`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.