I want to tell you all how much respect I have for Derek Trimmer and the community of Hove Park School. Derek is the school principal and six months ago he came to the conclusion that converting to academy status would give him the tools he needed to continue the improvements that have been the hallmark of his three years at the school, so he began consulting with parents and his staff.
Derek was criticised - strongly condemned by some - for this move. Personally, I would have been shocked if he had come to that conclusion but lacked the courage to launch a consultation. If someone of his dedication, experience, and skill believes something should be explored then those of us who are not experts owe it to the students to participate with an open mind and a comradely spirit.
Last night, based upon Derek's recommendation, governors unanimously voted against the move to convert. The school will remain within local authority control. The reason was the sharp division of opinion among teachers and parents which could have led to a period of instability and therefore lack of focus on teaching and learning. As every great head teacher would do, he put the needs of students first.
This is a wise decision and I offer my full support to Derek, governors, and students.
Throughout this process I have resisted the urge, to which other politicians succumbed, of telling the experts what I think they should do. This is because I have utmost respect for the educational experts in our schools and faith in our communities to engage in local political debates and reach the right outcomes for their unique area. Local communities have the right to the school of their choice, shaped to meet their particular needs and ambitions.
In the last general election the Conservative Party launched 'The Big Society' which they said would lead to communities and neighbourhoods taking responsibility for solving local issues without the state meddling. In the last few days since the Scottish referendum they have said England must see a radical shift of power from Westminster to local areas. So how did this localism express itself to the Hove Park School community? I'll tell you - by telling them to convert to an academy. Did they participate in the consultation? No. Did they wait to hear the outcome of the consultation before declaring a verdict? No. Did the Tories declaring what's best for Hove Park even live there? No.
And the Green Party, who also make promises to empower communities and support devolution, heck they even urged Scotland to vote 'Yes' in the referendum! How did their respect for local democracy express itself? Well they told the school not to vote for academy status. Caroline Lucas, who is not an educational expert, not a parent of a student at the school, and not a resident in the catchment area, travelled to the school to protest at the school gates. Dozens of green activists came from London to tell parents what is best for them. They too did not participate in the consultation and did not wait to hear it's results.
I believe passionately in a community's right to be heard, that's why I did a doctorate in community development at Sussex Univeristy. So what did I do?
Firstly, I met with Mr Trimmer, the principal, soon after the consultation was announced. I informed him of my experiences as chair of a local academy and my views of where academies have strengths and where the challenges are that need addressing - such as the need to build extremely tight relationships with community partners from the outset. I sought assurances that the consultation was rigorous and that community views would really matter. In return Mr Trimmer asked me to do my best to respect his students and staff by keeping partisan politics out of the debate in order to give space for the community to be heard. I gave him my word that would be the case. I also made contact with the cheif executive of our council to seek further reassurance of the process and rigour of the consultation.
Secondly I contacted all Labour Party representatives in Hove and Portslade requesting that they too respect the right of the community to debate the issues freely without the sense of interference in which is a difficult debate. Finally, I and others within the Labour Party responded freely to anyone who contacted us directly requesting views, support, or signposting to further information. I corresponded with dozens of people by email, phone, and in one case visited a member of staff who requested a conversation in person. I hoped my actions would contribute to an informed debate that was as free of ideological bullying as possible.
We know today that the Tories are disappointed because they want every school to become independent regardless of community wishes. The Greens see it as a victory for them because they want every school to be returned to local authority control regardless of community views. And me? I feel proud we have a community that rose to the challenge of debating a difficult and contentious issue with dignity and respect for others, and a school principal with the intellect to learn from a consultation and the courage to adapt his own views accordingly. None of these things are easy and therefore should command our respect. I believe that Labour's pragmatic approach, recognising that academies are a great tool in some but not all situations, is right.
The lesson for politicians like me is that sometimes our restraint is the tool that empowers communities by giving them the space to air views and debate directly between themselves. There is a time for leadership from the front and a time when leadership means listening, learning, and taking a step back from the frontline. When it comes to schools in our city we should default to the latter and depoliticise local education. Or as Derek Trimmer puts it in today's Argus:
"We need to be absolutely incisive in terms of separating politics from what is right educationally for our children and in recent events this line has become increasingly blurred".
I agree. I hope you will view my conduct throughout this episode as conforming to Derek's plea, and gives you the sense that should I become your MP in 8 months time I will be an advocate with enough respect for communities to allow them space to debate, plus the strength to resist ideological siren calls that serve only the purposes of those beyond our homes and neighbourhoods. My wishes going forward are for swift healing from a bruising process - you can rest assured that I stand by to play any role needed to help with that in any way I can.
All the best, Peter