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Hyde Park and Headingley against Cuts hosted a successful public meeting on Monday 12th September to discuss the government’s ‘free school’ programme. Twenty eight local people, representing teachers, pupils, parents and community activists attended.

Joseph Muller, Hyde Park & Headingley Socialist Party

The first to speak was a member of the Anti Academy Alliance, who stated that the new schools will increase social segregation as providers are likely to target high achieving schools in more affluent areas rather than investing in deprived, inner-city comprehensives, further increasing the already massive divide in the UK’s education system. The academies’ withdrawal from the state system will also see overall funding further reduced for those schools that opt to remain under local authority control.

The speaker also dismissed the Education Secretary’s claims that Free Schools will allow for greater local decision making. Though consultation is a legal requirement for any school that wishes to attain Academy status there is no minimum consultation period, nor are they required to engage with parents or staff. The scandalously rushed and poorly represented consultations for local schools Horsforth and Abbey Grange are evidence of this. Academies are free to appoint their own governors, decide their own admissions policies and are not covered by FoI legislation. Their removal from local authorities means those who wish to challenge the schools will have to go through the Secretary of State rather than their elected local councillors.

There is also insufficient evidence that academies can actually improve education standards. Sweden, who adopted a similar model in the 1990’s, has recently begun to cast doubts over the success of its own programme.

The second speaker, a local NUT rep, concentrated on what the Free Schools programme will mean for staff. Unlike Local Authorities, academies have no obligation to recognise unions and are free to set their own terms and conditions for staff, meaning teachers risk seeing accrued benefits such as sick pay and maternity leave wiped out under new contracts.

The following discussion was momentarily disrupted by a contingent of governors from nearby Lawnswood School who attacked the organisers for spreading disinformation, particularly in regards to their newly appointed headteacher who had previously sat on an advisory board run with the interest of turning state schools into academies (true) and that the school governors had already discussed the idea (also true, though the plan was rejected). The governors made their objections to the group then left before any reply could be made. Whilst it is essential that all information produced must remain factually correct and refrain from rumour mongering, the governors’ assertion that such meetings will ultimately ‘harm’ Lawnswood are absurd. Given Education Secretary Michael Gove’s determination to force through the changes at any cost, if the school’s governing board are serious about keeping Lawnswood out of private hands they should surely work with local campaigns. Their refusal to debate the concerns raised also gives little reassurance in their claim to consult all parties ‘they deem necessary’ when the issue inevitably arises again.

The meeting ended with a brief report from Socialist Party and Horsforth against Cuts member Andy Smith about their ongoing campaign to save Horsforth School. Great support was shown to Horsforth Against Cuts’ planned demonstration on the next Saturday, and was a positive step in helping to link up local campaigns.

Segments of the meeting were recorded by the BBC to be shown on that week’s Daily Politics programme.

Just as with the coalition’s upheaval of the NHS, benefits and universities, the Free School programme is thinly veiled under the false language of austerity, secreting an ideologically driven attack on unions and public sector workers whilst allowing paragons of corporate virtue such as Rupert Murdoch a foothold in the highly profitable education sector. What has been proved however, both under the new scheme and the previous Labour government’s similar City Academies project, is that governing boards can back down if local opposition proves strong enough. Socialist Party comrades will continue to work within Hyde Park and Headingley, and Horsforth against Cuts to keep our school in the hands of communities not corporations.

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