Tea with Tony

What made the Prime Minister pay a visit to a family at home. Steve McCormack finds out
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The Independent Online

Despite this hectic schedule, however, the Prime Minister found time to drive through the London traffic for a cup of tea and a chat with a south-east London couple and some of their friends. He was accompanied on this photo opportunity by the Education Secretary, Ruth Kelly.

Imagine the scene. A convoy of black limousines snakes its way through the tight-knit streets, and pulls up outside an undistinguished terraced house in East Dulwich, home to George Leahy and Ann Jones and their two children. What was it all about? Apart from the fact that Blair wanted some nice pictures to mark the launch of the White Paper, Leahy and Jones are central figures in a long-running and still unresolved campaign to increase the number of secondary school places in this corner of London.

Will the White Paper provide the answer to their dreams? For five years, Leahy and Jones and hundreds of other concerned parents have been in a tussle with their local education authority in a vain attempt to persuade them to provide a new, mixed comprehensive in the area. Something about their story struck a chord with the PM, because it embodied just the predicament that his parent-power reforms are designed to address. As he strode down the garden path, Blair was publicly identifying himself with this family and others in similar situations.

To understand why, we need to go back to 2000, when Leahy and Jones's daughter, Mirain, was in her last year at primary school. Mirain's parents wanted her to attend the recently opened Charter School, a popular comprehensive about a mile away, which is by some distance the closest mixed school to their house. They hoped their son would follow in Mirain's footsteps later.

To their dismay, however, they discovered that Mirain had no realistic chance. The school was already full, the places reserved for children living far nearer. Mirain was 219th on the waiting list. After talking to other parents, Leahy and Jones realised that they weren't alone. There was widespread unhappiness with the paucity of local secondary school choice, illustrated by the fact that the 90 or so children leaving Mirain's school that year ended up going to 28 different secondary schools, spread far and wide. That led to the birth of a parents' pressure group, the East Dulwich and Nunhead Education Network (EDEN), the aim of which was to force the LEA, an arm of Southwark Council, to provide a mixed, local secondary school.

It quickly became obvious, however, that there was no vacant land available to build on. The group suggested to the council that a solution lay in converting Waverley Girls School, which occupied two separate sites between East Dulwich and Nunhead, into a bigger, mixed school.

At that time, Waverley was an under-subscribed, academically struggling school, with an intake of girls from historically low-achieving families some distance away, in the north of the borough. The EDEN activists, many of whose children were doing well at primary school, argued that Waverley could benefit from a larger, mixed intake. "We said Waverley would have a really strong and engaged group of parents who would make the school work," explains Leahy.

But the governing body of Waverley was opposed. So the EDEN group looked to the LEAand were quickly disappointed by the way that their concerns were handled by local politicians and officials in the education department. "It was absolutely maddening that no one at Southwark seemed to take control," recalls Leahy. "We had to make all the running ourselves."

The first big setback came when, after a lengthy inquiry, a key committee at Southwark Council appeared on the verge of recommending that the Waverley School should open its doors to boys. At the last minute, however, the recommendation was vetoed by the committee chairman. Another year passed and the EDEN activists watched the wheels of local government grinding their way through more rounds of consultation. During this period, the running of the LEA was handed over to a private company, W S Atkins. This arrangement was reversed a year later, causing yet more delay.

Eventually a breakthrough looked possible. After tortuous negotiations between EDEN, the LEA and Waverley, a compromise plan emerged, which would involve boys and girls being taught at Waverley, but with the sexes largely kept separate. Again, the scheme fell through, primarily because of doubts over funding. More delay ensued. Leahy and his friends were furious and pointed the finger of blame at the LEA.

Next, with the support of the local Labour MP and Blair loyalist, Tessa Jowell, the possibility emerged of building a boys' academy on one of the Waverley sites. But the only sponsor offered by the City Academies Unit at the Department for Education and Skills was the United Learning Trust, a Christian organisation involved in a handful of other academies around England. The EDEN group was against a religious-led school, and turned it down.

The situation now, a further year on, is that another existing academy sponsor, the chairman of Carpetright, Lord Harris of Peckham, is apparently prepared to run a boys' academy on the Waverley site. It is by no means a certainty, however, and there has been no movement since July this year. An opening before 2009 is thought to be unlikely - far too late for Leahy's second child, 10-year-old Euryn, who is due to leave primary school next summer. Hundreds of other EDEN parents are also resigned to seeing their hopes for their children dashed. "We are knackered and at our wit's end," says Leahy. "The lack of political leadership and bravery at the LEA has been pathetic. And the Academies Unit must also share some blame."

Another parent, Simone Lane, still hopes that her eight-year-old son might be able to go to the new academy, but despairs at how slowly the wheels are turning. "None of the systems are set up to respond to the needs of parents," she says. For its part, the LEA denies that it is to blame for the delays, citing long-standing disagreement between Waverley parents and the EDEN group.

This was the story that came to Blair's attention. Leahy was addressing a gathering of parent governors in Downing Street last Monday as part of the run-up to the razzmatazz surrounding the White Paper, and the PM saw an opportunity. "After the meeting, a bloke from Mr Blair's press office came up to me and asked me if I could sort something out for the following day," Leahy recalls.

The request was surprising. Could the PM and Ruth Kelly come round to Leahy's house for elevenses? Perhaps a few more of the EDEN parents could also be invited? And so it was that the PM sat at Ann Jones's kitchen table last Tuesday morning. Squeezed in a corner were the cameras that would zap the image into the nation's living rooms as evening news programmes reported the White Paper.

Did Leahy and his friends feel exploited, particularly as their campaign had, so far, borne no fruit? "We knew we were being used," he admits, "but it was an opportunity to try to speed up the academy decision. And we definitely felt we had been listened to."

So what does the White Paper offer parents? What is in the small print to back up the sweeping claim implied in the "More Choice for Parents and Pupils" subtitle? At the beginning of the second chapter, there is an unambiguous commitment to "enable parents to demand new schools". Further down, it it makes clear that acceptable circumstances for such a demand can be when parents are dissatisfied with existing local provision - a clear parallel to the EDEN case.

What is not clear is how parents can achieve this if, in particular, they do not have the enthusiastic support of the LEA. Here, DfES officials point to the new Schools Commissioner, whose job will be, in effect, to intervene on the side of parents, assuming that their case is considered sound, and force the LEA's hand. There will also be a centrally held, dedicated capital fund to pay for such new projects.

So the political will at the centre is clear. The question is: can reality match the rhetoric? And can it happen before Mr Blair calls in the removal men to Downing Street?