Cloud hanging over West Heath Primary School lifted


Many primary schools in Birmingham have been facing pressure from the Department for Education to become academies, whether or not they wish to do so. I have written about this online before here and here.

One of those schools was West Heath Primary School in my constituency. This week the school found out that the Department for Education has decided not to continue the forced academy process for the school.

I am so pleased that the cloud which has been hanging over West Heath school has now been lifted. Not only was the pressure on the school to become an academy unpopular with parents, it was also irrelevant to addressing the school’s needs in the coming years. The important thing now is for everyone to focus firmly on sustaining the improving results at the school and on doing the right thing by the children of the West Heath area. That means both today’s pupils and those of tomorrow.

The West Heath school story also holds important lessons for other schools too. All too often schools feel bullied into accepting conversion to an academy, irrespective of whether or not it is the right thing for the school involved. Ministers bully the Department for Education who in turn bully local authorities, heads and governing bodies. Parents can end up feeling their wishes are a bit irrelevant to the process even though it is their children’s future at stake.

But West Heath parents have shown that it is possible to ask “why?” and, if necessary, say “no”, even when they are told that everything is a fait accompli. In future, it won’t be possible to stop every academy being forced through by the government and, in some cases, parents may even agree with conversion. However, West Heath parents have shown that it is possible to stop local opinion being bulldozed and to change the course of events. There is a big lesson there for other schools.

In the coming months, the forced academy programme is not going to be the cakewalk Michael Gove wanted. It is increasingly clear that there are not necessarily enough outside sponsors around to deliver the goods for him in enough schools. And it is also becoming clear that the timescales for forced conversion being pushed over the last year are simply unrealistic in many cases.

In Birmingham there is another important change too – in the role and attitude of the City Council. Under the previous Conservative-led administration, the council seemed at best irrelevant to schools being forced down the academy route, and in some cases the council seemed to behave as if it was a wholly owned subsidiary of Whitehall. Under the new Labour Cabinet member, Brigid Jones, that is changing and the council is actively developing a cooperative alternative to ‘Planet Gove’ for schools in the city; an alternative that ministers will have to take seriously. They need to move fast, but the refusal of Birmingham City Council to simply roll over in relation to West Heath augurs well for the future.

So well done to all concerned – to the parents, to local Labour councillors like Brett O’Reilly and Val Seabright, to local campaigners and, this time, to Birmingham City Council. School bullies do not have to get their way.

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Richard Burden

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I was Labour Member of Parliament for Birmingham Northfield between 1992 and 2019 and a former Shadow Transport Minister. I now chair Healthwatch in Birmingham and Solihull, and the West Midlands Board of Remembering Srebrenica. I also work as a public affairs consultant. I am an effective community advocate and stakeholder alliance builder with a passion for human rights. I am a trustee of the Balfour Project charity and of Citizens Advice Birmingham, and a former Chair of Medical Aid for Palestinians.

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