It happened so suddenly and so brutally, like being plunged into a nightmare beyond even Kafka’s vivid imagination. Overnight, we were invaded, occupied and treated as voiceless serfs, trapped in a murky world where everyone was working against us and no one was accountable for their actions. And it all happened in a quiet corner of Norwich.
A little over a year ago, our school, Cavell Primary and Nursery in Norwich, was put into special measures. It seemed a very harsh outcome from an inspection that came at a time of transition, and it didn’t reflect our experience of the school, but in response, the governors put together a plan to form a Co-operative Trust with other nearby schools. This would formalise and strengthen existing relationships for support and sharing good practice, and it gained the approval of Ofsted, parents and the wider community. Despite the circumstances, it was an exciting time.
We only knew there was a problem when the schools went back after the autumn half term. Before the holiday, the school had been days away from confirming the Co-op Trust, but we returned to find that while we’d been away, the governors had been summarily dismissed and replaced with an Interim Executive Board by Norfolk County Council, under orders from Michael Gove.
Whatever the governors and parents thought was in the best interests of the school and its children, Gove had his own plan – he wants schools to become academies, one way or another, and he wasn’t about to let us “get away” with anything else. So the IEB were appointed to see that he got the right result. If the manner and timing of their appointment weren’t enough of a clue, they were all current or former employees of Norfolk County Council. They knew what was expected of them.
We complained to the Council, who ignored us. Officers and elected members justified their actions with ever more desperate contortions, before eventually resorting to blaming Gove. Privately, we were told that the Council was under pressure and had to do what Gove wanted. Publicly, the school was trashed in the press, in terms that became ever more detached from reality. The Eye of Sauron had fallen on us, and we were to burn under its gaze.
Despite the insistence that there was no alternative, we were told to discuss our concerns with the IEB, as the responsible body – easier said than done. For one thing, we had no idea who they were or how to contact them. Even when we found out, only making contact thanks to the intervention of our councillor, they would commonly ignore communications or present a dead bat in response to crazy suggestions like following the will of the majority.
There were brief meetings for parents to be kept up to date, which showed how things were going to go. Parents were angry, while the IEB made non-committal noises and tried to put a positive spin on both academies and the proposed sponsor. They even hinted that the school should become more enthusiastic about the academy proposal as Gove would sign an academy order anyway, and may make an example of us by handing us over to an entirely unsuitable chain if we caused too much fuss.
Just when it seemed that our fate was sealed, Ofsted returned, and after two days, the school was taken out of special measures. In an instant, Gove had no power to force anything on us. The school was safe!
But that was reckoning without the IEB. Their justification may have been melting away, but they still had a job to do, and their employers wouldn’t take no for an answer. So they hastily met again, and agreed to ask for an academy order anyway. You won’t be surprised to hear that Michael Gove was delighted to help out. He also came up with a special “fast track” process to get us out of the way in record time – how considerate!
As the Easter holidays approached, we began to wonder when the statutory consultation period would be. We were due to become an academy on 1st July, so it seemed odd that there was no rush to get it done. We were also curious about how it would be run, and how the IEB would spin their obvious lack of interest in our views. So I asked them.
The response was strangely evasive – I was asked what else I would like to be considered. I said I wanted to be able to tell people about it, to ensure that parents’ views were adequately represented – still no answer. I was told the IEB would discuss it at their next meeting. On 1st May!
Meanwhile, we heard rumours that the IEB had no intention to consult us at all. That has the ring of truth, but why didn’t they just say so? Maybe because the law requires a consultation, or maybe because the IEB had promised us in a previous meeting that there would be one once the sponsor was confirmed, as they were unable to answer many specific questions at that point. In any case, there certainly isn’t enough time from 1st May to arrange a meaningful consultation process from scratch and still hit their target date.
We’ve been mistreated and misled throughout. The IEB have used our school’s resources to promote their version of events to the point where it’s become propaganda. The Council have abdicated responsibility in public while backing the IEB behind the scenes. And the DfE have always been in the shadows, pulling the strings, keeping everyone in line. Against such an unholy alliance, our only hope of justice prevailing is judicial review.
And the punchline to all this, the final insult, is this: According to the definitions used for the DfE’s recently released academy “mythbuster”, we aren’t being forced to become an academy after all! The IEB are taking the decision on the school’s behalf, and Michael Gove is merely granting their request.
Slavery is freedom. From Kafka to Orwell. Except it’s not fiction, because we’re living it.