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Class war: How a row over school closures is dividing a town

Ministers want to close three lacklustre schools and open an academy at Barrow-in-Furness, funded in part by the arms giant BAE. But a group of local people is bitterly opposed.

In the eruption of discontent with Labour in England and Wales in the May Day elections, some local tremors have gone largely unnoticed outside their immediate quake zone. One is the election to the local council in the Cumbrian town of Barrow-in-Furness of four independents, backed by the Our Schools Are Not For Sale (OSANFS) pressure group. Their gripe is against plans to close three existing and long-established secondary schools in the town and replace then with a shiny new academy, backed, amongst others by BAE, which builds nuclear submarines in what was once Vickers Shipyard. The pressure group's success claimed the scalp of the Tory leader of the council, Bill Joughin, and has left no party in overall control.

On the principle, eloquently articulated by the Prime Minister and members of his Cabinet in the aftermath of defeat on 1 May, that the Government needs to do better at "listening and learning", Barrow might have been a good place to start. The local MP is, after all, the Secretary of the State for Business and Enterprise, John Hutton, and this is a marginal seat. But instead, within days of OSANFS's unlikely triumph, plans for the academy were given formal central government approval to advance.

For Mike Stephenson, hitherto a popular local café owner but now lionised as the man who unseated the council leader, such apparent disdain for the clearly expressed views of Barrow's voters has only made him more determined to derail the current academy proposal. "I've never been massively interested in Conservative or Labour before," he says, wiping his hands on his black apron after delivering a tray of tea to another table in The Last Resort, "but, like many people in Barrow, I simply don't agree with the idea of business getting involved in schools. The state educates children, not private businesses."

Among other business backers of the proposed Barrow Academy are Andrew Tinkler, chairman of the haulier, Eddie Stobart, and property developer, Brian Scowcroft, who has already sponsored another academy in Carlisle.

"I've got an 11-year-old who is starting at secondary school here in September," says Stephenson, "and I feel I have to take a stand. So many people have come up to me here, and on the street, and told me to speak up for them too. But it still feels like central government and the county council are going to push this scheme through regardless. John Hutton hasn't even tried to meet us since the council elections."

Until the 1970s, Barrow was part of Lancashire – geographically separate from the rest of the county on the far side of Morecambe Bay, but economically of a piece with the industrial towns that boomed in the Victorian age. Today, its self-important municipal architecture and a skyline dominated by dockside cranes and run-down warehouses feel slightly out of place with the rural hinterland you have to cross to get there. One of the three schools affected, Alfred Barrow, stands hard by the old industrial core. "When I first came here in 1989," recalls former head, Roget Titcombe, "all you could see out of the front windows was a huge Royal Navy aircraft carrier."

Titcombe retired in 2003, concentrating thereafter on working as an educational consultant, examining, among other things, the truth behind government claims about the success in raising standards through its flagship academy schools. He remains a sceptic. He is now, however, a leading spokesman for OSANFS. "The last thing I wanted to do," he says, "was go back to being involved in local educational issues."

What made him was his dismay at plans, approved by the county council, working in close co-operation with Lord Adonis, the Schools Minister, to close Alfred Barrow, Thorncliffe and Parkview Schools – three of the five serving Barrow's 50,000 population – and replace them with an academy on the Parkview site. "I am not against an academy per se," he emphasises. "I am against this doctrainaire scheme which will cost £30m and will involve business backers when there are better options available."

In announcing the academy back in February, the county council described its plan as the only viable option to tackle falling rolls, underperformance and crumbling buildings at the three schools. Thorncliffe has only very recently emerged from special measure under a new head, Gordon Wilson. He is firmly behind the academy plans, as are the other affected heads. Until the local elections, however, they had left the role of persuading parents and voters of the merits of the scheme to the politicians, but have now clearly decided that the public relations disaster that has overtaken the academy must be urgently addressed by those on the front line.

In the modern, almost church-like library at Thorncliffe, high on a hill in the leafy suburbs that overlook rundown central Barrow, Wilson has been joined by Parkview's head, Enid Fraser as well as Anne Attwood, head of the local Furness College of Further Education, and David Kelly, principal of Barrow Sixth Form College. What distinguishes the plans for the 1,200-strong 11-16 academy in Barrow from other similar schemes, Attwood suggests, is the involvement of her college, Kelly's and the fledgling University of Cumbria as principal sponsors of the new school. "It is the first time," she says, "that other educational institutions like ours have played the part of lead sponsors. Until a recent change in the rules, it had to be businesses or individuals."

Her point – and one that she feels strongly has been missed by voters anxious to keep businesses out of schools – is that the main backers of the new academy are not faceless conglomerates or tycoons, but local people with a real concern to raise educational standards in Barrow. The role of Tinkler, Sowcroft and BAE, she insists, will be restricted to providing an endowment of £2m to help support the new academy's work. "Their money is not essential for the project to go ahead."

It is the long local history of close co-operation between secondary, further and higher education providers in Barrow, Enid Fraser adds, that will underpin the new academy. "Even before the Government announced the academy schools scheme, we had been meeting to discuss a possible bid for trust status because there are problems here that need addressing. We face a choice. We can either put more money into the existing schools to make the buildings leak free, but that will not address the same issue that keeps coming up of falling rolls. And in three, four or five years, we will have to start looking again for a longer-term solution. So why not do it now?"

For the coming September, Alfred Barrow, the town's grammar school until the 1930s, then a secondary modern, and since 1979 a comprehensive, mainly serving the socially disadvantaged streets of back-to-back terraced houses that surround the shipyards, has attracted only 27 first choice applicants, and 38 overall. The school's roll has fallen from a peak of 600 to around 300.

Parkview, which housed separate boys' and girls' grammar schools from its foundation in the 1930s until 1979, is much larger and more popular with parents. But it too has falling numbers and in the key stage 3 school league tables was placed 26th out of 43 secondaries in Cumbria. Alfred Barrow came 41st and Thorncliffe 33rd.

The final one of the three is split between two sites, on either side of a busy road, and has most of its classrooms in a five-storey tower that sits incongruously in a landscape of larger detached houses. "I had an incident last week," Wilson says, "when a member of staff tried to open one of the windows in the tower and the one above fell down and slashed her arm. She had to be taken to hospital. I believe that staff, parents and learners in this town deserve better than they are getting at present," he says. "With the academy, we can give them modern, 21st-century accommodation."

But education is surely about what goes on in buildings, not the bricks and mortar – or in the case of many of the academies built so far, steel and glass? "Yes," Enid Fraser agrees, emphatically, "but unless we try to take a long-term view we are trapped in what is a downward spiral of falling rolls and unsuitable premises and that is bound to affect pupils, teachers and the quality of education we can offer."

OSANFS is currently backing another option to achieve exactly the same goal – merging the three schools into one academy, but leaving them to operate with a degree of independence on the three sites.

"It would take the pressure off Alfred Barrow in terms of exam results," says Roger Titcombe, "and would enable each school to maintain and develop its own specialism. Plus it would be a lot cheaper than the £30m the academy will cost."

It is not any sort of solution as far as the heads are concerned. "It just can't work," says Fraser. "One of the schools is non-viable. And if there is one thing I have learnt over my years in education, it is that a split site school always struggles, most of all in instilling any sense of community."

The heads' support for the academy is pragmatic. They recognise that change needs to happen and that the academy route is the only one that will deliver the necessary funds in the short-term. The voters of Barrow, however, currently seem to have taken a stance against the whole proposal on principle. That makes the task of reconciling the two, for local and national politicians, a challenging one to say the least.