Academy memo: embarrassing leak… or a ticking timebomb?
University College London protest in October: ‘Camden doesn’t need an academy’
TOWN Hall chiefs have confidently told colleagues they are unlikely to lose a High Court case over the way they handled plans for Camden’s first city academy.
This is despite the embarrassing leak of a secret memo in which a senior Liberal Democrat said the council had to get on with building the school in time for the next local elections.
Eyebrows have been raised by some members of the ruling Lib Dem and Conservative coalition behind closed doors over why such explosive remarks were ever included in a written briefing to be seen by a wide group of governors.
But Lib Dem councillor John Bryant, the children’s services chief at the centre of the row, has the support of his party, and senior figures within the Town Hall think they are in the clear.
They do not expect a judge to make any criticism of the way University College London was handed control of the new academy in Adelaide Road, Swiss Cottage, if the case is taken to a judicial review.
A High Court challenge would undoubtedly be an uncomfortable inconvenience for the council, which was only recently dragged into the High Court to defend the way it handled the redevelopment of the King’s Cross railway lands. But Conservative education chief Councillor Andrew Mennear has said he is “happy” with the council’s actions. He is confident there is no cause for panic.
Lawyers representing two parents with primary school-aged children who are challenging the council have unveiled a six-point plan with which they think they can prove the council’s handling of the project was flawed.
Their case papers include Cllr Bryant’s revealing memo, written at some stage over the summer but only made available to public eyes last week when it was confirmed that the council has been asked to say why the issue should not be resolved at the Royal Courts of Justice.
There is certainly buoyancy among opponents of Camden’s strategy, with campaigners refusing to be downhearted by the Town Hall’s approval of the UCL option at a special council meeting last month. They remain hopeful that the decision can be quashed.
Camden’s milestone decision did not meet with the cheers that the council might have been expecting. Labour’s deputy leader Councillor Theo Blackwell warned the council it had been starstruck by the UCL offer. A golden project in the eyes of the council’s power players – the chance to open an academy that would make neighbouring authorities jealous – is suddenly being scrutinised again.
Whether the existence of the memo can turn the case against the council or not, it does mark one of the most embarrassing leaks since the coalition came to office last May and hardens opposition fears that the alliance is working to complete all its major projects in time for a flourish just before the next council elections.
Comparisons have been made with the plan to open the refurbished Prince of Wales swimming baths around 2010, when Camden’s voters are next due at the polls and the first non-Labour administration in four decades faces the public vote.
The Lib Dems have a reputation in their north London branch offices of being so industrious and close-knit that leaking sensitive documents is highly frowned upon. It has apparently irritated party organisers that Cllr Bryant’s private thoughts have reached opponents and, perhaps inevitably, newspaper offices as well. Cllr Bryant said that, for legal reasons, he could not comment on the content of his briefing. Backbench supporters have rushed to his aid, writing defensive letters to editors and constituents.
The controversial briefing note clearly advised governors, supposedly aligned with Lib Dem thinking, against holding an open competition for sponsorship of the new school, adding that this “would delay the possibility of having evidence of any building taking place on Adelaide Road at the time of the next election”.
The memo has also upset some headteachers and governors by claiming that existing schools, in need of improvement, could not be used as an advertisement for traditional community schools in Camden. It also risked antagonising faith groups with the clear steer that Cllr Bryant was not interested in any church involvement.
A senior teacher at one of Camden’s most popular secondary schools rang the New Journal at the end of last week, clearly incensed but worried about the ramifications of going on the record with his criticism of Cllr Bryant.
“If he doesn’t have faith in schools like Camden School for Girls, William Ellis, Acland Burghley or Haverstock with its year-on-year improvements, why should we have faith in him to get this right,” he said. “You can’t underestimate the importance of this new school.”
Cllr Bryant’s final conclusion in the briefing is that Camden should not run a competition for sponsorship and instead that control should go to UCL.
Ironically, the Bloomsbury university has always been wary of negative publicity throughout the two years it has been in contact with the Town Hall. The last thing the university’s provost, Malcolm Grant, wanted was a dogfight over the academy but the project is now mired in controversy.
Not only are there protesters who say the school is to open in the wrong place given the lack of secondary places south of Euston Road and others who warn that Prof Grant’s academy will be designed to target only the borough’s brightest children, UCL could still have to wait for a High Court review before it gets its hands on the site.
All this – and still Camden has yet to resolve the future of Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children, which will have to find a new home so that UCL can build on the site.
The battle plan laid out by lawyers Leigh Day and Co on behalf of parents Juliet Prew and Deseline Djiayep has six points of attack, arguing:
• Information about UCL’s bid was not made publicly available at the height of a consultation period.
• Councillors appeared to have closed minds in their support for UCL.
• Camden did not do enough to guarantee control over admissions policy at the new school.
• Educations chiefs unfairly decided against sending the issue to an adjudicator.
• The decision was made to boost ballot box chances at the next council elections.
• There was clear bias against a bid from the Church of England.
The legal papers are now in the hands of Camden’s lawyers. The documents are likely to be put before a judge, who will decide whether the case is weighty enough to warrant a full hearing.
Leigh Day and Co said in a statement: “As it happens, our clients have different ideas as to what type of school (or what sponsor in the case of an academy) they would wish to see on the site. But they both consider the decision as to what process is pursued needed to follow lawful consultation and that the decision between options should be taken on a proper basis and following a lawful process.
“Our clients consider that the council has acted unlawfully because the consultation which preceded the decision not to have a competition and, instead, simply to appoint UCL to promote an academy was flawed. There was an appearance of bias and predetermination on the part of members of the executive.”