Regular readers will have gathered that I live in Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond’s constituency. This week his local Tories found themselves in an embarrassing position. His colleague Michael Gove has, as we know, an enthusiasm for Academies (and probably for Grammar Schools). It seems that he has made a large sum of money available for them to bid for if they have a wish to expand but in Surrey (where they argue that they run a tight ship) this has run absolutely counter to their “Localism” agenda.
Weybridge has two excellent small local community infant schools – Manby Lodge and Oatlands – that have the enthusiastic support of their pupils’ parents. The expansion plans of the local Academy are about expanding down the age range to offer an extra 120 infant start places in Weybridge, making one big unhappy “straight through school”. Unless you all move to Weybridge and start having babies (actually not a bad idea Ellie and Lucie…) this would mean the rapid closure of the two existing community schools. You can follow the main bones of the debate by following this link.
As The Little Emperor attends one of the community schools, his Grandma and I attended this meeting to join with parents and others in learning more and opposing the Academy expansion plans. It was fascinating. Some parents, I know, are afraid to show up at such meetings or put their names to a petition opposing the Academy’s expansion plans because they fear that they will be refused the option of a place at the Academy when they are old enough. It is easy to live in fear when your child’s education is at stake. Academies are pretty much a law unto themselves so this is scary and sad but not surprising.
I should have guessed something significant was happening when the big public car park behind the library was absolutely stuffed. I had to park in the Library staff car park to a cheery wave from on of the intelligent, properly qualified and experienced professional staff).
Weybridge Hall was absolutely full, with even the balcony occupied.
Politicians from Labour and Conservative parties were up the front in their suits and various appropriately coloured ties opposing the expansion plans to applause, along with an excellent official from the education authority who gave the basic facts and explained that the authority could do nothing about the plans, over which they are not consulted and which go directly to Michael Gove’s Education Department. There were at least three Conservative councillors. One with a beard he borrowed from Colonel Sanders.
The Lib Dems were represented by someone piping up – albeit very informed and very articulate – from the back. The Labour politician who was chairing the meeting asked that Politics (note the capital P) be kept out of it…
And I really tried for 30 seconds.
But having asked where Phillip Hammond MP was when so many of his constituents were so clearly upset (he already had a prior appointment and defending the nation [presumably including my porch] apparently takes precedence – huh!), I proceeded to express sympathy with the Tory politicians because here they were with a hall bursting with articulate voters applauding their expressed opposition to the Tory government’s policy.
Lots of other people spoke up. Lots of outraged parents, ex-pupils, school governors spoke up. Local residents were concerned about child safety and traffic (not always in that order). A brave solitary governor (spy?) from the predatory Academy – who took lost of notes – explained that his fellow governors had only been asked to agree that the Head should explore the option of an expansion and that there wasn’t actually a plan at all…until he had to admit that a proposal had gone to the Education Secretary.
It is not just these schools or education itself at issue here. The meeting and the discomfort of the Weybridge Conservative councillors illustrate the contradiction that seems to be at the heart of Conservative ideology.
There seems to be a localism agenda for empowering local citizens (Tory committees for the defence of the revolution?) to take over and attempt to run public services cheaper than the professionally qualified and experienced staff and a complete absence of democratic control wherever Tory ideology might be opposed by the majority.
I might be wrong but that was certainly the impression made on me and many others at the meeting. There are the – admittedly strange and sometimes pink faced – local Tories who give up their time to defend and advance the interests of their constituents and also the iron fisted ministers who appear to be making deals with everyone from Murdock to Google to advance the interests of a very small and immensely monied class. No wonder the locals are embarrassed.
I suspect these odd-looking locals wouldn’t recognise a contradiction if it fell on them…
The meeting ended with the information that the first half of the ext Governor’s meeting at Cleves Academy is open to the public. Many expressed a desire to go and speak to the head. I imagined a mob carrying torches and pitchforks. Others – including me – suggested that Cleves governors should move “no confidence” in their head teacher because their expansion plan has been so mishandled and has cause so much distress to the parents of young children in Weybridge and so much embarrassment to the people who should be the Academy’s political allies.
After all, all the parents want is the parental choice that David Cameron once made a priority. It seems now in Weybridge you will have any infants school you choose as long as it is Cleves Academy. And that can’t be right.
As the hall emptied I found an angry parent had left behind a JP Morgan Asset Management corporate umbrella. This as Weybridge after all. But Weybridge is angry and and someone should listen.