Cavell in the courts - a final chance to save our school

David Ward's picture
`The rule of law is fundamental to the operation of any democracy, but getting access to the appropriate legal remedies is a complex and expensive process. In fact, in our case it seems that the authorities are relying on that fact, because almost every step in what can only be described as the hostile occupation of Cavell Primary and Nursery School in Norwich has looked legally dubious at best. Combined with the government’s current assault on judicial review, it has the capacity to turn anyone cynical. Fortunately, we now have the necessary funds and have launched legal proceedings.

The paperwork required to challenge the way our school’s been treated is an indication of just how deep and complicated events behind the scenes have been. The initial letter giving notice of our intention to sue, and seeking a response, named the school’s Interim Executive Board, Norfolk County Council, the Department for Education and Michael Gove in person as parties to the challenge, because there has been so little clarity about exactly who made what decision.

We contend that the academy order, issued by Michael Gove, was unlawful. But he was asked for it by the IEB, who say that they were told by both Norfolk County Council and the DfE that they had to make that decision. Norfolk County Council, in turn, appear to have been told by the DfE that all schools in special measures must become sponsored academies, a dictatorial and undemocratic enactment of the policies of… Michael Gove. And round we go again.

Among the various points of contention in our action, the central and vital fact is that the school was not in special measures when the academy order was requested. This means that the Secretary of State had no power to force the school to become an academy, so the only way it could possibly be legal is if the IEB had the authority to take the decision on the school’s behalf. (Incidentally, this is the secret to one of the DfE’s “mythbuster” distortions – by a linguistic sleight of hand, they don’t count the decisions of an IEB imposed by force as being a forced academisation.)

So the question becomes whether the IEB could legally take this decision. Almost certainly not – they were appointed in an irregular manner, were clearly being directed as to the actions they were required to take, regardless of the school’s best interests, and above all, IEBs are meant to be caretakers, who may not make lasting changes to a school, a description which surely covers handing it over to an academy chain on a 125-year lease.

We’ve always said that ours is a hugely significant case, and this is why. If the IEB are permitted to act in this way, no school is safe from Gove’s academy mania. Pressure can be applied on LEAs to remove any school’s governors and replace them with a compliant IEB to perform the ventriloquist act of requesting an academy order on the school’s behalf. This doesn’t even need to be subtle, as Downhills parents found when their five-strong IEB included three Harris appointees. No prizes for guessing the chain that now runs the school.

This is all self-evidently unjust, even if by some miracle or procedural loophole it’s found to be legal. Ever since this began, no one has been prepared to go on record and defend this behaviour, with the only public comments being bland waffle about wanting the best for all children, and occasionally claiming that the school would be best served by becoming an academy. No one has ever attempted to defend the way it’s been done, because it’s quite obviously indefensible.

Politicians like to talk about choice, claiming that their favoured policies are about parents getting involved and having their say. The treatment of Cavell across the political spectrum tells a different story, with the Westminster Coalition and the Labour-led Norfolk County Council conspiring to deny us any choice at all. Clearly, some parents are more equal than others. If we were campaigning for our school to become an academy or free school, we’d be overwhelmed with support. Instead, we’re Public Enemy Number 1. Choice is only tolerated if you choose the right thing.

We aren’t unique. Ask parents at the Warren School how much choice they’re being given, after their 85% opposition to an academy was completely ignored. Or ask anyone involved at Downhills, Dorothy Barley or any number of other cases where whole communities found not just their schools but their democratic voices being taken from them by academy zealots.

Any politician who genuinely believes in choice should be supporting us in our fight against dogma and ideology. And anyone who thinks it’s right to ignore our wishes and the law to force the school to become an academy should say so openly, rather than hiding behind generic statements and getting other people to do their dirty work. Sadly, few meet these unremarkable demands.

We believe the legal action will save our school, overturning the dictatorial impositions of the past few months and returning the school to the community under the oversight of the rightful governors. But we also hope that it will shine a light into the murky corners where decisions are made, deals are done and schools are handed over behind the backs of the people who should be more involved than anyone – parents, staff and the local community whose school is being taken from them and effectively privatised.

The High Court can strike a blow for true parent power, not just the Hobson’s Choice of “academy or nothing” that so many schools are having forced on them. We await their decision.
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 09:42

An Interim Executive Board (IEB) is supposed to “enable the restoration of a normal governing body” NOT push through academy conversion. However, as David Wolfe QC pointed out in his evidence to the Education Select Committee, IEBs concentrate on conversion instead of restoration. See here for more information.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 10:29

It is disgraceful that a Labour-led council is still supporting forced Academisation. This is not for the first time as Cumbrian teachers, parents and pupils know to their cost. Cumbria County Council and Ed Balls signed into existence probably the most disastrous Academy impositions of all, despite legal action to prevent it taking place.

This has not just been an educational catastrophe. In Barrow in Furness the town's economy and the Local Health Trust's ability to recruit quality staff have all been damaged.

Two superb school sites are being sold off to private developers with planning permission to demolish buildings upon which the County Council had invested many £millions. Even the local Tories are upset.

Is this line by local Labour councillors approved by Tristram Hunt and Ed Milliband? We need to know. This is a litmus test as to whether the Blunkett reforms have any real significance or not.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 11:18

This is a massively important moment in the barbed history of forced Academy conversions. I have watched the transfer of state school assets into private hands under the guise of the 'Academy is the best way' dogma and been continually appalled at the barbaric, undemocratic way the DfE are operating under Gove. To a large extent, he is acting as a manic, obsessed dictator.

David seems very sharp and focused on the salient points, which is why I see this as a key moment. The DfE are happy to bully IEBs and LEAs into submitting to their privatisation plans, and a legal challenge is the most forceful response. He absolutely must seek written representation of all matters wherever possible so that an audit trail of the farce is captured.

Fundamentally, as is evident from the view I present here, they care more about the legal transfer of school assets (disruptive, and at a cost of £25k per school) into private hands than improving the prospects of a school. They are simply not prepared to embrace an alternative path unless pushed extremely hard. I hope you succeed, much as some have before. But you must remain very focused.

David Ward's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 19:07

Roger, we've tried to get all parties to take an interest but without much success. Ed and Tristram don't want to get involved, it seems. Given that the Blunkett Review seemed to view the problem as how to manage schools once they inevitably become academies, rather than how to stop them becoming academies in the first place, we shouldn't be too surprised. Still, at least some of the local Labour group and our Labour PPC are supportive, unlike our spineless Lib Dem MP.

To give them their due, this seems to have been driven by the DfE and council officers, rather than elected members, who have allowed themselves to be pushed around. Norfolk has been doing poorly in education, much of which can be attributed to funding and urban areas being seen as greater priorities. So at some point last year, it seems the council were instructed by the DfE that they had to do more to increase the relatively small number of academies in the county, or else the entire Children's Services department could be taken over. We've been told that doing the right thing in this case could have consequences for the entire county. Essentially, Cavell is a sacrifice to appease Gove.

There’s so much wrong with this that it's hard to know where to begin. Once it's over, we'll have to write a book about it.

David Ward's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 19:17

Neil, I submitted a FOI request to the council back in November, when all this was getting started, as I believed (and still do) that a lot of very dodgy things were going on in secret. They took twice the statutory 20 day timescale, before finally giving me the response that they were claiming a s36 exemption, and refusing to tell me anything on the grounds of public interest.

That was very interesting, but strangely, I got a call from the Information Commissioner's Office this week about my complaint. It seems that I should get my information in the next couple of weeks. I suspect this is related to the launch of legal proceedings in some way.

We have a lot of documentation, and I will be going after a lot more. Win or lose, there are people who need to be brought to account for their actions.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Tue, 20/05/2014 - 19:22

Thanks for the update. The DfE regularly flout FOI timescales, yet rarely pay the price for those failures. Documentation should be your key source of argument. If there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.

David Ward's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 08:37

This wasn't the DfE, although they may have had some involvement in directing the response, but the council. We pretty much know now that the IEB were appointed to turn the school into an academy, but I think they were desperate to avoid revealing that fact.

John Mountford's picture
Wed, 21/05/2014 - 21:01

David, you are doing a great service to the case for communities taking on 'the big boys' who have had it all their way for too long. I have no doubt your case could mark a turning point but this will depend on the judiciary when it should never have come to that.

You are correct. The preservation and quality of democracy ultimately rests on the rule of law. I have lost faith completely in the idea that any of the major political parties have the desire or the intention to champion the cause of building local/professional partnerships in an education service fit for the future.

Until education governance is freed of interference from party politics, stories like this will surface. In the certain knowledge that you have been hung out to dry by the supposed defenders of democracy (our political leaders) I still hope that justice will triumph.

As for the hope that a change of government next year will usher in a new long-term commitment to the reform of education in the public interest, there is no hope.

In response to your comments, Roger,
"Is this line by local Labour councillors approved by Tristram Hunt and Ed Milliband? We need to know. This is a litmus test as to whether the Blunkett reforms have any real significance or not."

I predict, yes, to your first question, no, you won't get to know, to your first comment and finally, no with regard to the Blunkett reforms proving significant. Sadly, there is clearly only more of the same to come if the other two major parties get back in, leaving those of us who value the public education service in England, without an effective political choice.

You are right, David, what we demand of our political leaders at local and national level is "unremarkable" but may, nevertheless, remain remarkably unattainable. I wish you a lot of luck and ultimate success.

…

David Ward's picture
Fri, 23/05/2014 - 09:08

Sad to say, I understand we have been denied the right to a judicial review. I don't know the full details as yet, but it appears to be on a technical matter, despite the fact that there is a clearly acknowledged argument that the school's treatment has been illegal.

As I said before, even if it's somehow found to be entirely legal (which it hasn't), this is still a shameful and immoral way to treat both the school and its community. That hasn't changed. But as a small school under attack from both the LA and DfE, it seems there are few options left.

So our children are taught that bullying is what you're meant to do when you have any sort of power, and that bullies ultimately win. What a great message for them to grow up with.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Fri, 23/05/2014 - 09:56

This is deeply sad - who provided the technical 'cop-out'? Surely illegality would override a technicality?

David Ward's picture
Fri, 23/05/2014 - 13:19

We haven't seen the ruling yet, but the QC whose job it was to make the preliminary examination apparently deemed that the challenge was not made quickly enough and threw it out. I don't have the legal knowledge to address that, but I know that the solicitors were working hard to make sure that they did deliver in time. He also said that the legality was arguable, which is precisely why we were seeking a judicial review.

We've now been lumbered with additional costs just from this, and there's little more we can do. If the evidence had been examined in full by a judge, we believe we'd have won. But now the forces ranged against us can comfort themselves with the knowledge that their actions haven't been found to be illegal. They're still unjust and immoral, but apparently that's not a problem. Welcome to Modern Britain.

Natasha Steel's picture
Fri, 23/05/2014 - 20:32

Please pass on our deepest sympathy to the families involved in this campaign. The dogmatic decision-making and anti-democratic processes are all too familiar to parents at Hove Park School. It all bodes alarmingly badly for the way these academies-by-thinly-veiled-dictat will be run. Thoroughly depressing that the judiciary isn't disposed to deal with the likely illegality - what is the point of it at all?

David Ward's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 07:56

Thanks Natasha. We're not quite done yet - there's still our consultation, which may be featuring in the media soon because of its shockingly slanted nature and the fact that we've been given no assurance that our views will have any effect at all. I may write more on that here.

In general, we need to build up a national network/campaigning group for parents to support each other, rather than fighting a series of local skirmishes. Parents 4 Education look like they might have the potential to do something along those lines. If we lose our school (a prospect that we lived with for most of the last seven months), we can still hold people to account for their actions and leave our mark.

Natasha Steel's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 08:22

That's great to hear. We've had great support from other schools that have had their own fights and, of course, from commentators on LSN. You only realise how extraordinary the zeal is, that is pushing the academy process, when you come into personal contact with it. You're absolutely right, parents, teachers, governors, communities, politicians and school leaders need to join together to push back against this flawed, divisive and politically skewed agenda. Let's support Parents4Education in providing a platform for that.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Sat, 24/05/2014 - 11:14

Since Academies have been shown not to be the universal panacea for failing schools, the zeal you have encountered must be driven either by a delusional optimism that Academies are the only solution, or presumably the privatisation agenda that I frequently refer to.

Have any of those exuding such zeal been questioned as to why?

Natasha Steel's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 06:23

Parents have asked again and again for answers to our many questions about why this conversion is necessary when the school is Ofsted 'good', but have now been told that the school and the governors won't be making individual replies to letters. This includes letters from Hands Off Hove Park, which represents over 160 parents.

The head has also said during a consultation meeting that the governors won't meet with parents from Hands Off Hove Park. They seem very happy that there is no statutory definition on what constitutes a consultation.

The senior leadership team and the governors won't speak to the press either.

At the consultation meetings for parents the reasons the head gave for conversion seemed to revolve around conjecture that it would happen anyway if they didn't and that benefits would mean that they could 'collapse timetables' and share resources and plan school trips with other schools in this 'multi academy trust'.

There was also a pot of money that some academies had managed to cream extra money from that wasn't available to LA schools - but there was no guarantee Hove Park could actually get it's hands on any of this money. Head teachers should be up in arms about this move to a funding system not based on need, not proposing complicity in such politicised short-termism.

The stuff about working with other schools becomes a nonsense when you find out that there are no other schools in this MAT. Or if there are, they're not telling parents so, presumably because they're 'failing schools' that parents wouldn't want their school to be supporting. Also, Hove Park already works with other school, LA control is not a barrier to this.

Back to the 'zeal' -that seems to be coming directly from the senior leadership team along with the private consultant working for the Department for Education, Sir Robert Back. Given that this decision 'hasn't been made' and the school is supposedly 'exploring options' it is disturbing that they are trying to lead the governors by the nose, obstructing full consultation, failing to explore any other options and misrepresenting the views of staff to parents and governors in order to push this through.

Given the paucity of the arguments for the academy in terms of benefits for children and young people, as you suggest, Neil, there has to be a reason that isn't being stated. From what I can see, the main 'greater freedom' the leadership team accrue from academy conversion is in the finance department - the 'freedom' to raise salaries of management, for example, the 'freedom' from local authority tendering arrangements, perhaps, the 'freedom' from local accountability and oversight, a loosening of governance.

In other words - as you say - free market economics and the privatisation agenda.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Sun, 25/05/2014 - 08:07

Thanks Natasha for that update. On the matter of privatisation, the Tories are transferring the state into private hands as fast as they can, so it is no surprise that Education gets its share of the transfer quota. All based on the extremely questionable notion that 'markets' work better. But in education, the key motivation is not money, or at least should not be money, but passion for transforming the lives of children.

The Tories are being caught out here by many exposures of their unspoken privatisation agenda, for they have and cannot offer an argument to justify their actions.

This is brutal political ideology trampling over very reasonable needs and wishes of the people. The Anti-Academies Alliance somehow needs to unite remaining schools in a coordinated, legally supported fight against the march of destructive ideology.

David Ward's picture
Mon, 26/05/2014 - 07:51

You can ask them, but the results are never very revealing. It's always either passing the buck or a dogged insistence that this would be the best thing for the school. If you pin them in a corner, they just refuse to answer. That's why you won't find anyone giving proper interviews about this - it's all carefully worded statements, so they can't be cross-examined.

It's utterly cynical.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 08:51

The chair of the IEB, David Lennard Jones, is also chair of the IEB at a school in Norwich.

He's also a Schools Adjudicator.

And in his role as Schools Adjudicator he ruled in February that an Essex school threatened with closure because of falling rolls should remain open because:

'... the council had "failed to engage with the school" about alternatives and instead presented it with "the decision that had been made".'

But Cavell parents feel they have been presented with a decision that has already been made - to enforce academy conversion.

Neil Moffatt's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 09:08

This sounds good - I had no idea that a Schools Adjudicator could hold sway against the DfE. The faux-consultations carried out are no more than presentations of prior made decisions, often run by the intended Academy sponsor. You should refuse a consultation unless it is run as a consultation. One school had a 93% vote in a consultation against conversion. Lord Nash decided that they should convert anyway, but gave no reason other than 'Academies are the best solution ...".

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 10:19

Neil - it wasn't the DfE wanting to close the Essex school (sorry, I should have made that clear). It was the local council which said they were trying to reduce an oversupply of school places. The schools adjudicator, David Lennard Jones, ruled against the council.

However, Jones is now the chair of the IEB at Cavell (and at least one other Norfolk school) and appears to be involved in forcing a school to do something which parents don't want and which they think has already been decided. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that it's double standards.

In the meantime, a Tory MP has hit out at plans to enforce academy conversion on a Chapel-en-le-Frith school. He said:

“I have made it very clear to Lord Nash that, whilst I am supportive of academies, I would prefer to see them created in agreement with local people rather than imposed."

David Ward's picture
Wed, 28/05/2014 - 20:18

Yes, it beggars belief that a Schools Adjudicator could think the sham of a consultation we've been offered is in any way adequate. It neglects every important aspect of consultation on any topic.

I did know about his job at Eaton, and the Essex school, but I'd forgotten that quote. I must remind him of it.

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