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"All politics is local" : the strange case of Whitehall Park School, the Liberal Democrats, and the voters of Hillrise Ward, Islington.

David Barry's picture
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Summary

At last week's local elections whether or not Whitehall Park Free School, Islington, should go ahead was put before the electorate. In the event seventy five per cent of the votes were cast for parties opposed to the new school.

Background

I have posted on the Local Schools Network about the proposed Whitehall Park Free School before, those new to the story can find a list of the postings here:

These postings, (with attached comments and discussions) amount to a reasonable quantity of background reading so here is a compressed account of the story so far, and how Whitehall Park School got entangled in the recent local elections.

Introduction

The story so far - The proposal

The proposal to set up a new Free School, the Whitehall Park School, in the far North of Islington, and in Hillrise Ward, has four special features.

1. It is being set up on land being requisitioned by the Secretary of State, from Islington, without payment to the Borough. The financial loss is being borne by the Schools maintenance budget for Islington, so the welfare of children in Islington's schools is being directly discriminated against in favour of setting up a Free School. Less money for repairs.

2. It is in an area where in terms of demand for places it is not needed and where the surrounding schools are all at least "Good" in Ofsted terms - one is outstanding.

3.The proposers of Whitehall Park School is Bellevue Place Education Trust which is linked to a profit making commercial company, Bellevue Education International Ltd.

4. It is, even without having to pay for the land going to be an unusually expensive Free Primary School (see here:"Bill for Archway ‘free’ school set to top £10m" )

The Story so far - How it started.

Repair?

It all started when a Liberal Democrat controlled Islington Council were looking for a solution to a serious problem. Ashmount Primary School was housed in a modernist building. In its time avant garde, it was built in the 1950's by the London County Council. It was now falling apart. The cost of repair was enormous, a bill (at 2004 prices) of 3.5 million pounds to merely fix the windows. (Of course one should realise that the outside of the building being entirely glass and steel it is essentially all window). And this would not solve any of the problems the building presented in terms of not being right in so many ways for use as a primary school. No disabled access, boiling hot in summer, the most expensive school of its size in London to heat, leaks everywhere, when it rained the phones and internet stopped working and so forth. The asbestos, the need to rebuild to conform to current fire regulations, the condition of the drains, the concrete embedded (faulty) electric wiring....

Refurbish or rebuild?

Better perhaps to refurbish the building, rather than patch up, but it turned out that to do that and fix the problems was simply not practicable. Better then , in terms of cost, value for money, and outcome to demolish and rebuild. Except of course you would have to house the children, and teach them, somewhere while you did this. So a scheme for a phased demolition and rebuild was worked out. In this you have the children housed in one part of the site, in portacabins at least partly, while you demolish and rebuild on the other part of the site. Neither the School Governors nor Islington Council fancied this at all. Islington because they could see it would cost LOTS; the Governors because they could not see parents sending their children to be taught on a building site even for a while. At the least, they thought admissions would have to be suspended for three years.

Move!

So what about moving the school? This needed a site nearby. One was found. Crouch Hill Park, which the council owned. The governors supported moving as it meant a new building and a lovely woodland setting, the Council supported it because they reckoned it would be cheaper as once the school moved the council could sell the old site. The Liberal Democrat administration expected to be able to sell for a good price, in the millions, for housing. Most of the housing would have been built for sale, with a quota of social housing being enforced in the planning conditions as usual. The site is between Highgate and Crouch End, so really attractive for developers.

The school move agreed and supported by Liberal Democrats and Labour.

And so the decision to move the school was made. When it was made the then Labour opposition supported the decision; it was one of the few policies in Islington to have cross party support.

Much work had to be done. As Crouch Hill Park had special protections there was a torturous planning application process involving both the Mayor of London and the Secretary of State for Local Government. So, by the time the contract to build the new school was to be signed, it was a newly elected Labour administration who took that decision in completion of the project started by Liberal Democrats. And like the Liberal Democrats they took the decision partly because the sums added up, IF you assumed a reasonable price for selling the old site. For Labour there was the extra incentive that they planned to sell the site to a Housing Association for social housing in fulfillment of an election pledge. Naturally the Liberal Democrats, now in opposition supported the signing of the contract (which assumed the sale of the old Ashmount site to make the finances work). After all, it was mostly their idea to start with.

The proposed Whitehall Park School opposed by Liberal Democrats and Labour.

So the school moved. (And the new building is great). Then there was Mr Gove's bombshell. The old, vacated, site was to be taken by him, and handed over to Bellevue, to set up a Free School. The Labour administration opposed this. In fact they were furious. The Liberal Democrats did not support the move to take the land for a Free School, however they were low key in their opposition leaving Labour to get on with objecting. After all Labour being in charge of the Council had most to lose. As one Lib Dem put it to me privately,

" We would really rather the issue went away. Surely when they realise what a state the old building is in, they (The DfE) will give up the idea on grounds of cost."

(However it seems that the DfE failed to actually look at the building before allowing themselves to get significantly committed in public by Bellevue Press releases: Revealing story in the Evening Standard here.

The Election

You can understand then why I was astounded during the election period to get a Lib Dem leaflet through my door announcing they now SUPPORTED the proposal to set up Whitehall Park Free School.

So I wrote to the local press about it on the 13 May. Here are some quotes from the letter.

" This (Whitehall Park School).... involves the Government seizing land from Islington Council, which a Housing Association were to use for council flats, handing it free of charge to a private limited company. Clearly a good deal for the Swiss based shareholders of the company. Not such a good deal for all the other schools in Islington, who lose more than 3 million of their repairs budget as a result of the loss of the land, for which the Housing Association was going to pay. Nor such a good deal for anyone in Islington struggling to be housed. This is also the proposal that the Islington Schools' Forum, a non party statutory body set up to advise the Government about schools' finance, and made up of Islington Heads and School Governors unanimously objected to, leading to the Chair of the Forum, the Head of Duncombe school speaking against it at a public meeting. A rare event; but possible because he was not only expressing the opinion of the Forum but also that of both Labour and the Liberal Democrats at that time. So why the change of mind by the Lib Dems?

Also,... we now have the public attack by Liberal Democrat Education Minister, David Laws, on the whole Free School project as an example of "zealotry". We have.. the Public Accounts Committee finding of £240M wasted on setting up free schools where there was no need for them, and the disclosure that Gove raided the "Basic Need Fund" to the tune of £400M to fund Free Schools rather than school places where they are needed. It is either courageous or really bad luck for Islington Lib Dems to announce their about face turn on the same weekend.

Naturally I eagerly turned to the leaflet to find out why this important change of mind had taken place. Unfortunately, ... it seems they are terribly ill informed.

First of all they announce a "schools places crisis" in Islington. Commonsense would suggest that this means there are not enough places for all the children applying in Islington. But the latest report from Islington Admissions to the Schools Forum is clear that, although numbers rose this year, there will be places for all Islington children.

Second they announce that the Whitehall Park School is "Full" but this only a week after Bellevue Ltd told prospective parents they expected the number of acceptances to " to be close to the minimum they needed, twenty four acceptances" As the planned capacity is 56 children how would that make it a full school? But actually to describe any Islington School as "full" at this stage of admissions, with more offers being made every day is wrong anyway. The leaflet appears to have been written by someone with no understanding of how admissions work. Or the significance or importance of waiting lists. It is irresponsible to scare monger in this way, when there are parents still awaiting the offer they will get eventually. It is shameful to add to parents' distress in this way."

I then concluded

"The only good thing about this is that as Labour and the Greens have declared themselves against Whitehall Park School, and the Lib Dems, have changed their mind and decided they are in favour, voters have a clear choice. And we shall find out on the 22 May how much support the Free School has."

Full letter here.

Following on from that, the day before polling day there was another leaflet drop from the Liberal Democrats. In that leaflet they highlighted their support for the Free School as a reason for voting for them and pointed out that not only did Labour oppose the Free School so, very much, did the Green Party. As the Greens have not actually been very active in my local ward, (they had target wards in Islington, mine Hillrise, was not one) in the absence of official Green leaflets the Liberal Democrats carried out the public service of ensuring that anyone contemplating voting for the Greens knew they would be voting for a party that opposed the Free School.

The Liberal Democrats also announced their support for the Free School on the doorsteps and in public meetings singled out Labour and the Greens for their " neglect of the school places problem"

The election result.

At the 2010 election Hillrise Ward elected two Liberal democrats and one Labour councillor. A "split" ward. Before that, for the previous two elections Hillrise elected three Liberal democrats, so in recent times a Liberal Democrat ward.

At this election it was a Labour clean sweep, all three councillors, with 58 per cent of the vote. If you add together the votes of Labour and Greens, the parties that opposed the Free School got 75 per cent of the vote.

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Comments

Andy V's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 17:02

David, Thank you for this update. Intriguing! Oh, the machinations of politicians. This is particularly pertinent and telling on the day that Mr Clegg is announcing that the LibDem's must start proclaiming the 'exceptional' contribution they have made to the coalition government and its policies. How wonderfully but tragically ironic for the children and parents involved in this farce!!


Mark Whitehead's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 19:40

I just hope there are a few well-meaning Liberal Democrats who may read this and realise how unprincipled their party is, and quit. Look into your hearts, dear Lib Dems, and ask yourselves: "can I go along with this sort of chicanery?"


Celia Dignan's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 19:58

Another great piece David on the Whitehall Park free school fiasco. This case, and that of Sulivan school in Hammersmith and Fulham where Labour took the Council from the Tories, shows what a deeply unpopular policy free schools are. I wonder if there are other examples of where a free school influenced a local election result?


Andy V's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 20:16

Sorry Celia, while I agree with and support David's position, I really do not think that you can put the Conservative defeat down to the Free School policy alone. You also overlook the fact that prior to the elections the authority was formerly split between Labour and LibDem but now is 100% Labour.

Now here's a thing, David relates that the (local) Labour party is against the Free School but this is highly unlikely to make a difference because the national party has, in recent months, publicly stated that they will not repeal Mr Gove's changes to education.

All in all that leaves the people of Hillrise Ward, Islington high and dry and the taxpayer sorely and appallingly out of pocket from the land grab and £0 (zero) cost transfer to the sponsor.

rogertitcombe's picture
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 17:17

Andy - Labour Party education policy is in transition, as I have argued with you before. It will be influenced by the success in London of campaigners with educational views like those described here. Ed & Co are slowly but certainly waking up to the unpopularity of the Academy and Free school culture and the way it is being imposed onto communities that don't want it.


David Barry's picture
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 18:02

Andy,

You make a really good point, which is then extended by Barry to some effect:

However in the special case of Hillrise Ward Islington, because the Lib Dems twice leafleted the ward with a leaflet making as their central point of appeal that THEY supported Whitehall Park School, while Labour and the Greens did not, they made of it a local, or hyper local, if you will, issue. They were the ones who were stressing, entirely truthfully, that Labour did not want it and the Greens utterly opposed it.

So Islington labour's position was fully highlighted.

Barry Wise's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 21:25

Andy raises an interesting point. Labour's Tristram Hunt has made clear that his party backs free schools in the pipeline:

We will keep those free schools going. We aren’t in the business of taking them down. We have to clear up this question which has dogged Labour education policy since we entered opposition and since Michael Gove began his reforms, as to what we’d do. We just want to say, “You are setting up these schools, we are behind you. 

So, you could argue that the party that won a clean sweep in Hillrise ward was as pro the free school as Michael Gove.

Celia Dignan's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 21:32

Not suggesting that the Hammersmith & Fulham result was solely influenced by free school but it was undoubtably an influencing factor - not least in getting the anti-Tory vote out. While Labour nationally may have a confused, to say the least, policy on free schools, in Islington the Labour Group was unequivocal in its opposition and, as David says, the Hillrise electorate faced a clear choice between pro free school Lib Dems and anti free school Labour. They made their choice clear.


David Barry's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 21:55

Celia,

Dont forget the Greens!

They were against the Free School and in favour of social housing on the site. The electorate in Hillrise knew this, ironically because of the effort the Liberal Democrats made to make sure they knew.

That is whay I can say that 75 per cent of the vote in Hillrise was for candidates opposed to the Free School.

Celia Dignan's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 21:59

Quite right. Mustn't forget the Greens!


agov's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 09:06

Of course they can - Liberals will be Liberals!

The resignation of Lord Oakeshott may be seen as the symbolic end of the SDP influence on the Liberals. The Liberals can now gleefully return to their traditional comprehensively opportunistic behaviour, saying one thing in one place and the opposite somewhere else. The NuLab traitors should join them.

Mark Whitehead's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 09:31

Yes, "opportunistic" or "unprincipled" are the key words here. The Liberal Democratic Party has no principles. Is there a Lib Dem person out there who will challenge that statement? (BTW, "we believe in local people making local decisions" is not a principle. That counts as pure pragmatism: acting according to circumstances, without reference to any principles.)
Seriously, if there is a Lib Dem supporter out there who will challenge my statement that the Lib Dems have no principles, I would love to hear from them.

Andy V's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 09:51

Mark, You are absolutely right. Indeed, to your comment, "“we believe in local people making local decisions” is not a principle" I would add that it isn't even as honest as "pure pragmatism". Rather it pure political soundbite rhetoric.


rogertitcombe's picture
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 17:13

Mark you are right, except for the brief interlude when the Lib Dems led by Charles Kennedy deserved praise and respect for exposing and opposing the NuLabery.


Barry Wise's picture
Thu, 29/05/2014 - 10:08

Well, unless Mark Whitehead is being too cynical, I suppose you'd have to expect the unprincipled Lib Dems to have 'market tested' the free school issue ahead of the election through focus groups or polls.

Er..... hang on a minute:

http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/07/islington-free-school-the-...

(Presumably the majority of people polled must have said they DID support the school, otherwise the LibDems would have come out against it!)

David Barry's picture
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 18:11

@Barry Wise (no reply button)

You may well be right, but I would point out that the poll I described was what is known as a "push poll"

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Push_poll

described as:

"an interactive marketing technique, most commonly employed during political campaigning, in which an individual or organization attempts to influence or alter the view of voters under the guise of conducting a poll."

So as such the data recovered by it, because of the way the questions were loaded would not be reliable.

So, of course, you might well have hit the nail exactly on the head, this may be the origin of their mistake. The Lib Dems do seem to be having problems with varius polls and things at the moment.

Andy V's picture
Fri, 30/05/2014 - 19:23

I accept that the local Labour councillors were against the school but the regrettable and hard fact of the matter is that local Labour councilors can't over-rule or over-ride the national Labour party and its shadow cabinet. But it is heartening to see that there are some politically minded people who make a genuine and serious effort to connect with local people and local issues.


Sally Tomlinson's picture
Sun, 01/06/2014 - 18:03

Just want to point out that in Camden, where the Green Party leader Natalie Bennett has been selected to fight the General Election ( Holborn and St Pancras CLP) , her party is supporting a free school south of the Euston Road in an area where there are already surplus secondary places. So they are as muddled and hypocritical on this issue as everyone else.


Mark Whitehead's picture
Sun, 01/06/2014 - 19:56

well that seems surprising - can you point to anything which backs this up? I can't find anything on the interenet. Only a national Green Party statement saying they are opposed to academies and free schools.


Martin Richardson's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 20:23

Fiona, in this case I disagree with your positions. I think ‘muddled’ is certainly correct if applied to the council decisions regarding secondary school provision in Camden south of the Euston Road (SER) over the past 10 years or so. ‘Hypocritical’ is a strong description of those supporting the proposed (and currently rejected) Free School in this case. I would think the parents, and councillors from many parties, are more ‘conflicted’ about the fact that the recently rejected proposal was for a Free School rather than a Local Authority one, and ‘hypocritical’ is a fairly cheap shot in a complex situation.

I am a parent with a child who attended a Camden primary in Holborn before moving to secondary school 3 years ago. There are 5 Camden primaries in the SER area, with a total of over 150 children moving on from Year 6 in 2013. Several Islington primaries are very close to the area as well. There is a strong desire from parents in the area to have a ‘local’ secondary school, and has been for some years.

You state ‘in an area where there are already surplus secondary places’. I well remember looking at the catchment area maps at a Camden Secondary schools event, and noting that we were not in the (previous year’s) catchment area for a single Camden secondary. Your point may been correct for Camden as a whole, but is simply not true for those living south of Euston Road.

There had been hopes that UCL (itself in the SER area) would choose to locate its new secondary close to the University. Instead, the school was located in Swiss Cottage (less than half a mile from the existing Haverstock School) - it might as well have been the moon in terms of options for any parent in the SER area.

The parents group, whereismyschool, continued to search for sites and partners, and to lobby for support. After 2010, the only option available to those wanting to create a new school was a Free School. I am guessing that they agonised long and hard about whether to pursue that option. However, the principle was always to have a non-denominational, co-ed, non-selective community school. They found a great partner in the IoE and cross party support within the council. A ‘Free School’ in terms of funding, but a comprehensive in ethos.

I can fully understand the local support for the proposed school. I am against the Free Schools policy. Call me hypocritical if you will.

Andy V's picture
Sun, 01/06/2014 - 18:07

"muddled and hypocritical", isn't that the standard mark of self-interested, soundbite driven, I'll do anything to get an electoral advantage politician?


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 08:02

Mark - see this report in the Camden New Journal re the proposed secondary school in Camden south of the Euston Road:

'Green Party leader Natalie Bennett said the “barrier” of the Euston Road made families feel isolated from schools north of it. She said: “There is a community in inner London, a zone 1 community that has not got the school it needs.”'


Sally Tomlinson's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 09:24

Natalie Bennett was explicit about her support for the SER free school at the meeting to which the CNJ article refers. We were both on the platform.


Mark Whitehead's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 09:39

Well that is worrying. Perhaps the Greens will go the way of the Lib Dems - all pragmatism and no principles. It's not that long since Caroline Lucas MP was on the picket lines in Brighton supporting council workers in dispute with Brighton council - run by the Green Party. No doubt Natalie Bennett's defence would be along the lines of "we support local people making local decisions" = we have no principles, we just try to please people whatever they say.


Barry Wise's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 09:49

But isn't this free school proposal rather different anyway in that it was supported by the LA, indeed by Labour, Lib Dem and Tory groups on Camden council? Doesn't that put it in much the same category as an LA promoted school?


Mark Whitehead's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 10:25

Aha, this is obviously much more complicated than I thought! My local knowledge of this story is clearly inadequate. Perhaps there are times when you can take advantage of a government scheme even though you are opposed to it...


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 10:26

Barry - you're right that the proposed free school in Camden was supported by the LA. The proposal appeared to tick all the right boxes. Nevertheless, the DfE turned the proposal down. See this thread here.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 10:32

Mark - if an LA needs extra school places there are only two routes it can take: find a sponsor or chain willing to open an academy, or hope proposers will come forward to open a free school. LAs can only open their own new schools if the two options fail.

The Government's making much of the fact that just over half of free schools are in Labour-controlled areas. But it forgets that even LAs opposed in principle to free schools and academization have no choice if they need extra places.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationnews/10865538/More-than-ha...

David Barry's picture
Mon, 02/06/2014 - 22:25

Fiona will no doubt respond for herself.

However I would say given the context in which I originally posted, and the comments which labeled the Liberal Democrats (whether fairly or not) as "hypocritical" and the quoting of Official Labour Party policy on Free Schools, which does give the feeling of seeking to have the bun as well as eating it, and the reference to a conflict between Green national policy and an apparent local one, that I took it it was the political parties she was accusing of being hypocritical.

However your comment does illustrate nicely the serious problem everyone does have with a situation where no schools other than Free Schools are allowed, and anyone who, pragmatically decides that they have to go the Free School route as no other possible finds themselves co opted into a party political position.

I dont know the details of your school places situation, no doubt there will be clarification on that, but in the Whitehall Park School case the facts on the ground show that the places are not needed.

Mark Whitehead's picture
Tue, 03/06/2014 - 07:35

The problem is that there is no mainstream political party that clearly, unequivocally advocates the position I, and I expect many of the people on this site support: a comprehensive, secular, state-funded school system providing high quality education for children and young people of all abilities - coupled with the ending of private education. We're so far into the quagmire of academies, free schools, university fees and a thriving private school sector that some fairly decisive action would be needed to reverse the trend and start heading back to an education sector serving every child and young person on an equal basis.


rogertitcombe's picture
Tue, 03/06/2014 - 10:22

Absolutely right Mark - not just for what you say, but also in pointing out that Labour is completely failing to grasp the key facts and seems unable to hit a cow's arse with a tennis racquet, completely missing the following about what you and so many of us on this site and elsewhere in education agree.

1. Parents in general and many increasingly directly affected in particular, as noted in this thread, are getting seriously turned off by the whole Academy, Free School debacle that is wasting £billions (yes £billions) of taxpayers money.

2. Local politicians with your views on education are winning elections. This would be true of national politicians too if they would only open their eyes and put their brains in gear. Are you reading this Tristram and Ed?

3. All that you advocate conforms with what the Labour Party is supposed to about with regard to principles.

Before I get the usual reactions against directing this rant at Labour politicians let me get my answer in first. The Greens are on board already, the Conservatives and UKIP are appalling in their educational views and the Lib Dems are an irrelevant waste of space.

Martin Richardson's picture
Tue, 03/06/2014 - 13:03

David thanks for your response. I'm quite certain that Fiona knows more about the overall Camden secondary places/capacity figures than I do. I felt moved to post because, as you say, the current block on any new schools which are not Free Schools can lead to reluctant support for Free Schools in certain circumstances. I have little personal knowledge about Whitehall Park, except that it is clear that the DfE has massively interfered in Islington council's plans, and commandeered local resources (the school land) without recompense to the council.


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