Monday, 4 July 2011

Varndean School Anti-Academy Campaign

I was a governor at Varndean for just over four years. I became a governor because I passionately believe in a properly resourced comprehensive education system, open to all regardless of their background or ability.

Dave Richards, Former Varndean Governor and Brighton Socialist Party member

The government’s plans that most, if not all, schools should become academies is an absolutely fundamental attack on the principle of a comprehensive system and opens the door to privatisation across the primary and secondary education sector.

Given the previous pronouncements of both the Head and Chair of Governors concerning their commitment to state funded comprehensive schools I was somewhat surprised when the issue of applying for academy status was first raised at a governors meeting. I was even more surprised when at the next meeting we were asked to vote on a motion, that was literally written on the back of an envelope, which resolved to register an interest in becoming an academy. After the vote it was made clear that governors should not discuss the issue outside of the meeting, even with their partners!

I considered that this placed me in an untenable position, and I felt that I had no other option but to resign and join with others actively campaigning against the school becoming an academy.

Free, comprehensive education as right for all regardless of wealth or background wasn’t given to us, it was won as the result of decades of struggle. Now the Tories and there Lib Dem lackeys want to turn the clock back to a two tier system and throw the education of our children open to the profiteering of private enterprise.

Lobby of Governors' Meeting

Varndean School Against Academies organised a lobby of the Governors meeting held at the school last Wednesday. This followed a very successful public meeting on the 17th June which saw a packed hall backing calls for further action including parent, staff and student protests and industrial action by the staff if steps were taken towards turning Varndean school into an academy.

With the on-going refusal of the Chair of Governors and the Head to engage in any meaningful discussion about their intentions we were concerned that a decision to apply for academy status could be pushed through at the meeting. We therefore called on as many supporters of the campaign as possible to join the lobby to leave the governors in no doubt as to the strength of feeling amongst staff, students and the wider community about this issue.

In the event around 80 people gathered at the school and held a noisy protest outside the room where the governors were meeting. What was particularly encouraging was the involvement in the lobby of representatives from key trade unions such as the NUT and Unison alongside students, formers students, parents, local people and campaigners.

All of those who spoke, including a former head girl who left the school in 1952, stressed the importance of defending public education across the city and of fighting any attempts to privatise educational provision. Socialist Party member Julie Donovan highlighted the impact a shift to academy status would have on children with special needs and called on the governors to come out and discuss the decision with the lobby.

The Governors meeting itself ended without any decision being made to apply for academy status and on Friday the Head and Chair of governors released a statement which on the one hand attacked the campaign but on the other gave a clear commitment that Varndean will not become an academy now or in the near future and even adopted one of our campaigning slogans Varndean is not for sale’ referring to the step towards privatisation academies involve.

Victory For Now – Campaign to Defend Public Education

This represents a significant victory for the campaign as it was quite clear previously that there were elements within the governing body who wanted to move from an expression of interest to a formal application to become an academy. This victory however may only be temporary as it is clear that the Tories are hell bent on destroying the comprehensive education system and rolling out their academies as widely as possible. Already there are rumours surrounding another school in the Brighton and Hove and we should be looking to re-launch our campaign as a city wide campaign to defend public education.

On a final note we also need to keep the pressure up on the Head and Chair of Governors at Varndean to ensure that in future there is far more openness and transparency about the way decisions are made. They have displayed contempt for the views of staff, students and parents throughout the last few months and have tried to stifle debate at every opportunity. This was again demonstrated after the lobby when two year 11 pupils (who have just left the school!) were verbally attacked by the head for being photographed conversing with people taking part in the lobby. We must make it clear that we will defend the rights of students to speak out and to demonstrate to defend their education.