‘Anyone here from the Spectator?’ Last night a packed meeting at Downhills Primary in Haringey began with this ominous query from the chairman, Clive Boutle, who leads a local campaign against academies. Seated at the side of the hall I kept quiet. ‘No one?’ said Boutle, ‘Great, we’re safe.’
The meeting had attracted about 800 protesters and activists who oppose Michael Gove’s decision to force Downhills – a failing multi-ethnic school – to become an academy. ‘Michael Gove really hates us,’ continued Boutle, his manner urbane rather than menacing. ‘The government doesn’t like Haringey. There hasn’t been a Tory here since Noah was in short trousers. So we’re no risk.’
The Haringey protestors see themselves as lab rats in an evil Tory plot to privatise the entire education system. ‘A deep-set and incoherent ideology’ is behind the reforms, according to David Lammy, the local MP and an old boy of Downhills. He summed up the mood with this dark prophecy: ‘Friends of Michael Gove want to get their hands on the state system and make profits.’ He accused Gove of ‘brutalising Haringey’ and ‘kicking around the local authority’.
In Surrey, he said, where Gove’s constituency is located, 26 primaries are performing worse than Downhills. ‘Why doesn’t he close them down? Because ideology motivates Gove.’ Flurries of assent ran around the hall. Lammy finished on a rabble-rouser. ‘Mr Gove! Live up to the apparent “intellect” you’re supposed to have! And don’t treat us like a bunch of fools.’
Christine Blower, General Secretary of the NUT, called Gove an ‘obdurate radical’ who sought to ‘dismantle, privatise and eradicate the state education system.’ ‘He wants a lot of little free-standing schools in the image of Michael Gove.’ She hinted that her union hadn’t ruled out strikes. ‘We’re holding industrial action in reserve.’
Fiona Miller, a long-standing opponent of free schools, congratulated the campaign for ‘exposing the government’s intellectual dishonesty.’ She conjured an alarming image of the future, where ‘decisions are made behind closed doors and “academy chains” of 1,000 schools are wholly owned by subsidiaries of corporations posing as charities.’
Gove might learn something from this campaign. His oft-repeated promise that profiteers won’t be allowed anywhere near the academy system hasn’t got through. Every speaker conflated ‘academies’ with ‘privatisation.’ Fiona Miller put it bluntly: ‘All the money will be siphoned off to pay executives hefty salaries.’
The campaign has some decent arguments. Downhills isn’t failing, they say, it just needs more time to improve. And it faces unique challenges because three-quarters of its kids come from abroad. Forcing a school to jump species and become an academy in the face of parental opposition is hardly a triumph of democracy. It’s not localism in action; it’s centralism running rampant.
Gove insists that Downhills must nominate a sponsor and accept academy status by 3 February. A maths teacher asked, ‘if it’s such a good idea, why not convince us, and give us time to find a decent sponsor?’ Another speaker invited Gove to come to Haringey and debate the issue. ‘We’ll give him Ally Pally.’ Warm cheers greeted that one.
The campaigners are formidable, passionate and highly motivated. And their sheer enthusiasm for their school began to persuade me that they might be right. If they want Downhills let them have it.
The meeting broke up. As the crowds dispersed, I roamed the hall looking at the coursework on display. At Downhillls each class is named after an overseas city – Atlanta, Rio, Barcelona, Seoul – to reflect the school’s global intake. Topic boards showed work on subjects like ‘fireworks,’ ‘light and dark’ and ‘Aztec masks’.
The kids in Atlanta Class (Year One) had learned about animals. ‘We made graphs about our pets,’ a teacher had written. Underneath, the kids had annotated the results:
‘5 peple liked ginea pigs in Atlanta cluss.’‘12 pepl likd cats in Atlanta Kluss’‘The snail was the lest popylr pet.’
‘sumo is japans national sport althrough baseball is popular to.’‘tokyo and Japan is near to the pacific ocean.’‘sometimes The trains are so crowed railyway.’
On that evidence, the place hardly qualifies as a school at all. It’s just a crèche with some computers and art materials. Go for it, Gove.