In 2017-2018, the workers, students and community of Barclay School in Stevenage waged a major campaign to prevent takeover by Future Academies, who have leapt to wider attention recently as a result of the anti-racist rebellion by students at Pimlico Academy.
We republish here a 2019 interview about the campaign with Jill Borcherds, who was a teacher and National Education Union rep at Barclay School, and Labour candidate for Stevenage in the 2019 general election; and Josh Lovell, a Labour councillor in the ward. Never published online before, it was originally printed in the Clarion pamphlet Abolish academies!, which can be purchased here.
Jill Borcherds: In July 2016, an Ofsted inspection tipped the school into special measures and an academy order was served. At that point there wasn't a struggle. The Multi Academy Trust that was going to take over the school was Herts for Learning [HfL], which had come out of the embers of the Hertfordshire County Council LEA advisory service for schools. We weren't pleased but not particularly hostile either. After Easter 2018, we had a new Ofsted inspection, and we came out of special measures. We assumed that meant we were out from under the academy order. In June it was announced that it still stood and that we would come under Futures Academy Trust.
Josh Lovell: John Nash, of that Academies Trust, is the former academies minister and a Tory Lord. He's donated £300,000 to the Tories.
Jill: After a Freedom of Information request, it became clear that in June 2017 our Tory MP, Stephen McPartland, had gone to Nash, who was then academies minister, and objected to HfL. In October 2017 Nash resigned as academies minister and within a week both Barclay and Cavendish school in Hemel Hempstead were being taken over. Massive, massive conflict of interest - "jobs for the boys", as we later said in the campaign. McPartland claimed he never met Future Academies as such, and met Nash only as academies minister. Obviously nonsense. The campaign against academisation was launched in November 2018, with a press release from Josh. Out of a meeting on 8 November, we got a core of parents and activists.
Josh: These were people who were politicised on a single issue where Conservative policy was having a direct effect on them. It was a good Labour Party campaigning thing.
Jill: The union had a meeting at the end of September 2018 and got out a list of concerns. Cavendish school in Hemel Hempstead had opened as a Futures Academy in September, and that was a phenomenal source of information. All Year 7 there do Latin, but there's a major cut back on art, music and drama. Cavendish's land is already being sold off, and Futures is getting the money. The only date for conversion we could find - on the DfE [Department for Education] website! - was 1 January. Under the anti-union laws we had to work back from that. Union membership tripled, and density went up to almost 100%, including about 75 or 80% for the NEU. The ballot came back 97% for action on a strong turnout, smashing the threshold [under the 2016 Trade Union Act] and we struck for the first time on 12 December.
Josh: We had support from outside Stevenage, for instance Greenwich NEU and the John Roan campaign, and a number of parents on the picket. But at that stage the campaign it was still being led and run by the teachers and a small core of parents. The campaign was heavily influenced by Labour people, but we didn't turn it directly into a Labour Party campaign.
Jill: The campaign as such wasn't party political. But I was very upfront about being the Labour parliamentary candidate. McPartland came out and told the press at it was a Labour campaign, a purely political campaign, that it was only a handful of parents and that the teachers felt forced to go on strike. Having him point out I was both a teacher at the school and a parliamentary candidate was quite helpful for me. And it absolutely incensed the parents.
Josh: McPartland agreed to meet the parents on 17 January. But the academisation was due on 1 January.
Jill: Then we were told that the academisation wouldn't happen until April. And then on 21 December, the last day of term, staff were told suddenly that the conversion date was 1 February. We moved fast and managed to get a notice of strike action served to enable us to strike on 16 January, but even that was only 16 days before the conversation date.
Josh: I chaired the first meeting in November and the meeting on 9 January. The first had 45 people at it; the second one had over 200, only two or three days into the new term. It had become a community-wide issue.
Jill: The strikes were very strong. A lot of support staff who are child-facing came into the NEU, and struck too. We hope to get a support staff NEU rep in the school. And some Unison members didn't go into work. On 16 January we had a demonstration outside the school of 200 people, including children at the school. Later on, perhaps unsurprisingly, the head teacher resigned. We had a three day strike the following week. The head, the deputy and the chair of governors went to London with a desperate last plea to rescind the order. We lobbied our MPs. McPartland wouldn't come near any of us.
Josh: In the final week before academisation, we got two Guardian articles, BBC radio interviews. On 1 February there was a demo outside the school by parents after they announced a new headteacher without consultation with anyone, without even advertising it. But it was late in the day.
Jill: On 5 February there was a parents' meeting held by Futures. It was not pleasant for them. They only allowed fifteen minutes for questions at the end of an hour presentation, in which Futures CEO Paul Smith just talked at the parents about Pimlico Academy [the chain's "flagship" academy], but they got slaughtered.
We've got to know staff at other Futures Academies, and we've asked for joint negotiation and consultation across the trust. We've asked for union recognition within each school and we've asked for an agreement on facilities time. The fact it was the Nashes - Lord and Lady Nash and their academy chain - helped us get press coverage, I think.
When Trump's education secretary Betsy DeVos came to Britain she visited Pimlico academy and Aditya Chakrabortty's article in the Guardian linked in our issues with the rhetoric foisted on us around Brexit about "will of the people", pointing out that in Stevenage, the will of the people was being completely ignored.
We had a march in the town that doesn't do marches. We didn't even have marches during the 2011 public sector strikes. People said they hadn't seen a mass meeting like that here for decades.
It's good that Labour policy says no more academies or free schools. If a new school is needed, it needs to be a local authority school. We want nationalised but locally run schools. Where Labour haven't gone is to say they'll renationalise all schools. Renationalising schools is easier said than done, because the infrastructure that supported local authority schools has been destroyed. Failing academies and academy chains that need to be renationalised would be a starting point.
From a union point of view we need to insist on standard terms and conditions for teachers and other workers in every school, and comparable curriculum and standards. Lady Nash is behind the curriculum at Futures, and that is why the English lessons are all really conservative and traditional. But there needs to be a firm commitment that that scrapping academies is the aim. I want to be the MP cutting the ribbon when Barclays comes back into local authority control! [Unfortunately Labour didn't win back Stevenage in 2019.]
Josh: It's good to create ways to chip away at privatisation, but we need to abolish academisation and privatisation entirely. The National Education Service should mean the complete deprivatisation of all education - not just schools, but FE, universities, all educational environments. Scrapping academies is not going to happen in a year but unless we have the aim it's never going to happen. And since 2018 it's party conference policy.
Jill: The issues of fragmentation and privatisation of public services are the same in health, in the care industry, and other places. Now ordinary people are up against all these different private interests, employers, landlords... We need to give people an expectation it can be different. So, public ownership. And to get there, changing the union laws is key. People need teaching about academies. We have a Labour councillor who is chair of a board of governors who pushed academisation in her school.
Josh: The Labour right defended this process for years. It was an instrument of Blairism to meddle with the education system. Academisation really began with Blair.
For many people in Labour, schools are where Blair did good work. The Blair government got class sizes down. But the governance and oversight of schooling was being handed over to private control, put into boardrooms.
The problem is not about millions of pounds in dividends, though obviously people at the top get a lot of money. It's about the model of how schools are run. The left can play a crucial role explaining the long term implications and why we need to fight this issue.
Jill: Workers need to organise and join together within MATs [Multi Academy Trusts] and build links between staff. Teachers need to become more militant. Staff can't de-academise schools by ourselves, but we can defend workers and create conditions which are as favourable as possible for undermining academisation.
Things can change! Things you think can't happen can happen. We need to raise expectations, particularly among young people.
There are a lots of anti-academies campaigns, but it's fragmented. Focusing on Labour to have a strong, positive policy can bring it all together.