Oldham segregation fears as head leaves merged academy

26th March 2010 at 00:00
Project managers also part ways as governors claim little has been done to pave way for integration of white and Asian pupils and warn of failure

An academy has seen its head and project managers leave six months before it even opens amid fears that its merger of mainly white and Asian secondaries was heading for "disaster".

Waterhead Academy's creation was partly motivated by a desire to integrate pupils in Oldham, scene of riots in 2001 and one of England's most racially segregated school systems.

But governors of one the academy's two predecessor schools claim little preparation has been done to ensure pupils mix well when the academy starts in September and the plans have left the community "confused and alienated".

They are warning the merger will be a "train crash" unless the right people are brought in to replace Jackie Nellis as principal designate, and the Alligan company as project manager.

Joe Fitzpatrick, chair of governors at Breezehill School, where a large majority of pupils have Pakistani backgrounds, said: "We fear that if Year 9, 10 and 11 pupils are just thrown together you have got all these stroppy young men, and if they are introduced into a new school as strangers they are going to start messing."

There have been similar concerns among staff at Counthill School, which is 97 per cent white, about a "big bang" approach to bringing the pupils together - something Oldham Council denies was ever suggested.

Oldham College, the academy's sponsor, said that Ms Nellis had decided to "pursue other career options" after just seven months "for personal and professional reasons".

The Department for Children, Schools and Families said Alligan's contract had been terminated due to a breakdown in its relationship with Oldham College.

Mr Fitzpatrick welcomed the departures, which came this month, less than three weeks after the Breezehill governors wrote to Oldham Council and Oldham College, calling on them to take "drastic measures".

Phil Woolas, local Labour MP and Home Office immigration minister, has also lobbied for change in the way the project was being handled.

The governors' letter reports "grave concerns" on a range of issues. It says there is a "strong possibility" of the academy project, which they support, failing. It warns of a lack of development on the curriculum and relationships with parents, staff, pupils and feeder primaries.

The vision of the academy is difficult to define and has created "confusion and alienation" among the community it was supposed to serve, the letter adds.

"It would be disastrous if this project made cohesion issues worse rather than better," the governors write.

The governors describe the start of the TUPE - Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) - process to move staff to the academy from existing schools as "a disaster".

Bryan Beckingham, secretary of the Oldham branch of teaching union the NUT, said the "appalling mess up" this month had seen teachers put in the wrong roles. It meant the whole process had to be started again.

"The situation is shocking and is typical of the problems with academies up and down the country," he said. "It would be better to put the opening back."

Oldham College said it had worked "tirelessly" to bring the pupils together and was confident about the academy's future.

"Waterhead Academy is now entering an exciting period of development, with TUPE issues now at an advanced stage, and significant progress made in dealing with legal, financial and curriculum issues involved in setting up an academy," a spokeswoman said.

Alligan declined to comment.

Culture clash

Tensions between white and Asian communities in Oldham resulted in riots in 2001.

- The Ritchie report into the disturbances found few opportunities for young people to mix.

- In 2007, Sir Cyril Taylor, former chairman of the Specialist Schools and Academies Trust, proposed a multi-faith academy.

The plans were dropped in 2008.

- A Bristol University study earlier this year highlighted "particularly high" levels of racial segregation in Oldham schools.

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