Deadline for dream school;Opinion

19th March 1999 at 00:00
In their battle to set up a new secondary, Jan Barden and Marianne Kavanagh won over David Blunkett, the local council and thousands of parents. But government red tape could scupper all their hopes.

We didn't expect this. We didn't expect our new school to be strangled at birth by the Government.

We thought we were on the verge of a revolution, a way forward to create an inclusive secondary school that turned out well-educated, well-rounded children from all ethnic backgrounds, from all walks of life.

We believed we might be able to buck the trend of the two-tier state system, where some schools cream off the easy, clever children, leaving others to struggle on with an increasingly skewed and demanding intake.

When we started campaigning 18 months ago, we knew there would be battles with the council. We knew there would be governors and teachers from existing secondaries in Southwark, south London, who would disagree with us. We expected Southwark College would object to our calls for a sixth form in the new school.

But we didn't imagine that our most dangerous opponent would be the Department for Education and Employment.

Parents and council are now united in supporting a new, non-selective mixed community school to open in September 2000. But the DFEE - apparently for no better reason than an inability to come to a swift decision - has decided to play Terminator.

The problem is simple. Unless the DFEE approves the new school in the next few days, we cannot recruit a headteacher in time. Our prospective head is likely to be working in a school or college, and will need to give notice by the end of April 1999 if he or she is to take up the post at the new school in September 1999. And without a head in post by when the Year 6 parents begin their exhausting and demoralising trawl of all the secondary schools in any other borough than Southwark - the school will fail.

It's not enough just to open the doors of the new school and say, "There it is. Use it." Much hard work is needed to change attitudes that have hardened over many years. Local parents have lost confidence in secondary schools in Southwark. The reasons are varied, but a simple one may be that no county school - not one - has a sixth form.

The loss of post-16 provision turned what had been a trickle of high-ability pupils leaving the borough at secondary transfer into an overwhelming flood of children of all abilities seeking "old-fashioned" schools where it is considered the norm to try for post-GCSE qualifications, whether academic or vocational.

Now an average of 65 per cent of Southwark 11-year-olds choose schools elsewhere; in some primaries the figure is as high as 90 per cent. At one primary the 90 children who left last year scattered to 41 schools across London and the South-east. Some of the unluckier ones travel three hours a day on London Transport to and from school. Other families have thrown in the towel and moved.

This was a major platform for the Dulwich Area Secondary School Campaign which began just as Education Secretary David Blunkett was talking about "empowering" parents to have a say in their children's education.

The slogans became reality on our streets as campaign helpers pushed 17,000 leaflets through every letterbox they could find. Soon we had a database of more than 1,000 supporters.

We lobbied intensely. We met David Blunkett and were overjoyed when he listened sympathetically and then told the council not to "dither". Eventually the LEA accepted our argument and put its package of proposals to the DFEE for formal approval.

By February, following the statutory two months for objections, we began to hope for an early decision so the enormous task of setting up a school - modifying an existing building, determining an ethos, appointing staff - could begin in earnest. But we are still waiting for that decision.

No decision, no headteacher. Which means there will be no one next autumn to "sell" the school to parents of the Year 6 children who would form the first intake of 150 11-year-olds in 2000.

We imagined a "virtual" parents' evening at which a visionary head would be able to conjure up a picture of a school so vibrant and exciting that parents would be clamouring for places, even though there would be nothing concrete to show them.

But the DFEE cannot see the urgency. It cannot see that its inefficiency will destroy the chance for all of us to create something better. It seems unable to grasp the fact that local parents are offering the gift of their energy and commitment to create the kind of school the Government upholds.

We are angry and disillusioned. We have worked - unpaid, naturally - for 18 months for this school and the fact that it may be be fatally sabotaged by the dragging of heels in Mr Blunkett's own department is savagely ironic.

Marianne Kavanagh and Jan Barden are organisers of the Dulwich Area Secondary School Campaign.

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