“I’m not a politician, I’m a parent” – why Educating Brentwood continues

Tomorrow (13th February) is the first anniversary of this website and the formal unveiling of Educating Brentwood. The founder members of the group had met, discussed and debated the developing educational landscape before then but it was on this date when we decided a public presence was absolutely necessary.

An awful lot has happened in the ensuing months but the fundamental reasons for setting up the group and site remain absolutely valid. The ever growing number of contacts, discussions and activities it has generated has convinced us that there is a definite appetite for an ongoing dialogue about education in our town and beyond.

When we meet next week for one of our regular meetings (this time over a curry) the founding group and some of our new friends will reflect on our individual motivations for getting involved but also agree new areas for discussion and ideas for further informing and engaging the wider community. We have had plenty of suggestions which I will touch on later.

group-talk-300x199For now, I would like to share what my personal tipping point was as it is central to my core belief about why a forum such as ours is still needed in Brentwood.

Like the majority of parents I suspect, I had happily sent my children to the nearest school, read with them, supported homework strategy, attended assemblies and sports days and not a great deal else. We’re all busy, the school knows what it’s doing, let them get on with it. I hadn’t really considered the Secondary path but was aware that Essex County Council (ECC) had agreed a plan to amalgamate two of our schools having read about it in the local press. It looked like a sensible choice, had involved those in education at the time and had followed a wider public consultation (“Why Sawyers Hall College closed and what was intended to replace it” http://wp.me/P2dr6s-ak). I’d worry about how my kids fit in nearer the time.

Readers of this blog will be well aware what happened next, the fact that the plan for a new school originated and was promoted by a group from our own children’s school made it impossible to ignore. While I couldn’t believe that the project would get the go ahead given how recently the ECC consultation had been undertaken, I became increasingly disturbed by clearly ill-informed, prejudiced and downright offensive comments published in the local press regarding our existing schools at the time. Thankfully I wasn’t alone and found others who shared my concerns at the school itself and beyond.

Kathryn and I wrote to the Brentwood Gazette and Weekly News voicing this and even had a letter published in The Observer. We had no confidence that it would make any real difference but wanted others in the town to see that the perception of our local schools presented by the press was by no means unanimously shared. Regrettably the tone did not seem to change.

So when did this lead to thoughts of a group to give voice to a different perspective? For me it was due to an interview on BBC Essex just prior to initial approval being given to what is now Becket Keys Free School. A prominent supporter of the proposal, who is incidentally now a governor at the school, was asked by the presenter about the potential loss of resource to existing schools that a successful bid would cause. The answer encapsulated all that I perceived was wrong with the debate and the way it had been presented locally.

“I’m not a politician, I’m a parent”

It didn’t matter. The fate of other children was not their concern. And the implication was that, as “a parent” this was perfectly reasonable. Don’t also let’s forget, this was in support of a Church of England School. How Christian.

Well I’m a parent too. I don’t think that this precludes me from caring about anyone who happens not to live in my house. And I was certain I was not alone.

I’ve heard the phrase “I just want what’s best for my kids” far too often over the past year or so. What about everyone else’s? We don’t live in a bubble. The better our young people are educated, the better, and I would argue, the more cohesive our society is. Don’t complain about “unruly youth” or “feckless teenagers” if you are happy to deny proper resources to schools.

So rather than slate our local schools when they encounter problems why don’t we support them better?

Why don’t we promote collaboration between our schools instead of pitting one against another? Collaboration

What can we parents and local residents do to help our schools be the best they can?

For the sake of all of the young people in our town. Academic or not.

This should still be our concern and I believe we need to foster that view through our group and forums.

What has pleased me most this past twelve months is that my view is not an isolated one as I once feared. While I hog the blog writing (because I enjoy doing it), the site would not work without the support of all of our group and the contributions and comments of many who are not formally part of it.

I would like to thank all those who have engaged with us during this year. To all those who attended our Open Meeting, those who we regularly interact with on Twitter and who comment on our Facebook page and those who have contacted us with information or suggestions. I apologise that we have not always been able to use what we have been sent, we only can publish what we can corroborate, but it is always appreciated.

In addition to the establishment of the Free School, because of the high number of Academies in our town and the potential challenges that that brings in terms of accountability to the community, the situation in Brentwood is of interest to those who follow education matters nationally. That our opinions have been sought outside of the borough has been a genuine surprise, clearly it has also led us to consider the national picture in far greater detail than we ever envisaged and has allowed us to look at issues arising and see how they affect us locally.

We await the judgement into the “GCSE Fiasco” with great interest for example.

Over this period there have been several new Head teachers in post in our established schools and it has been good to see, first hand in some cases, a new energy and commitment to meet the potential of all of the students in their care. I believe they deserve the time and our (not always uncritical) support to try to make a difference.
troll
I have also been pleased to see what I have perceived as a welcome change in tone in local press coverage. It may be that schools are sharing more and have better stories to tell but whatever the reason it has been good to note that the small band of anonymous, barmy trolls have been restricted to making web comments rather than featuring in the paper. I should also thank the Brentwood Gazette for inviting me to write a monthly column since August, I hope that has also helped to provide a more positive perspective.

I appreciate the responses that we have had from ECC too, they have provided clarification where they can, in contrast to the Department for Education as our Freedom of Information experience shows.

Can I also publicly acknowledge those who cannot be publicly thanked. Your openness to discussion and insight has been invaluable. There has been an almost universal acceptance that as taxpayers, residents and parents, backed by the amount of interest our group has encountered, we have a mandate to ask questions of those providing state funded education.

We plan to carry on for as long as there is interest. On accountability as more of our schools change their status, on collaboration between schools and on school governors. We have not touched enough on our Primary Schools to date and we want to put that right. And we’re always open to suggestions. Do get in touch.

I look forward to another celebratory curry next year.

Stephen Mayo

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Comments

  1. Are you in touch with the Accord Coalition? They’re a national campaign group that supports local campaigns over faith-based admissions.

    I suggest you don’t lay into RET/EL too much. They’re well respected in the Education sector, and will create a good school. They just provide the educational expertise, and apply it to whatever model of school the local community is asking for. You’re unlucky that it was a faith-based group that invited them into Brentwood, rather than a broader community group. They do create Community Free Schools too, in places where parent groups are asking for them.

    Reply
    • The local community did not ask the RET to set a school up. A school was closing due to surplus places in our town, opening another in its place is potentially to the detriment of existing schools. That is the issue.

      Regarding the reputation of RET, you may be right, although we have seen no evidence for your claim and don’t know who you are. Unfortunately there was no evidence of their credentials available when they became involved and they weren’t willing to provide any. Private Eye were equally bemused when they looked into them. Their conduct when asking for information regarding this and in particular during the “consultation” was appalling as is well documented on this site.

      We are concerned with accountability to local people and taxpayers and, I would submit, their record here has been abysmal. We would welcome a change in approach now that the school is open.

      Stephen Mayo

      Reply

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