It is over a year since Michael Gove controversially scrapped the Building Schools for the Future Programme. My town, Newark upon Trent, was just a whisker away from securing the building of a new ‘Learning Village’ under the scheme. Our decrepit state secondary school buildings would be getting demolished by now; gleaming new buildings would be rising in their place.
We decided not to just accept Mr Gove’s decision and launched a campaign to pressure government for the money to build the secondary schools our town so badly needs. The Support Our Schools Newark campaign began with a few motivated parents and one meeting. Since then over 6500 people have signed a petition in support of our demands. We’ve given a presentation to Lord Hill, parliamentary under secretary for state for Education, lobbied local councillors and met our MP, Patrick Mercer, countless times.
And in July we were told that we would get our chance to talk to Mr Gove himself. He was due to visit Thursday 7 July. Many of us from the campaign re-arranged our day to fit his diary. There were three schools ready to show him around. The local press were primed: surely he wouldn’t come up without some good news to announce? But Mr Gove didn’t turn up. On the morning of his visit, just hours before he was due to talk to the parents of Newark, he cancelled.
Why? We don’t know. His office said he had “diary problems”. We met the local press anyhow and had a lot to say to them. We met our local MP Patrick Mercer again the next morning.
Now we know Mr Gove is a fan of the ‘Swedish style voucher’ system of educating children where each child has a voucher for their education, which can be taken to wherever their parents choose. We can see how a system like that could work in a country like Sweden, where the disparity between rich and poor is far less pronounced than in the UK. It might even work to some extent in Gove’s own constituency, Surrey Heath. The socio-economic profile of the residents there is rather different.
Newark’s demographic mix has all the characteristics of the UK as a whole. The better off can afford to either educate privately or bus their children out of county and into the grammar school system on offer in the neighbouring county Lincolnshire. Currently a third or so of parents make these choices. As uncertainty over investment in our local schools grows this figure may rise but it isn’t an option for all. So what happens to the rest?
Some of us have to rely on local comprehensives because we can’t afford the buses to Lincolnshire’s Grammars. Newark has areas with the highest levels of deprivation in the country. Some wards are in the bottom 10% on a national scale.
And some of us who live in this town could afford those buses, but strongly believe that local children should have the right to be educated locally, in schools that are supported and invested in, rather than left to wither on the vine by government at both a local and national level.
We know the school buildings inspectors that came up in April 2011 (repeating the job that had been done previously by the BSF team) have submitted their report to Mr Gove’s department. We’ve heard a lot of news like that over the year and sadly have got used to hearing nothing further.
On the day that Rupert Murdoch faced questions at the phone hacking inquiry, Tuesday 19 July, Michael Gove decided to make an announcement on education funding. The section about Capital Funding was, as you can imagine of most immediate interest to us, especially as it talked about focus on the most dilapidated schools. We know that one of the schools in Newark, the Grove, is ranked the most dilapidated in the whole county. We met with our MP again and he was puzzled that we weren’t jumping for joy.
Well we had read the application process in detail before that meeting. And yes despite our schools being inspected for BSF and then again by this government’s officials in April 2011, it would seem that another application has to be submitted in a short window of time in October 2011, with the earliest decision from those submissions scheduled for December 2011. Will the children of this growing town get their long awaiting Christmas present of a school without asbestos, failing boilers and unsafe leaking roofs?
If the application could be steered by the school itself, we would have more hope. Our worry now is that the application has to be done by the County Council. Again this should give us hope you would imagine but they have other agendas too. We have recently witnessed the moves by our neighbouring county Lincolnshire to force the hand of all their schools to become academies. That hasn’t happened in Nottinghamshire yet but there are parallels in the two counties and we fear that if the County Council put pressure on our state maintained schools that are in need of a rebuild to become academies too soon they will not qualify for the capital funding announced on 19 July.
The key thing now is that Newark is now reliant on the County Council to do the job they are paid to do and represent the community that has been passionately and doggedly campaigning for the rebuild of our local schools for over a year now. It is in their hands to ensure that the money that we have heard is cued up and ready to come to Newark from central government really does get secured at last.
It is SO important that they steer this application process (which is now their responsibility) effectively to a successful outcome which will have a massively positive outcome for the long-term future of Newark schools and the children that pass through them and the town and community at large. Patrick Mercer is currently making moves to meet with the County Council to make sure the outcome is a successful one and hopes to meet with them in August. We have requested that if possible representatives from the campaign group can attend to make it clear that this rebuild needs to be secured as a FIRST priority over any other strategic changes which may jeopardise the securing of the rebuild funding (i.e. Academisation).
What we want to hear now is that Mr Gove’s department will put the money they have – which we know they would willingly give to a new free school – into action and build this town the state secondary schools that its existing and future school populations deserve.
Elaine Winter, on behalf of the Support Our Schools Newark Campaign