THE twisted knife of privatisation today took a vibrant Sussex primary school as its latest victim.
And with it, the lives, the hopes and futures of 400 young children.
The board of governors of Castledown Primary School in Hastings had engineered a three month strategy to turn their community school into an Ark academy.
They claimed 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.
But the vast majority of parents disagree and 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.
Today’s announcement that the school will go-ahead to become an academy has been met by fury and distress by parents and teachers.
One parent said: “It is a very dark day for our children. I am furious with the school governors who have made this decision – they should all hang their heads in shame.”
A dad said: “A day of sadness, not just for our children or for us as parents, but indeed for this laughable illusion of democracy we cling to in this country. The choice of the masses ignored in favour of the chosen few.”
And distraught mum added: “How sad. I am angry and deeply upset both my boys came out and said I don’t want to go to the school no more. I am gutted at how this has affected my babies… I just want to sit and cry.”
Another parent added: “This is all about money and political connections. I am taking my child out of Castledown now, but this is not the end of the fight.”
Others have suggested now taking legal action against the academy decision.
But the twisted backdoor privatisation of Castledown has been on the cards since the turn of the year.
And many regarded it as a ‘done deal’ well before the announcement.
In January, Castledown formally announced its intention to join the Ark Academy Trust.
At the time Richard Sage, chairman of governors at Castledown, said the governors decided after meetings with various trusts that Ark was best for the school.
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.
But parents, teachers and local residents say 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.
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 unanimous backing to the Hands Off Castledown campaign.
A week later campaigner Louise Hersee delivered a petition of over 1,000 signatures to East Sussex County Council, opposing the academisation.
By the time today’s announcement was made that petition had grown to a stunning 1,696 names.
“All over the country schools are turning into academies, and all over the country parents are wondering why this is happening,” said Louise.
“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 to 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!”
The Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, Amber Rudd, who is also the Home Secretary, did become involved in the battle over Castledown School, although she is a known supporter of academies and recently engaged the press to openly praise another primary academy in her constituency.
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.”