Vote 'Parents' if you want to raise standards

In next week's local elections, parents in south London can vote for a political party set up to campaign for a new comprehensive. Sarah Richardson asks whether this is the beginning of a trend
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The Independent Online

Parents resort to all kinds of tactics in search of a decent education for their children. They move house, borrow money, scrimp and save, teach their offspring at home and even set up their own schools. Now a group of desperate parents have gone a step further and established a political party to highlight what they see as the lack of acceptable school places in Lewisham, south London.

In the council elections on 2 May, the party is fielding six candidates to demand a new school for their children. "People are passionately concerned about their own children and that gives them drive and energy," says Louise Irvine, a local GP and the driving force behind the new party. "People realise that solutions for them as individuals can only come from solutions that are right for the whole community."

Dr Irvine knows what she is talking about because she has two children at schools in Lewisham. Unimpressed by local education, she and a group of parents set up a campaign for a new school in New Cross. When this failed to ignite the interest of an established political party, the group decided to form their own party.

The parents are largely united by the fact that they have children who have been rejected by their first choice of school. Some are going through the appeals process. Some have yet to be offered a place in a secondary school that they regard as acceptable. Dr Irvine, who is standing for Leap (Local Education Action by Parents) as their mayoral candidate, is tapping into their frustration and anger.

In today's climate of electoral apathy, direct action and single-issue campaigns are capturing the public imagination. Joan Fletcher, another parent candidate, has a daughter who got into Haberdashers' Aske's School for Girls after being rejected by her first choice, Prendergast. She says: "I'm involved in the campaign as a result of watching so many of Josie's friends lose inches in height, look crushed and shell-shocked by not getting in to a decent school. You've got to change the system so that children are not so damaged at a tender age."

The Lewisham parents want a new comprehensive to be set up; and they believe they have a good chance of getting their way, if they make enough of an impact on the hustings. They have even found an empty school building for it. That empty building used to be Hatcham Wood School in Telegraph Hill, the site of an ill-fated Fresh Start school, which failed to be turned round and which Lewisham wants to make a Sixth-Form centre.

The parents' model for their new school is the Charter School in Southwark, which opened last year after a successful campaign by local parents. "We've been in touch with the parents to gather intelligence on how they campaigned and they've been very supportive," says Dr Irvine. "The deputy head has spoken twice at our meetings and we've visited the school. We're promoting the same model of comprehensive education."

Councillor Katy Donnelly, who is in charge of Lewisham's education brief, is, however, not convinced that a new school is the panacea that the parents think it is. Opening a new school will not necessarily solve the problem of standards, she says. "There are no magic wands for the problem of inner London education and increasing school places is not going to sort out the fundamental issues of improving standards across all our schools. The priority should be to make places in all of our schools acceptable to parents rather than simply opening a new school in the north of the borough. Malory School has had surplus places since it opened... and it's difficult to argue for funding for a new school when you have spare places."

The Lewisham parents counter that Malory is seven miles away from where they live in the north of the borough and has only just come off special measures. They want a school near where they live. Katy Donnelly replies, with some justification, that, if Malory were a successful school, the distance wouldn't be an issue. "This is about raising standards across the board," she says.

The second strand of the Lewisham parents' campaign is to force the council to take action against schools which, they claim, have abused their right to set their own admissions criteria. In a group of 30 new political activists gathered last week in the staffroom of a local primary school, Prendergast is the school that attracts the most venom. This heavily oversubscribed girls' voluntary-aided school has a controversial policy of interviewing its applicants. It also allocates points for applicants who "worship" and can support their application with a letter from their local minister.

"If you have a sibling at the school already you get 50 points," says Mary Paul, another of the new parent activists and the mother of a rejected child. "You're almost guaranteed a place."

The most contentious part of Prendergast's selection process is the interview. Parents are told that this is to check whether the aims and motivation of the child are in harmony with those of the school as detailed in the prospectus, according to Mary Paul. "But my daughter was asked, 'Do you have any siblings?' 'Where does he go to school?' and 'Would you like to go there, too?' This has nothing to do with whether she would be a hard worker or whether she enjoys school."

No one at Prendergast was available for comment, but Katy Donnelly acknowledges the concerns. "Lewisham is one of the few boroughs that continues to band its children by academic ability," she says. "The object of our banding system is to try to ensure a comprehensive intake in all of our schools, putting 20 per cent of each band in each school. Prendergast signs up to this and we are monitoring how well it implements this in practice. We've asked them to look at the 10 points that they allocate for worship and their interview policy. I don't think that a non-church school has a reason to interview. The code of conduct may have been breached here."

Mary Paul, like most of the local parent campaigners, has never been politically active before and has looked to Dr Irvine to vent her frustration and to articulate her concerns about her children's future. "It's only when people have these experiences that they feel aren't right that they get angry and get involved," she says. "I think the new political party has had a big influence on the council already."

Beatrice Nelson, a bank clerk whose daughter is on the waiting list for Prendergast and has yet to be allocated an alternative school place, agrees. "I normally vote Labour," she says. "But I will stay involved in something like this – something that is close to my heart. I've been to two of the new party's meetings and I'm going to leaflet and do some canvassing. We need a new school to take the pressure off all the other schools in Lewisham."

Katy Donnelly compliments her political opponents, saying that they are articulate and have balanced views of what they are trying to achieve. "Clearly this is a route that has raised the profile of the issues that they are highlighting," she says. "A political party is an effective vehicle for doing this." But if they were in power, they would be facing the same difficult decisions as the council, she thinks.

Louise Irvine and her paediatrician husband could live and work anywhere. They could leave the state sector and can certainly afford to pay school fees. In the event, they have accepted a place for their 11-year-old daughter in a City Techology College in Southwark. They do not want to use private education because they don't believe in it. "We're Scottish," says Dr Irvine. "Scotland doesn't have such a big private system and there's a much more developed state school system. My parents were from working-class families and benefited from the introduction of universal education. I believe in state education, not just for ideological reasons but because I see how it works – and how it's worked for me and my family and people I know."

Another parent, Lauren Frampton, is a special needs worker at a local primary school, who wouldn't normally be able to finance a private education. But she and her husband, a financial clerk, are sending their daughter to a local private school while they continue to appeal against Prendergast's decision to reject her last year.

"My husband and I can't afford to send her to a private school – not at £2,000 a term," she says. "But my father died two years ago and I'm using my inheritance to do just that – he'd be appalled if he knew. That money was earmarked for my children's university education. My father believed that you should give to the community and take from the community."

That is precisely what the parents in the campaign say they are fighting for.