Mark Steel: If democratic consultation has any meaning at all, Hove Park School must not become an academy

Mark Steel was among the speakers at a Hands Off Hove Park rally in July

Mark Steel was among the speakers at a Hands Off Hove Park rally in July

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One success of this government has been the number of schools that have transformed into academies.

One success of this government has been the number of schools that have transformed into academies, so they’re no longer ruled by remote local authorities, and instead become controlled by men of the people, like Lord Harris the carpet millionaire who donated £2 million to the Conservative Party. Because characters like that are so much more approachable and part of the community than the local council.

So in April this year the head at Hove Park School announced a "consultation", as to whether the school should become an academy. A majority of teachers voted to oppose this change, and a meeting of 160 parents voted unanimously against it, but the head insisted there was a "moral imperative" to pursue the change anyway.

This was all in line with government policy, which insists that as long as parents are informed a school is to become an academy, this qualifies as a consultation.

This is an impressively modern attitude to language, as it’s usually kids who make words mean their opposite, as with sick. Now ministers are doing it with the word consultation, imaginatively altering it to mean giving someone no say at all.

Maybe this will become part of the school curriculum, and history teachers will tell their class that Henry VIII and Stalin were obsessed with consulting people. Consult, consult, consult - that’s all they ever did.

A shiny brochure was produced, consulting us that, if the change didn’t go ahead, "it is inevitable that teachers will leave".

And a series of presentations took place, in which the head consulted us for an hour about the virtues of academies.

The local council weren’t entirely convinced this process was as even-handed as it might be, and with their antiquated understanding of the word consultation they organised an official postal ballot of the parents. Despite the brochures, the presentations, and the moral imperative, the result showed 71% were opposed to the change.

Immediately, the proposers of academy status, including a local Conservative councillor, protested that as there was only a 40% turnout among parents, this vote was invalid. The logic, I suppose, is it’s unfair to abide by what only 71% of those who voted have voted for - and much fairer to go along with what the 29% want.

Also, I’m sure the councillor himself, who was elected on a smaller turnout than 40%, must have resigned since then, insisting it’s only fair if his place is taken by whoever came fourth.

Then it emerged there were three vacant posts on the board of governors, which the school heads insisted should remain vacant. The local authority wouldn’t allow this and so another election took place, in which all three posts were won overwhelmingly by candidates who made clear their opposition to the school becoming an academy.

And the teachers have expressed overwhelming opposition in a variety of ways including a strike.

So the consultation has become a real consultation, involving rallies, debates and elections, and resulting in every part of the community thoroughly rejecting the proposed academy status.

After all that’s happened, for the head to try and push the change through anyway would be like a referee of a football match saying “I know one team scored five, but having considered everything carefully I’ve decided to award the match to the team that got nil".

So it’s to be hoped the plans are dropped, at the meeting on Monday - at Hove Park upper school on Nevill Road - of the board of governors at which the final decision will be made, .

But it might be best if anyone who cares about education or democracy turns up to the rally outside, because if the feelings of the community are ignored, there must be a huge and vibrant outburst of consultation across the city and beyond.

Mark Steel, the comedian, author and journalist, is a Hove Park School parent and a prominent supporter of the Hands Off Hove Park campaign (www.handsoffhoveparkschool.wordpress.com).