Growing unrest over plans to turn two failing Norwich schools into academies could become “key” battle lines in neighbouring marginal seats as the general election looms.
Hundreds of parents marched through Norwich on Saturday protesting against proposals to turn The Hewett School, (pictured above), into an academy.
Academies minister Lord Nash wants to hand the school to Sir Theodore Agnew’s Inspiration Trust, but Norfolk County Council is threatening legal action.
But the fallout could play a key part in deciding which party takes the hotly-contested Norwich South seat in May, at present held by the Liberal Democrats with a slim majority of 310 votes.
In neighbouring Norwich North, where the Conservatives are defending a 3,901 majority, parents and teachers have also raised concerns over proposals for academy trust, Right for Success, to sponsor Sewell Park College. A decision on both schools has been put on hold until after the election.
The disputes raise fresh questions about whether parents should have more say in the academy process.
Both schools have financial difficulties and are in special measures. If converted, there would be no council-maintained secondary school in the city.
Lib Dem councillor James Joyce, chairman of the council’s children’s services committee, said: “This, coupled with concerns about the process followed so far in relation to The Hewett, means these proposed academy conversions could become key election issues.
“We want to see fair and effective consultation and we fully understand where concerns locally are coming from, particularly given that an election is under 50 days away.”
At The Hewett School, ministers stepped in this month to install an interim executive board (IEB) of governors after rejecting the local authority’s choices.
The county council said the intervention was “wrong and flawed” and has written to the Department for Education (DfE) outlining its concerns. It has also reserved the right to take legal action should an agreement be signed after the election.
Sheila Lock, director of children’s services at Norfolk County Council, said: “We have concerns it hasn’t been done in a fair and consultative way that is listening to the wishes of the community.”
A Lord Ashcroft poll on voting intentions in Norwich South show Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck on 34 per cent.
An academy order for Sewell Park College was signed last week with Right for Success the proposed sponsor. But more than 60 teachers and parents attended a public meeting this week to object and a campaign group has been launched.
It is now for the sponsor to launch a consultation.
John Catton, chair of the school’s IEB, reportedly said: “The IEB takes the view that if you ‘consult’ people, they might reasonable expect to have an impact on the outcome – but that is not the case with this process.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “We are clear that becoming an academy with the support of a strong sponsor is the best solution to bring about rapid and sustained improvement.
“Sewell Park College and The Hewett School have both been put in special measures by Ofsted – and clearly that is not good enough for pupils and parents.”