by Rob Marsden
It is 16 months since Staffordshire County Council announced its plans to restructure education in Tamworth and 14 months since we launched an active and vibrant campaign in opposition to this.
Hands Off Tamworth Schools was born after a wave of outrage swept the town at plans to turn one of our five High Schools into an Academy, close one school completely and remove all Sixth Form provision from the remaining four schools and concentrate it on a single site, entirely in the hands of the Academy.
Queen Elizabeth’s Mercian School (QEMS), the school earmarked for closure was not a bad or ‘failing’ school. It was a well respected, popular and successful one. However, its central location and extensive playing fields made it a prime target for the bulldozers as County, together with the mysterious Landau-Forte organisation, drew up plans to locate a Sixth Form College on the site.
A couple of us parents got together and decided that we needed to start a campaign.
Letters to the press and an article in the local paper, which plugged a hastily convened meeting, meant that 35 people crammed into a room provided by the local GMB union and Hands off Tamworth Schools (HOTS) was born in August 2008.
We had three strands to the campaign – opposition to school closures, opposition to Academies and other forms of privatisation-by-stealth and defence of the existing school-based Sixth Forms and, by extension, the specialisms on offer at each of those schools.
The campaign was parent-led from the outset and we drew in parents, as well as teachers and the wider community, from all the local High Schools. From the outset we enjoyed very good relations with the trades unions in education- not just the teachers’ organisations but those representing ancillary staff.
Tamworth Borough Council is almost entirely Tory, with just a three Labour councillors after a near wipe-out a few years ago, but retains a Labour MP – the New Labour lapdog Brian Jenkins. Staffordshire County Council which was ramming through the BSF plans, was Labour controlled (until its own wipe-out by the Tories in last June’s County Elections).
Clearly, there were no local councillors or other elected representatives we could rely on to fight on our behalf so we had to do it ourselves. Of course, we did canvas all local and County councillors and ‘our’ MP- sending documents, inviting them to discuss the issues.
In addition to public meetings, petitioning, lobbying etc. we held regular open planning and information meetings to which all were welcome. Each week we would go back to scratch, rehearse old arguments with new people, discuss tactics and strategies. It felt like going round in circles but it did begin to pay off- we developed a layer of people, a cadre if you like, able to carry quite complex arguments back to their schools, their neighbourhoods and communities and to address and counter some of the nonsense coming from County through the media and through their official publications and communications.
I had some initial expectation that we would find at least some local activists with some campaigning experience, perhaps people like myself- ex-members of the SWP or other groups, maybe some Greens, but essentially there was no pre-existing Left, no networks to tap into.
We did enjoy support and advice from socialists in the Birmingham area – in Respect and Socialist Resistance, principally through Richard Hatcher and education researcher at BCU and also from the Anti-Academies Alliance and some SWP members.
In the course of campaigning, we did pull together a hard core of campaigners some of whom were former or current Labour Party members which did cause a few crises of conscience in the initial stages of the campaign and later as the County elections loomed.
The first phase – making local waves
Inevitably, the QEMS closure issue tended to dominate in the first phase of the campaign. This was the sharp end in terms of the effect it would have on our community, the forced uprooting and dispersal of our kids, the loss of teaching jobs and the increase in the size of the school roll at the remaining four.
As a campaign group we were able to ride a wave of anger and also put forward the need to oppose Academies and the other elements of the County plans as well.
We were attacked as being opposed to a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to bring £100 million of Building Schools for the Future investment into our schools and we counter-attacked by making it absolutely clear we welcomed the money- but we didn’t want to see it Building Schools for Forte! The money on offer was tax-payers money, our money, and it should come without strings, it should be allocated to the existing schools on the basis of need. And it should be spent according to plans drawn up by local people- teachers, heads, governors, pupils, parents and the wider community- the very ‘stakeholders’ who were being carved out of the sham consultation process which always accompanies moves to set up Academies.
These ideas were eventually to form the basis of our alternative submission to the BSF process- “Putting Communities First – Education At the Heart Of Tamworth”.
With the aid of funding from the teaching unions- NASUWT (the largest teachers union locally) and the NUT and the goodwill of the GMB and UNISON, we were able to pull off a public meeting of 100 people in a major town centre venue.
We used this as a launchpad to go into the ‘official’ consultation meetings to be held in the five schools.
The response to the consultation meetings was patchy and most schools saw a small meeting, albeit one where concerned parents articulated their deep concerns to a County Council team which continually repeated the mantra that investment in infrastructure was required and raising standards across the town was necessary- as if by saying these two things often enough people would be fooled into believing that the former is not only a pre-requisite, but a guarantor, of the latter!
QEMS was different. It was big – 450 parents, kids and teachers. And it was angry, as person after person got up to take apart County’s plans. I’ve never felt quite so proud of my 13 year old son as when he made the first contribution from the floor, standing on a chair so he could be seen, and took the panel to task over their lack of consultation with kids and their trampling of his rights under the UN Rights of the Child!
The panellists who had come to sell the Academy, the ‘re-modelling’ of our schools and the closure of QEMS, were lucky to escape without being lynched.
We organised a march of 200 through town just before Christmas, followed by a party where children were invited to make Christmas cards with a message to the Corporate Director of Children and Lifelong Learning, Peter ‘privatiser’ Traves. We delivered 100 cards to Stafford on Christmas Eve. We later organised another march and public meeting just before Easter, which were both attended by children’s author and education activist Alan Gibbons.
The second phase – hitting them where it hurts
In May, the Labour County Council withdrew proposals to axe QEMS- a small victory for us but there were no concessions on the Sixth Form issue despite widespread opposition from all the schools heads and the Academy was set to go ahead, with no changes, in the face of bitter union opposition to the unaccountable anti-union sponsors, Landau-Forte.
At around this time, the two main teaching unions balloted for, and won, action in all the affected schools. There was a withdrawal of goodwill, with teachers no longer providing cover and out of hours activities along with a number of one-day strikes and rallies.
This dovetailed with the County Elections which Labour were widely expected to lose heavily and, after much internal discussion, the HOTS campaign eventually made the decision to stand a full slate of six candidates at the County Council elections.
The aim was to force education onto the agenda as an election issue – which it most certainly became. The Labour Party refused even to mention its flagship policy on its election literature – not a word about Academies and privatisation, just platitudes about raising standards and one concrete pledge- to replace plastic meal trays in schools with locally sourced china plates! Radical stuff and I still wonder if they would have had the bottle to try to impose this bold socialist policy on the Academy had they not been utterly annihilated at the Election!
All our candidates were active in the town centre, talking to local people on Saturday afternoons whilst the other parties made scarcely an appearance. We also visited the teachers picket lines and addressed their mass rallies and got 33,000 leaflets out to every house in town
The Tories, sensing we could make a big impact in this lacklustre election, came out with a policy of their own to retain the sixth form provision within local authority control and under the governance of the existing high schools. Of course, they reneged on this as soon as they were elected, adopting wholesale the current Labour proposals.
HOTS gained 10% of the town’s entire vote (matching the proportion of eligible electorate who have children at Tamworth’s High Schools). In some areas our vote was as high as 18%.
After the elections, with the summer holidays approaching, the campaign and also the teachers’ industrial action lost momentum somewhat. However, County has lost its most ardent champions of this particular Academy plan, the New Labour government is floundering and has lost the clear direction it had when Lord Adonis was in charge of schools privatisation.
Lobbying continues, with the unions taking a more direct role, albeit not in the field of industrial action. The campaign continues and we are confident there will be future flashpoints as local people see the direct and immediate effects of the loss of Sixth Forms on their schools, the demoralisation of teaching staff and little in the way of improved facilities or raised standards to show for it.