Image by Bob Whitehead

Written by a father of two primary school-aged children who lives in South Birmingham.

ON 10 October 2010 I attended a public consultation meeting at Kings Norton High School on the proposal to turn it into an ARK academy school. I have to say that it was far worse than I had actually imagined it would be!

I had thought that, whilst academies would be a form of privatisation, there would be enough safeguards in place and enough self-restraint by the people running the academies for it to avoid being too radically different from schools as they are currently run. Having heard from the people pushing this academy agenda I now think that is quite naive.

The 1-hour public ‘consultation’ meeting basically consisted of a 30 minutes of an incredibly one-sided sales-pitch given by 4 academy fundamentalists, followed by an attempt to shut down any form of criticism that came from the floor. The academy fundamentalists consisted of the ARK project director, the chair of the governors of Kings Norton High School, the Head Teacher of Kings Norton High School , and another head teacher from an existing ARK school in Birmingham.

The head teacher from the existing ARK school was apparently brought in to give an independent overview of how excellent ARK academies were – the irony that he was a high-paid ARK employee [and therefore clearly unlikely to stray from the ARK line!) was apparently lost on the organisers of the ‘consultation’. Indeed, the ARK school head teacher didn’t fail to disappoint – his opening sentence was “I can honestly say that becoming an ARK academy school is the best thing that has happened to our school in its history”!

The whole ethos underpinning the ARK academies was really quite disturbing – in fact the whole thing seemed incredibly sinister. In what appeared to echo some kind of bizarre 19th century workhouse logic, ARK announced that basically they have decided that if working class children are going to be able to get the same jobs as affluent children then they need to be treated ‘harder’, be subject to greater discipline, and made to work longer and harder than children at other schools. These were pretty much the exact words used (except they talked about ‘deprived’ or poor children rather than working class). ARK schools introduce more detentions, including Saturday morning detentions, simplify the process of handing out detentions, and extend the school timetable so that it runs from 8.30am to 4.30pm or 5pm. So it’s basically work harder, experience more discipline, and work longer. This disciplinarian approach was fully endorsed by the ARK head teacher, without any mention or question of whether it might have any detrimental effect.

During the meeting, the question of who was funding ARK came up – and especially the rumour that ARK was funded by hedge-fund managers. In fact, the ARK projects director seemed completely unashamed to admit that indeed this was a charity set up by hedge-fund managers. In fact, it appears that main funding source for the entire charity is an annual gala for the super-rich – http://www.arkonline.org/about-us/news/ark-10th-anniversary-gala-dinner. So, it’s basically some super-rich hob-nobbing event, where the rich devise and fund projects to take their draconian disciplinarian ‘flog them harder’ educational approach to working class schools. That, in my view, is genuinely obscene!

The response by the 4 academy fundamentalists to questions from the floor was in my view quite shocking. The first question from the floor was from a mother who felt that the children might get tired, and not have enough time to relax or play as a result of the extra hours in the timetable, especially if they are expected to do homework as well. As she pointed out, they would be working longer than she herself was as an adult. The head teacher of Kings Norton High School basically responded by saying that if children are going to learn to compete in the adult job market then they need to start learning the skills and behaviour necessary to do so now. When it was pointed out to her that obviously the reason children are treated differently from adults is because they are children and not adults (and they might start adopting adult behaviour when they’re adults, rather than when they’re children) the basic response was an accusation that anyone who failed to stick to this doctrine is letting down the children. In fact this was the response throughout – if you don’t agree to our doctrine then you’re basically responsible for the failure of your own, and the community’s, children!

And failure means not going to University – this is the carrot that kept being dangling under the noses of parents – to such an absurd extent that those on the panel felt inclined to defend the Government’s fees policy. According to this argument, if we just think about it as a debt to be paid off in small amounts over a career, then it’s really not that much after all!

The response to questions on the democratic governance of an ARK academy school was also quite disturbing. The Head Teacher had been talking about how important it was to incorporate parents’ opinions into the running of the new academy. She refused to give any details, for instance, on the new timetable, as she claimed this would be worked out by the school in partnership with the parents. When it was pointed out to her that one of the problems with the academy schools is precisely that parent governors are sidelined, and ARK have a majority on the school board, the ARK project director pointed out that the new governing board will have 1 LEA governor, 1 parent governor, 1 staff governor, 1 community governor, and 6 (SIX!) ARK employees. This she claimed, again without a hint of irony, would ensure a good balance of representation on the board.

It was then put to the 4 academy fundamentalists that this was therefore a form of privatisation. In giving his sales pitch at the beginning of the meeting, the head of the already existing ARK school had spoken about how the parents at his school had taken a vote and decided that an academy was the best way to save their school. It was therefore asked whether there would be a similar vote on what was to be a big decision to quasi-privatise Kings Norton High School. At this point, the ARK Head admitted that it had been a mistake to use the word ‘vote’; instead he had meant ‘consultation’! And, the answer was no, there would be no vote – although no reason was given. Instead, though, the Head of Kings Norton High School reassured us that in a prior parents’ consultation (in which it turned out after some questioning that only academy fundamentalists had been invited to speak on the panel), she had personally asked parents leaving the well-scripted sales pitch whether they now agreed that Kings Norton High School should be turned into an academy – according to her own survey, 90% of parents did agree with her. It was then asked from the floor if it would not be more democratic to have a full referendum of parents, in which the arguments for and against could be aired, and then a decision taken – i.e. not a sales pitch followed by a survey conducted by herself! – the answer to this request was no, there would be no vote for parents on the quasi-privatisation of their school.

The question of staff opinions on the academy was then raised. Some staff were present at the meeting, but it was obviously difficult for any staff opposition to be voiced in a room in which current and future employers were present and making such a strong case in favour of the need for the change.

Finally, having denied that parents would have any say in whether the school would be handed over to ARK, having refused to accept that children should be expected to work less hard than adults, having refused to admit that it was at all sinister that hedge fund managers wanted to use their wealth to buy the right to run schools for working class children according to some kind of workhouse logic, it then transpired in the final question that the Head Teacher had already informed all the parents what uniforms to buy as the transition is due to occur in January 2012. Grinning, the chair of governors announced that he certainly hoped it would all go ahead – so basically the entire public consultation was publicly admitted to being an outright sham!

I should add that the Head Teacher and the chair of governors repeatedly pointed out that Birmingham City Council has failed to properly support Kings Norton High School, and that they felt that the only viable option facing them was to turn to ARK support. Whilst I have no doubt that Kings Norton High School is facing problems, and certainly see no reason to defend Birmingham City Council’s reckless approach to the school, this should not detract from our concern about the way in which control of the school is being handed to hedge-fund managers with a penchant for disciplining working class children.

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