Parents battle it out with council

10th April 2009 at 01:00
The TESS reporter Emma Seith found herself escorted off the premises

High-rise blocks surround Wyndford and St Gregory's primaries which sit side-by-side in Glasgow's Maryhill. On a different day, the towers might look overbearing, intimidating even. But today they are like dishevelled sentries standing guard over the schools which, if Glasgow City Council proposals go ahead, will close.

It is from these homes and beyond that parents have come out fighting. Last Friday, while staff and pupils released balloons bearing messages about what the schools mean to them, parents armed with chains and padlocks stormed the buildings and locked themselves in the assembly halls, which are metres away from each other.

They have been there ever since, surviving on pizzas, Chinese take-aways and food parcels, organised by local people and passed through the school windows.

The parents have shift patterns worked out so they can take a break, look after their children or simply freshen up. They have even set up their own page on social networking site Bebo to spread the word. So far, they have received over 300 messages of support, some from as far away as Australia.

A karaoke machine has been smuggled in and, unsurprisingly perhaps, "I Will Survive" has become a favourite. To ensure a good night's sleep, air beds lie scattered on the floor. There are some rules: no alcohol and no children.

The parents are objecting to proposals, announced by Glasgow City Council in January, to close 13 primaries and 12 nurseries. If the plans go ahead, the council would save pound;3.5million a year but both Wyndford and St Gregory's primaries would close, with pupils from Wyndford moving to Parkview Primary, and pupils from St Gregory's moving to St Mary's Primary.

The council has completed its consultation and will decide the fate of the schools on April 23. It argues it has gone to "great lengths" to explain why it is putting forward the proposal. Its strategy would reduce the number of children being taught in "crumbling and under-occupied buildings" by merging a number of primaries and nurseries, it says.

The council claims Wyndford and St Gregory's are running below capacity with the former just over half full and the latter just over a third full. It also points out the buildings are in "very poor" condition. In spite of this, the community's anger and opposition is palpable. From flat windows, "Save Our Schools" banners flap in the wind and the school fence has been draped in huge white sheets bearing slogans like "keep your hands off our school".

The Glasgow weather, however, appears to be in cahoots with the council and some signs have escaped their moorings. But among the survivors is a poster with the image of The A-Team's Mr T which reads: "I pity the fool who shuts my school".

Today, that "fool", in the eyes of parents, is John Butcher, a senior education officer at Glasgow City Council. He is here for a second day of negotiations, but his black Porsche parked outside the school gates only serves to highlight the chasm between the two sides.

The parents say they are staging the sit-in because they suspect the council has not listened to them during its consultation. It is easy to see why they might feel Mr Butcher is removed from their realities.

Now, they say they will not leave until commitments are given that their schools will stay open or city council leader Steven Purcell addresses them face-to-face. They are prepared to compromise on a merger between the two schools if they are not viable.

Mr Butcher (who campaigners joke is aptly named) counters that he can offer no guarantees and that the parents will have to wait for the meeting of the full council at the end of the month. Talking to the parents is all he can do, he tells The TESS.

As it turns out, The TESS cannot even do that. An attempt to chat to parents through an open window is brought to an abrupt end by security guards. If we stay, the police will be called. But, before we leave, one parent, Amanda Wilson, describes the schools as the heart of the community: "This is everything."

It is a sentiment echoed by Michelle Blunn, who stops to speak to The TESS, now deposited outside the school grounds. Her son Adam is in P6 at Wyndford. She says "no sane parent" would allow their child to walk the distance to Parkview alone along "a dangerous route".

"We are something like the fourth most-deprived area in Britain," she says. "What the council is doing, instead of helping regenerate and improve the area, is setting us back. They are not helping the parents here feel good, or making the area attractive for new families. As a parent, having the school close by is one of the things you look for; otherwise you move elsewhere."

Teachers are too intimidated to speak out, according to a member of staff at one of the closure-threatened schools, who wishes to remain anonymous and tells us: "Glasgow City Council have been issuing warnings to teachers during the consultation period that speaking out against these closures and against council decisions may breach their contract."

No matter, the parents are doing it for them - and garnering sympathetic headlines in the process.

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