Pupil power: How children are joining adults to fight academies

Some academies are doing well, but parents, pupils and unions are fighting their introduction – with suprising success. But are ministers helping them enough?
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The Independent Online

Parents who started a campaign against a new academy are to join teachers on the picket line in the latest of a mounting number of protests against the Government's academy programme.

Not all the campaigns are started by teachers and parents. Pupils have been joining in too, particularly in Tamworth, Staffordshire. Confusion over plans for Tamworth stoked a campaign against a new Landau Forte-sponsored academy. The £100m reorganisation would see five schools lose their sixth forms, one of which will close and re-open as the 11-16 academy. Landau Forte will also run a new post-16 centre.

Julie Morgan's daughter had just left Queen Elizabeth's Mercian, one of the schools involved, when she heard of the plans and formed a protest group with another parent. "This major re-organisation was being steamrollered through without any proper consultation with parents," she says. "People were furious. Then we found out that Landau Forte has a very selective policy for entry to the sixth form at their Derby academy – pupils can only do A-levels if they get five GCSEs at grades A*-B and the rest have no choice, they have to do vocational courses. What about the late starters?

"I'm not involved in any political party. I was just incensed by the fact that ordinary people weren't getting a say in what was happening to their schools." In one of the angriest protests, more than 40 teenagers from two schools in Barrow enjoyed a longer break than usual recently after being temporarily excluded for a protest on the playing fields. Were they missing lessons and enjoying the sun, or taking a stance against plans to turn their schools into an academy? That is still being debated.

The opposition to an academy is part of an increasingly bitter battle and much has been made of the fact that the man appointed as its £135,000-a-year principal designate left his wife and family to move to Barrow with his mistress, a junior colleague at his previous school who left her husband to be with him.

Things got more personal when the principal of one of the colleges, which is sponsoring the academy, accused Roger Titcombe, the spokesman for the anti-academy campaign and the retired head of the comprehensive earmarked for closure, of letting down generations of children by poor standards while he was in charge.

His former school, Alfred Barrow, is in one of the most deprived parts of the town and parents and teachers rushed to his defence. Last week the campaign gained two seats on the county council, following a victory last May when four anti-academy protesters were elected to Barrow-in-Furness borough council, one of them unseating the council's Conservative leader. "Local people have spoken clearly against the academy once more," says Titcombe.

The events in Barrow are not unusual. What started as teacher-union opposition to the alleged privatisation of the state education system is increasingly being picked up across the country by local activists and parents – and now even by pupils. At least eight of the Government's new academy schools are under threat as local campaigns gather momentum.

"Without the unions we wouldn't be winning, but without the parents there wouldn't be a campaign," says Pete Jackson, the campaigns officer of the Anti-Academies Alliance. Their biggest victory to date, he says, was the scrapping earlier this year of plans to turn Sinfin School in Derby into an academy sponsored by Derby College.

"Things are moving our way as more information comes out about how children will be selected to attend the academy and, as time goes on, we can cite more evidence of the failure of the existing academies to make progress," he says.

One of the most controversial aspects is the decision by most academies to secure a spread of ability by fair banding, which means taking a proportion from each ability group. Parents are extremely concerned when they realise their children might fail to get into an academy near them because they are in the wrong band, says Jackson.

The campaign is affiliated to the TUC and funded by the National Union of Teachers, the NASUWT and Unison. Other organisations which pay to be affiliated include the University and College Union, the Fire Brigades Union, the Public and Commercial Services Union and the Musicians Union.

Over the last few weeks, four schools in Tamworth, West Midlands and two in Basildon, Essex turned away pupils when the NUT and NASUWT staged one day strikes. The unions have already taken action this year in Derbyshire, Staffordshire, Durham, Croydon and Newham. Supporters of the academy programme are perplexed that the opposition is gathering momentum despite a change in policy under Gordon Brown and Ed Balls, the Children's Secretary, away from sponsorship by wealthy philanthropists in favour of other educational bodies, such as colleges and universities. There has also been much more effort to involve local education authorities as partners.

Conor Ryan, the former aide to David Blunkett, Tony Blair's first education secretary, points to academies such as the one in Merton sponsored by Lord Harris of Peckham, which initially met with opposition but is now very popular with parents. The school it replaced had failed to attract parents and pupils despite significant capital investment and it was the academy status which made the difference, he says.

"The Government should do more to shout about successes like this," says Ryan. "Ed Balls has chosen to promote other aspects of the children's agenda but the academies programme is continuing, even if it is not as high profile as it was under Tony Blair and Lord Adonis."

Exam results for academies are statistically indistinguishable from the non-academy comprehensives, says Titcombe, the spokesman for Our Schools Are Not For Sale, the protest group in Barrow. "There is very considerable opposition to plans to hand local schools over to a consortium of colleges and the University of Cumbria," he says. "People don't want to lose a school and see their children sent to a dual-site academy or even further afield as there won't be enough places for them."

In Basildon, members of the NUT and NASUWT closed the two schools which are to be taken over by the Basildon Academies Trust for a day last month in protest at what they fear will be increased working hours and reduced holidays at the new school which is sponsored by Martin Finegold, the American hedge fund millionaire.

Despite being ideologically opposed to all academies, the unions get involved when there are problems with individual schemes, says Jerry Glazier, the NUT's executive member for Essex. "There are already three academies in Essex and we have good relations with them, but there are problems that need to be resolved in Basildon."

Plans to turn the Royal Docks Community School into an academy sponsored by ARK, the education charity founded by the philanthropist Arpad "Arki" Busson, a Swiss-French financier, has led to a walk-out by the unions. Keith Turner, the NUT representative in Newham, east London, says there are fears that ARK would refuse to take over the unit at the school for children with profound and multiple learning difficulties and that it would reduce the intake, leaving local children without places.

So far, 133 academies have been opened and 80 more are in the pipeline for September. Whether the Government will get to its target of 400 could depend on how much priority it gives to them.