Here’s a story so cheery I’m not sure I believe it, even though I watched it happen. This Government loves the idea of turning schools into “academies” – in order that they’re no longer controlled by local authorities or the national education system. You can understand the thinking, as other areas where this has happened – such as the railways and energy companies – have proved so successful and popular it would be a crime not to do the same with schools. Why should our children be denied the pleasure that adults have when dealing with nPower or First Capital Connect?
One instant advantage of an academy is the school gets a new name, so it’s no longer boring Didsworth Comprehensive but becomes Lord Harris Carpets Asteroid of Magnificence Academy of Braininess.
Then the school becomes free to pursue business deals with companies who can sell equipment inside the school, and offer sponsorship, so kids can be taught the Hewlett Packard seven times table, to enhance the multiplying experience.
Also, heads are finally free to set the wage rates of everyone at the school, including their own. Occasionally they double their own salary, because you can’t expect kids to study chemistry when they’re distracted by worries about how the head scrapes by on only £90,000 a year. They get so disturbed their tears make the potassium explode.
So in March, the head at Hove Park School in Sussex announced his plan for the school to become an academy, subject to a “consultation”. Because the rules decree there must be a consultation, which is apparently deemed to have effectively taken place if students and parents are told that it’s happening.
It’s an imaginative use of the word, and means for example it would be accurate for students to write in an essay, “Then Isis consulted with the Christians about whether they’d like to abandon their homes and flee up a mountain.”
The first stage of the consultation involved the distribution of a pamphlet, which informed readers that there was a “moral imperative” for the change to take place. So this was a moral issue now. Maybe there’s a parable, in which Jesus told of the kindly Pharisee who took the temple out of the control of the wicked men of Galilee County Council.
A meeting was called in which parents, students and teachers expressed outright opposition, but the consultation went on, in the form of a series of presentations by the head and his executives. These included an “artist’s impression” of the gleaming structure – linked with magical walkways and smiley children – that the school would surely become once it was an academy.
On the other hand, we were told, if it remained as it was, that there would be “no money” for repairs, and we were shown a photo of a decaying art block. I expected the talk to carry on “and the geography books will rot so much they’ll explode in your child’s face. Then the science block will be over-run with bears, the desks will be full of Ebola, and the playing field will be infected with evil spirits as a result of challenging a moral imperative, so the students will all be twisted inside out by demons as there’ll be no money in the budget for an exorcist.”
Despite this, hundreds of our children wore badges in opposition to the plan, posters went up in countless windows, there was a march, and the teachers went on strike. Then the local council, sticking to the obsolete definition of “consultation”, arranged a ballot of parents. The head and his allies contacted parents personally to win their vote, but the result was 29 per cent for the academy and 71 per cent against, on a turnout of 40 per cent.
Immediately those pushing for the academy responded by insisting the vote was irrelevant. A local Conservative councillor told me: “It counts for nothing, because if you add the Yes vote to those who didn’t vote that’s a majority for those in support”.
He can’t be faulted for that argument. Presumably, as he was elected on a smaller turnout than 40 per cent, he’s now resigned and handed over to whoever came fourth. Similarly, Scotland must be independent because if you add those who didn’t vote to the Yes vote it’s a clear majority, and I rightly claim to have won Strictly Come Dancing, because once you add all the people in the world who didn’t vote to my vote of nought, I’ve won with a landslide of billions.
Still the school, backed by the Department for Education, marched on with its plans. You can’t claim they were being “dictatorial” because dictators don’t bother consulting with people at all. This lot did have a consultation, before deciding to do the complete opposite of what the consulted people voted for. It would be like a referee in a football match saying: “I’ve noted that one team scored five, so I’ve decided to award the match to the team that got nil.”
But, amazingly, and who could have predicted this, their response made people even more furious. More strikes were planned, elections for vacant governor posts were won overwhelmingly by opponents of the academy, and on Monday this week it was announced that the plans had been dropped entirely, due to the scale of opposition.
The resources of the Department for Education (backed entirely by the local Labour candidate) – and their brochures and power and quirky interpretation of consultation – couldn’t get past parents and teachers, kids and the community, once they stuck together. If David Cameron thought he could hear the Queen purring, he should listen to the ecstatic noise coming from a lot of people in Hove.