What does the future hold for the kids at Frank Barnes?
Frank Barnes supporters, from left: Labour councillor Anna Stewart, parent Tomato Lichy, school vice-chair Cheryl Warlow, head Karen Simpson, governor Mike Katz, Parent Action Group co-ordinator Polly Burton and assistant head Emma Kelty
With Camden’s schools project awash with cash, controversial plans to merge deaf schools risk a loss of public confidence in the scheme, write Richard Osley and Charlotte Chambers
WITH its promise of £200 million to spend on improving Camden’s secondary schools and the chance to open a brand new one, the government’s Building Schools for the Future programme has unsurprisingly been billed as a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.
But its golden touch has not been extended to the one school dedicated to helping deaf children, leading to the straight question: Who will care for Frank Barnes School?
Never before has so much money been available to spend on education in Camden and the sheer size of the government investment has given the Liberal Democrat and Conservative coalition at the Town Hall the chance to bring out the feelgood factor by spending big.
Yet for all the enthusiasm about what might be achieved in the coming years and a rush to use the money to open Camden’s first city academy, the future for Frank Barnes School in Swiss Cottage – despite months of negotiating and protests – still remains uncertain.
It faces certain eviction from its current site on the corner of Adelaide Road in Swiss Cottage to make way for the academy school sponsored by University College London.
Camden has mapped out a plan for the new school but still can’t make up its mind what should happen to Frank Barnes, celebrated for its pioneering work with deaf children.
Campaigners certainly haven’t seen many of the “Building School for the Future” millions heading their way. Instead, they fear an unpopular merger with a school as far away as Muswell Hill is on the cards.
When the issue once again came before Camden’s executive committee – a cabal of senior councillors – last Wednesday, the school‘s supporters were told the merger was attractive because it was a cheap option.
Heather Schroeder, Camden’s education director, said the possible amalgamation with Blanche Nevile in Haringey was a “preferred” option partly on the grounds of cost.
“As officers we have to think about money,” she told the meeting. “Blanche Nevile offers best value for money. It has to be a decision that is based on money, how much is needed and where that will come from.”
Blanche Nevile is the council’s major focus but it is not the only option and Camden is still researching a possible link-up for Frank Barnes with Edith Neville Primary School in Somers Town or Primrose Hill Primary School, the latter favoured by governors and the school’s management.
While Blanche Nevile is also a school for deaf children, it does not have as high a use of British Sign Language, which is used in every lesson at Frank Barnes, and there are concerns that the two schools will not join together easily.
It was certainly galling for opponents to find Camden still considering the move despite neighbouring Haringey Council, which runs Blanche Neville, warning the move is inadvisable.
Ian Bailey, director of education in Haringey, could not have been more emphatic when he fired off an email to Camden last week which said: “We do not consider that any form of school merger would be appropriate.”
Predictably perhaps, his message was leaked and left the executive having to explain why they had not binned the idea already.
It is a thorny issue and the Liberal Democrats may be feeling a little uncomfortable at the contrast with what went on in Haringey when Blanche Nevile itself was threatened with closure last year.
Back then, it was the party’s MP Lynne Featherstone who, under the slogan “every deaf child matters”, ran a campaign to save it. Her efforts have so far not been matched by colleagues in Camden on behalf of Frank Barnes.
It has largely been left to several Lib Dem backbenchers to explore the to explore the other options regardless of the guidance from chief officers; Alexis Rowell and Matt Sanders taking particular interest.
The executive has delayed making a final decision on three occasions – sometimes after being confronted by pupils, once memorably on Halloween when youngsters dressed in ghoulish costumes.
On another occasion actress Sadie Frost, whose nephew is a pupil at the school, joined the protest march.
Whichever option the council chooses, education chiefs have already risked losing public confidence in their overall strategy.
Camden has got as far as deciding on a sponsor for its new academy and the coalition would have been expected to have come up with a solution for Frank Barnes over the same time.
The reason – or excuse, depending on which side of the debate you stand – is that Camden wants to spend more time consulting with parents and governors.
But officers repeatedly suggest a merger with Blanche Nevile is the best route forward and Frank Barnes’ supporters each time rail up in horror.
“They have the money to do whatever they want, to really make a difference and yet they simply overlooked where Frank Barnes fitted [into the system],” said one Labour veteran. “It has not escaped anybody’s notice that not all of the pupils at Frank Barnes live in Camden and there is a sense, as horrible as it might seem, that if their folks don’t vote in Camden, it doesn’t really matter what happens to them. Compare that to the number of kids that will go to the new academy and you start putting two and two together.”
It is a view that not many will express publicly because there is a general feeling that playing politics over the future of a school for deaf children is a murky business and should be avoided.
It may be too late.
Headteacher Karen Simpson and governor Mike Katz gave the thumbs up motion after last week’s executive debate (left), promoting their website www.thumbsup.org.uk
They were happy that councillors once again decided to put off a final decision when they might otherwise have sealed the Blanche Nevile merger.
Mr Katz said: “We’d have preferred them to drop Blanche Nevile but now we’ve got to fight so that a co-location with a Camden primary comes out clearly as the preference.”
Labour leader Councillor Anna Stewart said: “This is a massive u-turn by the administration under pressure from a really vociferous campaign from school and Labour opposition. What we need to do now is make sure this is genuine and all three options are considered.”
Whether the “u-turn” genuinely is massive is debatable. The campaign has made the council think twice but the Blanche Nevile option is still the main focus.
Tomato Lichy, a parent at the school, said: “I am disappointed that they haven’t made a decision and I was hoping for Primrose Hill or Edith Neville. Blanche Nevile is clearly very different from Frank Barnes and I’m concerned about that.”
But, however unpopular it might be among parents, governors, and the neighbouring authority, the merger could still be selected come April, the new final date for a decision on Frank Barnes.
As Ms Schroeder said at Wednesday’s meeting: “The officers’ position is still that of all the options there is no one option that is perfect or risk free or offers us all we want in an ideal world. Back in November we proposed Blanche Nevile and we have gone on reviewing that decision. The conclusion of officers is that Blanche Nevile is still our preferred option.”
And the alarm bells will have rung loud when Conservative councillor Andrew Marshall added: “Personally I’m still persuaded by my chief officers. Blanche Nevile is certainly my preferred option but we have three options that are all potentially good options.”