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What prompted Haverstock School to perform academy U-turn?

Haverstock School in Haverstock Hill has shelved its academy plans

Headteacher tells how he feared school attended by Miliband brothers would be at centre of political debate after remarkable week

Former pupil David Miliband at Haverstock. Inset: Andrew Baisley
Haverstock School headteacher John Dowd

Published: September 29, 2011

A PLAN to turn Haverstock School – one of Camden’s most improved secondaries over recent years – into a city academy have been dramatically shelved.

In an astonishing chain of events at the Chalk Farm school over the past seven days, the proposal was abandoned just days after governors voted in favour of exploring the idea of breaking free from council control.

The New Journal exclusively revealed on our website on Monday how Haverstock was preparing to announce it was considering plans to become an independently run academy. Press statements had been drafted and governors were ready to roll out explanations as to why they were looking at the potential switch, which leaves schools free to run themselves usually with the help of a private sponsor.

But almost as soon as teachers and parents were fully briefed on the developments, a protest campaign was organised, and by Tuesday – even before opposition leaflets could be distributed – the school had backed away.

In a bizarre coincidence, former pupil Labour leader Ed Miliband was talking about his education at the school as a teenager on the main stage of his ­party’s conference in ­Liverpool as news filtered through that the move had effectively been spiked.

Headteacher John Dowd said yesterday (Wednesday) the school was not willing to be at the centre of a politicised debate over academies for a protracted period.

He did not guarantee that they would never look at the proposal again, but in a statement he said: “To be the focus of an intensely political debate around the benefits of academies was never our intention and we are not prepared for this to happen. The school does not want to be distracted from achieving the very best from its pupils.”

School sources suggested the governors had, when they voted last Tuesday, underestimated the level of opposition that would meet any move to change the structure, particularly within the school walls. Those sympathetic to the thinking behind it becoming an academy say the school has to adapt to meet competition likely from the UCL Academy – the borough’s only independently run academy which is due to open at the other end of Adelaide Road next year.

But critics say leaving Camden’s famous “fam­ily” of schools only adds to the competition at the expense of schools with the least resources and usually in the poorest areas. There are fears that if one school breaks away, a domino effect could see others follow, creating an “every school for itself mentality” and battles to attract the pupils who are most likely to achieve academically.

Other London boroughs have already embraced the idea of academies and the new free schools, which have a similar set-up. Islington, Westminster and Hackney, for example, have several secondaries no longer answering to the council. The academy model was first introduced by the Labour government and then taken on with relish by Conservative successors, particularly current Education Secretary Michael Gove, a vocal advocate.

In Camden, however, there has been resistance, possibly due to historic teamwork between schools and the council. In fact, an inquiry ordered by the Town Hall to investigate the future of Camden’s schools earlier this month celebrated the tight-knit community of schools in the borough which seem eager to work together rather than as potential rivals.

The work of that investigation, by the Education Commission, will, ironically, be discussed at meeting at Haverstock this afternoon (Thursday). The school also features in the pictures for the report.

Although diplomatic in public, Labour councillors were horrified at the idea of Haverstock going its own way throughout last week and over the weekend. They have this year been trying to devise a repairs programme for creaking schools but on a straitened budget due to public spending cuts. They believe there is more chance of success with the “family” intact.

Haverstock is, in that respect, in a different position to other schools in Camden. It was recently rebuilt in its entirety under a Private Finance Initiative and does not have the same desperate need for repairs – and council assistance to achieve them.

The Town Hall has already warned other secondaries it will not provide financial help to schools who take on outside sponsors, shoving the bills in the direction of anybody willing to fund an academy.

After Haverstock had written to the council last week to explain it was to look at academy status, education supremo Councillor Larraine Revah said: “While I welcome the open attitude of the school I believe it is important that there is the opportunity to discuss both the short-term and the longer-term impact both for the school and for the Camden family of schools.”

Mr Dowd has himself celebrated the “family” links in the past. At a meeting to discuss community concerns about the creation of the UCL Academy back in 2007, he said: “What is a real strength of the community is the collective responsibility all of the schools have to each ­other.”

It is the governors who hold significant power over which way a school jumps. Their vote last week was split and there have been mutterings behind the scenes that too much of the discussion was political. The board of governors includes former councillors Raj Chada, once a Labour leader of Camden Council, and Nick Russell, a Liberal Democrat.

Conspiracy theorists have even suggested that rivals to the Labour party would love the school to go down the academy route to embarrass the Miliband brothers who have often talked up their education there. Ed has made regular returns to the school and hired out its hall for events. He also shot a Labour party political broadcast there. His brother David, meanwhile, teaches politics to Haverstock sixth-formers.

Liberal Democrats locally said Haverstock’s children and parents had been deprived of a debate about which path the school should take.

Deputy leader Cllr Matt Sanders said: “It’s a shame local parents won’t be consulted on future of Haverstock School. Academies are not everyone’s bag but I don’t see harm in having the debate.”

The New Journal understands that the majority of the staff are already quite clear about what direction that should be and want to keep council support.

Some teachers are even said to have applied for jobs at Haverstock because it isn’t run by outside sponsors.

Over the past decade, its reputation has grown steadily among both the teaching profession and parents who send their children there.

Andrew Baisley, branch secretary of Camden NUT, said: “Camden teachers are very proud to work for the family of schools in Camden, which is why they are so special and have such a high reputation nationally. Staff in Haverstock, like any school in Camden, want to stand up for professional values. They know what a good education is about and that it can be delivered in collegiate, locally accountable schools.”

Alasdair Smith, from the Anti-Academies Alliance, said: “The school lies at the heart of the local authority family of schools.

“It is a rejection of the privatised, market-orientated school system that the political and media elite want to roll out across the country.

“We hope school leaders everywhere will now recognise that the swift and massive opposition threatened by education unions, parents and the local community confirms that there is no popular mandate for academy conversion.”

Labour finance chief Cllr Theo Blackwell said: “We are happy to work with Haverstock to build on its amazing achievements.”

‘Distraction’ – The headteacher’s view

“The governing body of Haverstock School took a decision on Tuesday 20th September to consider in detail the potential benefits and costs of becoming an academy. 

“It took this decision on the basis that it needed to understand more fully whether or not academy status would be to our long-term advantage; this was not motivated by a view to pursue academy status for the school.

“The governing body had hoped to embark on a broad and constructive dialogue with a range of stakeholders, including staff, parents and the local authority. 

“Haverstock School has made very significant progress over recent years and the governing body is certain that this progress will continue and that the school will become an outstanding one in every way. 

“Our core value remains promoting a comprehensive, inclusive ethos, and our core mission is to ensure that our pupils get the best possible education and qualifications. 

“It is clear to the headteacher and the chair of governors that to pursue this course of action at present will seriously distract us from our core mission. 

“To be the focus of an intensely political debate around the benefits of academies was never our intention and we are not prepared for this to happen.

“The school does not want to be distracted from achieving the very best from its pupils.

“For this reason the headteacher and chair of governors are recommending that the governing body put an end to the current consultation process around academy status.

“This does not mean to say that Haverstock would never reconsider this position, but it will now be off our current agenda. The governing body will continue to support and challenge the school on its continued trajectory of improvement.”
Head’s official statement


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