In the not-so-sleepy seaside resort of Hastings the parents are angry.
Not just kiss-me-quick hat or candy floss angry… they are absolutely furious.
They are waging a war against education overlords which promises to match a similar battle fought here 950 years ago.
If the parents lose, the victims won’t be Saxon warriors… but small children.
The board of governors of Castledown Primary School wants their 400 pupil school to become an academy by September 2017.
They claim the school is failing by virtue of its recent SAT results, while failing to recognise its long held excellent reputation for music and the arts.
Now parents have formed a Hands Off Castledown group to fight the plans, which many see as a backdoor to privatisation and cherry picking of elite academic pupils.
In January, Castledown formally announced its intention to join the Ark Academy Trust. But parents, teachers and local residents were only told of the decision via a letter explaining a six week consultation period. And there have been no consultations on any alternatives to Ark or academisation.
The Ark group already runs several other schools in the Hastings area. Nationally it had an income of £21.9 million and assets of £31.3 million in the year ending August 2015 – the last year for which full accounts are available.
Its income and assets are increasing by about £2.5 million a year.
Richard Sage, chairman of governors at Castledown, said the governors decided after meetings with various trusts that Ark was best for the school.
“We felt it was important to move rapidly to ensure the school is delivering the highest possible quality education for Castledown pupils as soon as possible,” he said.
Castledown is in the bottom 10% of schools for 2016 SATS exam results.
But according to Hands Off Castledown, results were poor because the 2014 curriculum was implemented two years too late. Pupils sitting the exams in 2016 had not received up-to-date teaching.
Additionally, the previous Ofsted report in 2013 marked the school as Good.
Hands Off Castledown says it has spoken to parents who removed their children from other Ark academies because of its history of imposing restrictive and regimental behaviour policies, which many believe are not suitable for young children.
On 15 February, Hastings Borough Council gave its full backing to the Hands Off Castledown campaign.
Council leader Peter Chowney put forward a motion to the full council which said: “We believe by taking schools out of local authority control, and reducing the powers and responsibilities of governing boards, educational performances are not necessarily improved and a less rewarding educational experience for students can be created through a narrower curriculum.
“There are now currently only two schools left in Hastings that have not converted to academies, and at one of these, Castledown Primary, there is now a proposal to convert this school to an academy too.
“This council therefore supports parents in their campaign to oppose the academisation of Castledown without any alternatives being presented, and calls for the current plans to be to be halted immediately so that parents, governors, staff, and other stakeholders can explore all possible options to improve standards and effectiveness of teaching at the school.”
The motion was carried unanimously.
Councillor Tania Charman even suggested the school governors should resign.
“They oversaw Castledown’s decline,” she said, “So should not decide its future.”
Campaigner Louise Hersee has delivered a petition of over 1,000 signatures to East Sussex County Council, opposing the academisation.
“Hands Off Castledown is simply calling for a halt to this consultation with Ark, in order for every stakeholder group to have a proper discussion about the school’s rapid decline and then to look at all the alternative solutions available,” she said.
“This is extremely reasonable and justified.
“All over the country schools are turning into academies, and all over the country parents are wondering why this is happening.
“Here in Hastings we believe that Ark Schools is a bad fit for Castledown and that there are other options!”
Nationally, the imposition of academy status on many supposedly “failing schools” has been met with similar outrage and opposition as that currently evident in Hastings.
Many believe that academies are part of a Conservative government mantra to introduce privatisation and “grammar school type” selection on state schools.
They point to the profit margins of many academy trusts and the salaries paid to their headteachers.
One head of a primary academy chain took home a salary in excess of £200,000, after being handed a massive pay rise.
Sir Greg Martin, executive head of Durand Academy in Stockwell, south London, saw his salary rise by 56 per cent to a total of £200,822 – due to the fact he runs several schools.
He also received £28,316 in pension contributions, which took his overall remuneration package to £229,138.
Sir Greg – who is planning a boarding school in the Sussex countryside – also earned a further £160,000 from a company set up to run the school’s sports and fitness centre last year.
This is more than the Prime Minister and many city bankers.
Last year delegates at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers conference in Liverpool, heard that growing numbers of heads were now also earning more than the Prime Minister’s salary of £149,440 a year.
“When schools were under local council control, it would have been unthinkable as well as impossible that a headteacher, of even a group of schools, could earn more than a director of education, let alone the Secretary of State for Education, let alone the Prime Minister,” Simon Clarkson from Leicestershire told the conference.
“We need to guard against the rot of greed. Executive headteachers and headteachers have looked at their budgets and I am afraid some have decided to pay themselves excessive salaries.”
Figures showed that in 2015, a total of 41 heads were earning more than £142,000 a year.
Mr Clarkson said: “Our state schools are paid for by the public. They need to be accountable. When I started teaching, especially in the state sector, there was little or no corruption.”
He added: “Let me remind you whose money is being used to do this… ours!”
So what are academies?
- Academies receive their funding directly from the government, rather than through local authorities like other state funded schools. They also operate independently of local authorities and the National Curriculum.
- There are two types: converter academies (those previously with ‘good’ or ‘outstanding’ Ofsted grades that have converted to academy status) and sponsored academies (mostly underperforming schools converting to academy status and run by sponsors).
- In 2016 there were around 5,200 academies open across all age groups. About 3,600 are converter academies. A further 700 are in development.
- Evidence on the performance of academies compared to local authority schools is mixed. One analysis found little difference in GCSE performance between academies and similar local authority schools. There’s little evidence available which looks at primary schools.
- Academies are directly accountable to the Education Secretary, while all other state-funded schools are accountable to local authorities. Both are inspected by Ofsted.
- Academies are run by academy trusts and don’t have to follow the national curriculum and have greater freedom to set their own term times and admissions. They also have more freedom over employing unqualified teachers.
A 2014 survey of academies by the DfE found that 87% say they are now buying in services previously provided by the Local Authority from elsewhere, 55% have changed their curriculum, 8% have changed the length of their school day and 4% have changed their school terms.
In 2015, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee criticised the DfE for allowing academy chains to grow in size without independent assessments of their capacity and capability to do so.
And 17 sponsors had been formally paused from being able to expand further because of concerns over the performance of their schools by the DfE.
Ofsted Chief Inspector Sir Michael Wilshaw raised concerns with the government in March 2016 regarding the performance of seven multi-academy trusts.
He said that “much more needs to be done to reduce the variation in standards between the best and worst academy trusts”.
Back on the Sussex coast, the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, Amber Rudd, who is also the Home Secretary, has not become involved in the battle over Castledown School, although she is a known supporter of academies.
But shadow education minister Angela Rayner MP is a vociferous opponent of academies and grammar schools.
Last September, she said: “Tory academy plans are in complete chaos.
“The impossible job the Department for Education has set itself in trying to directly run thousands of schools from Whitehall is fully exposed as we learn over half of existing academy chains have refused to take on schools and 70% of inadequate academies have been left languishing with poor academy chains.
“Forcing all schools to become academies and introducing even more disruption into the system with new grammar schools will make this situation even worse.
“The Tories need to get a hold on this once and for all or it will be our children who pay the price.”
- Parents have until the end of February to persuade Castledown School governors to stop the bandwagon towards academisation. Watch this video and support Hands Off Castledown! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPV4IiqRgt8&feature=youtu.be