New ‘city academy supremo’ to quit his cabinet post
John Bryant’s successor will face questions over the consultation process
Opposition and unions react to the departure of councillor and call for a ‘change in direction for the better’ over schools strategy
ONE of the masterminds behind Camden’s new city academy plan for Swiss Cottage is to quit his role in the project.
Liberal Democrat councillor John Bryant revealed plans to quit the Town Hall’s cabinet on Monday and will return to the council backbenches in May.
His move comes just two months after the embarrassment of seeing one of his private memos leaked, apparently exposing his partisan disapproval of the prospect of the Church of England sponsoring the borough’s first academy school.
In the same message, he suggested that the Lib Dems needed to get the academy built in time for the next boroughwide elections to curry favour with voters.
It was circulated some time last summer and before a final decision had been taken to give University College London (UCL) the keys to the new school and at a time when other potential sponsors were still pitching their interest.
The memo could still potentially be used as evidence in a possible judicial review threatened by two parents of primary school aged children into how Camden gave way to UCL’s bid to sponsor the academy planned for Adelaide Road.
Cllr Bryant did not mention the controversy surrounding the leak in a statement and instead said his reasons for going were rooted closer to home.
“It is a largely for personal reasons,” he said. “I have suffered a series of health problems in the last couple of years and I do need more time to get fully fit. I have also put my own education consultancy business on the back burner in the last couple of years and want to rebuild this.
“There are some new work opportunities beginning to emerge for me which I would like to pursue later in the year.”
But inevitably his decision to step down has quickly become the subject of gossip and rivals are speculating over the timing of his departure and running through his statement for clues of a fall-out at the top.
They are questioning what it might mean for the academy, likely to be one of the defining projects when the Lib Dem and Conservative coalition administration is finally judged on its performance in elections in two years’ time.
Labour councillors said it is hard to fathom why Cllr Bryant, who spent a long time on the opposition ranks waiting for the Lib Dems to seize power, would leave at such a crucial point in the academy project.
While it is unrealistic to think that a new chief member could single-handedly overturn preparations for the UCL academy, there are still battles to be fought, including the threatened judicial review and on ongoing debate on what should happen to Frank Barnes School for Deaf Children, which is facing eviction from the target site in Adelaide Road.
Also significant is the fact that every other secondary school in Camden is on the brink of starting major refurbishment works and the council’s education department has never been so busy owing to the upheaval.
Labour’s education spokeswoman Councillor Heather Johnson said: “Cllr Bryant can give mealy-mouthed reasons for resigning that concentrate on improving his own future, but isn’t it about time he admitted that he got it wrong, the Lib Dems and Tories put political gain first and that it’s time for this administration to look at what is best for education in Camden as a whole?”
With or without a judicial review from parents, Labour will take the issue further by demanding a full review of how Camden dealt with a £200 million government handout under the nationwide Building Schools for the Future programme, often described as a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity by councillors because of the amount of money at stake.
Parents in the south of the borough insist that the once in a lifetime chance should have provided them with a new school given the serious lack of secondary places in places like Holborn and Covent Garden.
Labour councillor Geethika Jayatilaka, who sits on a scrutiny committee probing the project, said: “It’s odd that people are changing jobs right in the middle of the biggest school building programme in Camden’s history. Whoever they are, John Bryant’s successor will have to answer questions about the way in which people were consulted about a school in the south and the future of special needs provision.”
Andrew Baisley, from Camden NUT, said: “We are glad that he is going because the direction the council has been taken has not been positive in its formation of an academy. We just hope that the change will not just be a change in personalities but a change in direction for the better.”
In the Lib Dem and Conservative power pact at the Town Hall, the Tories have control of the education department through chairman Councillor Andrew Mennear.
But Cllr Bryant has been celebrated in the Lib Dem ranks for acting as a nightwatchman, keeping an eye on the new school project because his children’s services portfolio is directly involved.
Rather than be too worried about the academy’s critics, he insists the council has made great strides.
“I feel good progress has been made on the range of manifesto commitments that we made at the time of the last election,” said Cllr Bryant. “We have clear plans for building a new secondary school in the borough, the first here for 30 years, and with the best possible sponsor that is offering genuinely comprehensive education. The previous administration had no plans whatsoever for a new school, anywhere in the borough. We have proved that we can make it happen.”
On the surface, at least, there is no suggestion that Cllr Bryant was persuaded to stand down by his party. He is said to have told colleagues of his plans as long ago as November and it has not come as a surprise to those close to him. In fact, potential successors may even have begun making their case to take over the reins.
Ultimately, his replacement will be chosen by council leader Keith Moffitt, who picks all of the Lib Dem cabinet members rather than putting it to a group vote. It is rumoured that Cllr Bryant’s position will not be the only top job up for grabs and Cllr Moffitt will use the party’s annual meeting in May to blood some of his younger recruits by reshuffling the pack. Several names of backbenchers are already emerging internally as hot tips for promotions.
Cllr Bryant, who was once a councillor in Humberside, hinted that he could still return to the fold in the future, adding: “I do not intend to fade away. I would be pleased to take on a scrutiny role on the council and currently planning to seek nomination as a Liberal Democrat candidate again for West Hampstead ward for 2010.
“And I’m not ruling out the possibility of rejoining the executive again in the future.”
He added: “I have been fortunate during my political career to have experienced a degree of power on two different councils, in different circumstances, and feel that others should now get the chance.”
Cllr Bryant said he felt he had also helped improve pupil attendance and was proud of the creation of a youth parliament, the elections to which are currently being held.
Cllr Moffitt said: “John Bryant has been a tower of strength in the new administration and I was very sorry when he told me last autumn that he would like to step down from the executive in May.
“His contribution on schools and other children’s issues since he took over this role has been hugely valuable and he will be a hard act to follow.”