Parents and teachers opposed to local schools being turned into academies have held a day of action in their sleepy coastal town in East Sussex, involving strikes and protests at two primaries and one secondary.
An estimated 250 protesters, made up of parents, children, pet dogs, teachers and school support staff, brought the normally untroubled centre of the fittingly named Peacehaven to a standstill on Wednesday lunchtime.
Onlookers waved and applauded as the demonstrators marched past Body Tips health and beauty salon, Caring Lady funeral directors and Roy’s off-licence, armed with placards, whistles and a cacophony of noisy chants, as the busy Brighton-bound traffic crawled behind them.
They were protesting against plans to take their schools – Peacehaven Heights and Telscombe Cliffs, both primary schools, and the nearby Peacehaven community secondary school – out of local authority control and hand them to an academy trust.
The schools were picketed by protesters who enjoyed jam doughnuts as they chanted: “Leave us be, no academies,” before marching to the town’s Centenary Park for a rally and then on to the Dell, a patch of grassland overlooking the sea, for a picnic.
Telscombe Cliffs has long been a community school. It recently celebrated its 80th anniversary and the parents and grandparents of many of its current pupils attended the same school. On the picket line was Cherry Lean, whose seven-year-old daughter, Naomi, is in year 2 and four-year-old son, Joshua, is in the nursery.
“It’s a fantastic school,” said Lean. “The teachers are wonderful. I don’t think there’s a reason for an academy to take over. It’s not failing. It’s a part of the community. A large majority of parents feel like it’s an academy trust eyeing up our school, rather than it being in the best interests of the children.”
Peacehaven community school, meanwhile, only came into being in 2001 after a 40-year campaign by parents for a secondary school in the town. Less than 20 years later it is on the brink of being taken over by the Kent-based Swale Academies Trust, which is also in the running to take over the two primaries.
“We don’t want it,” said Amanda Tams, who has two children at Telscombe Cliffs, where her parents were also educated. “It’s our school. It’s none of their business. The county council is broke and they are trying to offload the school. I think it’s wrong.”
The action in Peacehaven is one of a number of protests by parents and teachers in England who are opposed to schools being transferred from democratically elected councils to private businesses. Six schools in nearby Lewes recently shelved plans to form an academy trust.
According to the unions, governors at the two primary schools – both rated good by Ofsted – wrote to parents in January saying they had been advised by East Sussex county council to join a local academy trust.
Phil Clarke, the secretary of the Lewes, Eastbourne and Wealden district of the National Education Union, said: “East Sussex council needs to stop doing behind-the-scenes deals which give our schools to private chains like the Swale Academies Trust.”
Like the families who protested this week in Essex against the forced academisation of Waltham Holy Cross school, the parents involved in Peacehaven see themselves as “accidental activists” who knew little about academies until their schools were targeted. Now they are experts.
Alice Burchfield, who has two children aged nine and six at Peacehaven Heights, has done extensive research to find out what it might mean for her children’s school, and she does not like it. “I don’t want the school to become an academy.
“My main concern is accountability. At the moment if there are problems we can go to governors and to the local authority. If it’s an academy we’ve got no one to go to. They can do what they want. This is not about what’s best for the children, it’s a bureaucratic decision. It’s nothing to do with the children.”
An East Sussex council spokesman said: “We have been working closely with Peacehaven Heights primary school and Telscombe Cliffs primary school to improve outcomes for all pupils, ensure both schools have the ability to recruit and retain senior staff and skilled governors and secure greater stability for the longer term.
“The governing board are at an early stage of considering academy conversion and a full consultation with staff, parents and the school community would take place before any final decision is reached.”
On the secondary school, which is now judged good by Ofsted after a poor earlier inspection, the spokesman said a full consultation was completed in 2017. “We anticipate that the academy conversion will be completed in the next few months and that all parties will continue to work together to ensure a strong future for its pupils, staff and community.”
Source: The Guardian