle to save the school from closure, with all its bitterness, was over. Now her children, Kim, eight, and Martin, 11, could feel secure, and so could she.

The next day the school was due to opt out from the control of Greenwich Council. Then a friend came running over in the street where she lives, opposite the school. 'She said 'Look] A load of lorries have come outside the school gates]' ' says Lynn Tomlinson. 'We ended up standing at the gate with a band of kids to stop them from taking the computers away, and the musical instruments.'

The lorries were from Greenwich Council, sent to Hawksmoor School to take back school equipment it claimed on the eve of the school's escape from council control. The headmaster, Paul Adams, locked all the entrances. An argument ensued. At last one van was allowed in. It left carrying away a piano, a computer, and the toys and teaching aids of the playschool, run by the council's leisure services, set up so that working parents could collect their children after hours. 'It just seemed so petty,' says Lynn Tomlinson. 'It's not fair on the kids. I'm a Labour supporter, a lot of parents are. This should have been nothing to do with politics.' To the parents who had voted for the school to opt out in order to prevent its closure this was only one in a series of council actions which seemed like a campaign to punish them. The council utterly denies it. It is, Labour-controlled Greenwich believes, absolutely the opposite case: of the Conservative government behaving in an utterly unreasonable and unjust manner to the council.

In the story of Hawksmoor School accusations of political expediency have been made by both sides. What is clear is that children were caught in the consequences. Eight of the 11 teachers at the school opposed the opt out. The struggle made the atmosphere in the school at times tense. That tension spilled out into the playground, where parents waiting for the children split into two groups, and even into the homes on the modern, isolated estates of Thamesmead. 'My daughter started crying every night saying 'Please don't take me out]' 'says June Gibson, a helper with three children at the school. 'But my six-year-old son wanted to leave to be with his teacher who was resigning. There was friction in the house.'

The friction had begun more than two years ago. Greenwich Council, under pressure from the district auditor and the Department of Education to reduce spare school places, had identified Thamesmead for a closure. The number of children in the area had dropped; it had five primary schools with 565 spare primary places.

Which primary school should shut? Many parents were sure the council had already made up its mind. Hawksmoor is housed in cheap Sixties style buildings with flat roofs. Its nearest neighbour, Linton Mead, is brick built. But the parents at Hawksmoor thought that a school's identity was more than its buildings.

Grant-maintained status seemed Hawksmoor's best hope for survival. Before Greenwich ruled that it must close, the parents began to try to opt it out. It was the first school in Greenwich to do so. Two thirds of the 30 authorities in England which are direct-grant-free zones are Labour controlled. The battle for Hawskmoor was always likely to be fierce. The teachers who opposed opting out began leafleting parents' homes. 'The pressure was very unfair,' says June Gibson. 'When you work with people you have to be loyal to them, but you also have to do what you think is right.' Some parents opposed the idea, fearing that opting out meant Hawksmoor would become a kind of private school, and they would therefore have to start paying for books and pencils. But the ballot was won by a small majority, and John Patten approved Hawksmoor's new status on the grounds that it was a 'viable' school.

Greenwich Council was appalled. 'From our point of view,' said a spokesman, 'it's a complete waste of time trying to follow government proposals on spare places if the Government simply lets schools we decide to close opt out.' The council made their feelings clear. All the Hawksmoor teachers opposed to opting out resigned. Greenwich redeployed all eight, at least in the short term, to the rival primary school down the road, from which they sent a letter to Hawksmoor parents suggesting they should move their children.

The head of the council's education committee, Dave Picton, was quoted as saying: 'I would be very happy if Hawksmoor failed, with the parents voting with their feet.' Paul Adams faced his first term as head of the newly opted-out school with three-quarters of his staff gone, along with around 24 children, the play school shut, the piano missing and no school meals, since the council had refused to let him buy back in either to the council's catering service or their special needs teaching. 'I think what's happened there has been disgusting,' says Mary Hughes, another Hawksmoor parent who voted to opt out. 'The council has been giving Hawksmoor hell.' Mr Adams felt as though attacks were coming in waves. Beside the vans, and the letter, the Environmental Health Officer was sent in to search the place for dangerous asbestos.

But the school came through. The head and governors are in direct control of tax payers' money allocated to the school. New teachers were recruited with the new pounds 620,000 school budget, enlarged because 18 per cent is no longer held back by the council for administrative and other services. 'We still have to buy personnel administration, accountancy and meals, but we're still better off,' says Mr Adams. 'It's been an eye-opener.'

The school, with around 230 children, wants to use its new flexibility to respond to local needs. They plan to buy more music teaching. It is important, in a relatively deprived area, thinks Mr Adams, that children should find subjects at which they succeed.

Thamesmead, built on reclaimed marshes, is surrounded by canals and the Thames itself. Tracey Quinn, parent and school governor, is specially pleased that the younger children are now being given more many more potentially life-saving swimming lessons. Before there was very limited special needs teaching. Now they have hired a full-time teacher. A programme of repairs on the school fabric, unpainted for 20 years, is planned.

'It's made us discover there's a whole world out there of people offering services in a more effective manner,' says Mr Adams. 'This was a Conservative policy, and the council seem to be against us because of that. It's sad, because this is about children, and children's education. All it is is local management of schools.'

Outside Hawksmoor playground the controversy goes on. Greenwich Head Teacher's Association has written to John Patten to denounce his decision. The Grant Maintained Schools Foundation, headed by Sir Robert Balchin, has condemned Greenwich Council's actions. 'The local authority has behaved disgracefully in putting pressure on parents and children in this way,' he says.

The struggle is not over. Hawksmoor is, for the moment, saved. But Greenwich Council say they are so disillusioned by the Government's action that they have no plans to close any other schools in the area. Those 560 expensive spare places, wasting pounds 160,000 a year, are intact. It will be parent power, voting with children's feet, which decides which schools will lose their remaining pupils and close. There are certain to be bitter battles still ahead for the children of Thamesmead.

(Photographs omitted)

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