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The Battle for Downhills

JustinLast week self-styled ‘Save Downhills’ activists failed in their High Court bid to stop Downhills Primary School in Tottenham from being converted into an academy. Justin Hinchliffe, a local Conservative campaigner and a school governor at a neighbouring primary school reports

The Coalition government has built upon Labour’s academy reforms to enable the freedoms they offer to be extended to many more schools. The number of academies has risen from 203 in May 2010 to 1,807 in January 2012. Whilst outstanding secondary schools have had the right to become academies throughout, the policy of extending academy status to underperforming schools (which actually began under the last Labour government) and to primary schools has proved more controversial in practice—nowhere more so than at Downhills Primary School in Tottenham, now set to become a Harris Foundation Academy from September.

It is in fact at primary level that academies could make the greatest difference. Mr Gove has understood that intervening only at secondary level is pointless. If you can get things right at primary level, there’s a far better chance that kids will stay on the right path through secondary school, despite the decline of parental influence at that age and hormones kicking in! Later interventions (like those by Simon Marcus at his boxing academy for older school-excluded youths in Tottenham) can certainly work, but early intervention works even better.

In May 2011, Key Stage 2 tests in Britain’s 16,000 primary schools revealed 1,310 of those schools to be failing. Schools Minister Nick Gibb warned at the time that these schools (especially the 150 of them with a 5-year track record of under-performance) were firmly in the government’s sights. They could expect some form of intervention which might include conversion to a sponsored academy.

Local parents weren’t surprised when the worst performance in London was shown to be Haringey with eight schools (15%) failing to reach the minimum acceptable standard. One of those schools was Downhills Primary, a quarter mile from where I live. It also happens to be the school my younger brother used to attend, but more importantly for Downhills, it is the primary school which Tottenham’s MP David Lammy used to attend.

Downhill had already been given a "notice to improve" by Ofsted in January 2010 as inspectors judged it was doing less well than expected. It cannot then have been entirely unexpected when Michael Gove intervened to force a change to academy status at Downhills (and two other local schools). However, it was only Downhills that became the cause celebre of the Left in subsequent months—the test case which would decide whether local authorities could retain their grip on a school in defiance of government policy, and regardless of a years’ long record of failure.

Which brings me back to Mr Lammy. His noisy, high-profile intervention in the Downhills squabble has been politically very convenient for him, earning Left kudos with Labour councillors, the NUT, and Guardian readers everywhere.  

Why should he need that kudos? Well, it was universally agreed that Mr Lammy had a ‘good riot’ last year. He looked suitably grave for the cameras, said all the right things to the media and in Parliament, and even won plaudits from David Cameron.  I don’t doubt M Lammy's sincerity on that matter—he followed up with the publication of an excellent book ‘Out of the Ashes’, which any Conservative MP could feel proud to have written.  But his growing evolution as a social conservative has meant going out on a political limb and potentially alienating his natural supporters in Tottenham’s left-of-centre, union-dominated CLP. They want to hear him blaming ‘Tory Cuts’, not fatherless families for the area’s social ills.

Standing shoulder to shoulder on the barricades with Fiona Millar of Comprehensive Future, and the NUT’s Christine Blower, has done Mr Lammy  no end of good with these ideological opponents of academies.

Back to Downhills: the central plank of the ‘Downhills Defence’ against the imposition of academy status was that the May 2011 KS2 results were already out-of-date. Six of the 15 classroom teachers were new to the school since those May results, and the school had been making rapid progress since then. They therefore contended that no further action should be taken in advance of the next OFSTED inspection. In January 2012 Gove called their bluff and instructed OFSTED to carry out a fresh inspection.

This plan was initially welcomed by the school’s governors. In a statement, the Downhills governors said: "The governing body of Downhills primary school is pleased to note that the secretary of state has agreed to wait until the school has an inspection by Ofsted before taking any further action with regard to the school's governance and structure... we welcome the secretary of state's plans for an expedited OFSTED inspection."

Regrettably, the ‘Save Downhills’ campaigners actually believed their own publicity, and were genuinely shocked when this fresh OFSTED report found that the school had failed to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education and that those responsible for leading, managing and governing the school hadn't demonstrated the capacity to secure the improvement necessary.

Following this negative report, the school was placed in special measures in February, and in March 2012, Education Secretary Michael Gove finally sacked the governing body and replaced them with a high-profile "interim executive board". Following further assessment and consultation, in June the Department for Education (DfE) announced the "under-performing" Downhills Primary School in Tottenham would become an academy in September, which led to ‘Save Downhill’ activists seeking the judicial review which has reported last week.

Mr Justice Kenneth described the school's past performance as “egregious” and said that Gove’s decision to intervene was therefore rational. Following the ruling, sadly, ‘Save Downhills’ campaigners have said they are considering an appeal against the court's decision. For the sake of local children, let’s hope they desist. Pupils, teachers and parents at Downhills now need a period of calm to allow the school to recover from decades of neglect by the local authority and a year of politically-motivated turmoil.  For, as ConservativeHome noted last August, Tottenham’s children were “too often receiving a sub-standard education, half of them forced to commute daily to get an education at all.”


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