- The Guardian, Saturday 15 January 2005
Tracy Morton and Kay Wilkinson, from Conisbrough, a sometime mining community not far from Doncaster, have been engaged in a passionate fight against the government, Doncaster's elected Labour mayor and Sir Peter Vardy, a man recently described by the Times Education Supplement as a "Christian fundamentalist car dealer". Their battleground: a schools policy to which the government now pledges heartfelt allegiance, namely the replacement of "bog-standard comprehensives" with the gleaming new creations known as "academies".
We met in the Windmill community centre on one of Conisbrough's postwar council estates. Inside, nine or 10 pensioners were playing bingo and Kay and Tracy were going about their jobs as local youth workers. They both had high-achieving daughters at Northcliffe, a comprehensive school that serves Conisbrough and nearby Denaby. Carly, Kay's eldest, was predicted to get a run of As at GCSE and was apparently set on becoming a barrister; Sophie, Tracy's 13-year-old, had begun to scale similar heights and was determined to make it to university. Both had benefited from Northcliffe's so-called Gifted And Talented programme: Carly was entered for some of her GCSEs a year early, and both she and Sophie took advantage of specially laid-on Saturday morning lessons.
In 2001, Northcliffe was inspected by Ofsted and credited with being "a good and improving school". Both that year and the next, the DfES gave Northcliffe a School Achievement Award. In 2003, the school's pupils produced the best SATs and GCSE results in its history. Three months later, however, Northcliffe was placed in Special Measures by the Schools Inspectorate - the category denotes a school that is "failing or likely to fail to give its pupils an acceptable standard of education".
"When we got the report, and we read it, we were just like, 'What school are they on about?'" said Kay. "'Are they really on about Northcliffe?'"
"It was really contradictory," said Tracy. "On the one hand, they were saying the head was providing good leadership, and he'd got the support and loyalty of his staff. But on the other hand, there were faults in his vision and forward planning. They said that the standard of teaching was too low; ridiculously low. Relative to two years previous, it just seemed to have plummeted. So it was quite a shock: it had just got its best ever GCSE results - and it was being put in Special Measures. I was stunned."
Five months after that, Doncaster's local education authority (LEA) unveiled plans to replace Northcliffe with an academy run by a charitable organisation called the Vardy Foundation. The announcement appeared in the pages of the Doncaster Free Press. "The idea was to catch the wave and say, 'You've got a failing school, but look - we're going to give you £23m and a lovely new school,'" said Tracy. "And a lot of people were like, 'Wow - wonderful.' But the paper was also canny enough to say the school would be run by evangelical Christian sponsors."
Academies, initially known as City Academies, were publicly rolled out in 2000 by David Blunkett, who aimed to use them to replace schools that were either in Special Measures or deemed to be "underachieving". Four years later, the government planted the idea at the core of its education platform for the general election, announcing plans to open up to 200. The idea is roughly this: for a fee of £2m - payable in random instalments - private benefactors are handed effective control of brand new state schools, although the taxpayer meets the lion's share of both building and running costs (which tend to involve an initial sum of at least £20m, and annual payments of around £5m). The relatively small size of their contribution has little bearing on the sponsors' clout: they can appoint the majority of the school's governors and thereby have the crucial say in the appointment of senior management, and shape the school's practices without having to worry about the national curriculum. Stranger still, academies are not bound by national agreements on teachers' pay and conditions.
Among those who had got in early was Sir Peter Vardy, a millionaire car dealer and evangelist from Durham. Under the auspices of the Thatcher government's not entirely dissimilar City Technology Colleges Programme, his Vardy Foundation, run by his brother David, had already seen to the opening of a school called Emmanuel College in Gateshead. Thanks to the City Academies initiative, September 2003 marked the arrival of a second school, the King's Academy in Middlesbrough. The following March, it was ceremonially opened by none other than Tony Blair, who was presented with a Middlesbrough FC shirt bearing his surname. Two weeks later, he enthused about his visit during prime minister's question time. "There is nothing more inspiring," he said, "particularly when one knew the old school that the King's Academy replaced, than to see the brand new buildings, the total commitment of the teachers and staff, and the pupils there eager to learn."
Both Vardy schools certainly lie some distance from the underachieving, anarchic stereotype with which the government maligns the old comprehensive ideal. Buttoned-up, disciplinarian, characterised by an almost corporate efficiency, they outwardly suggest enviable success: every year since 1996, for example, Emmanuel College's GCSE results have put it in the top 12 nonselective British state schools.
Unfortunately, that's only half the story. Vardy's Christian beliefs are shared by John Burn, sometime head of Emmanuel College and now education adviser to the Vardy Foundation, and Nigel McQuoid, principal at the King's Academy. Papers they have co-authored give a flavour of their stance: "If relativist philosophy is acceptable, then sadomasochism, bestiality and self-abuse are to be considered as wholesome activities," runs one. "It is very important that young people begin to realise that activities which are 'private and personal' often degrade oneself and are not necessarily good and acceptable." By way of clarifying the latter position, McQuoid recently told the Observer that "the Bible says clearly that homosexual activity is against God's design. I would indicate that to young folk."
Most notoriously, Vardy schools accord equal importance to both creationism and theories of evolution. According to McQuoid, though state schools are required to teach evolutionary theory, "also, schools should teach the creation theory as literally depicted in Genesis". The 300-year reign of the enlightenment apparently counts for very little: in his view, creation and evolution are both "faith positions". Blair, it should be noted, has claimed to have no problem with such a stance. In 2002, when asked by the Liberal Democrat MP Jenny Tonge if he was happy about creationism being taught alongside evolution in state schools, he replied, "I am very happy. I know that the honourable lady is referring to a school in the north-east [ie, Emmanuel College], and I think that certain reports about what it has been teaching are somewhat exaggerated. It would be very unfortunate if concerns about that issue were seen to remove the very strong incentive to ensure that we get as diverse a school system as we properly can."
After Emmanuel College and the King's Academy, the Vardy Foundation - in concert with Doncaster's mayor, Martin Winter, and the council - had proposed the opening of a third school in Thorne, a small town 20 minutes' drive from Conisbrough. Government approval of the scheme arrived in January 2004: David Miliband, the schools minister, told the Yorkshire Post he was sure it would result in "a successful and popular school [that] will do much to improve opportunities for the young people it serves".
The town's existing comprehensive, Thorne Grammar - the name is a residue of its selection-era origins - had spent two years in the Ofsted category known as Serious Weaknesses, applied to schools "deemed to have significant weaknesses in one or more areas which need to be addressed but which are providing an acceptable standard of education overall". In the wake of significant improvements, it was taken out of that bracket in early 2003 - but soon after, Doncaster's authorities none the less announced a proposal to close the school, and open a Vardy Academy on the same site. The plan was couched in terms of a golden chance for an embattled, underachieving community.
A month earlier, Dr Tony Brookes, Thorne Grammar's head, had resigned, under pressure from Doncaster's director of education. An employment tribunal subsequently found he had been the victim of "insidious" pressure and therefore unfairly dismissed - but his exit meant a potentially troublesome voice opposing the academy plan was marginalised.
The local consultation process was squeezed into less than a month, taking in a spate of meetings between staff, parents and interested Thorne residents, and representatives of both Doncaster council and the Vardy Foundation. A one-page "questionnaire" was distributed, with no mention of the Vardy Foundation, and only two sentences: "I support the proposal to establish an academy in Thorne" (followed by boxes labelled "Agree strongly", "Agree", "Disagree" and "Disagree strongly") and "I have the following additional comments". Little more than 70 were sent back to the council, which subsequently announced that 87% of their respondents supported the plan. Some of Thorne Grammar's teachers got the impression they were witnessing a fait accompli. "At the meetings, we were allowed to ask questions with no comeback, and that was it," one told me. "There was never a real way of registering any dissent. And anyway, we were operating in the dark: a lot of people didn't even know what academies were."
By June 2003, Doncaster's authorities had drawn the consultation process to a close. Local people, according to a council spokesman, had "been given ample opportunity to voice any concerns". In vain, Brookes told local reporters that "these plans have been swift, some might say too swift" and sounded a note of alarm about the Vardy Foundation's motives and beliefs: "To me, they are using their £2m input to buy into children's minds." A local independent councillor named Martin Williams, however, was having none of it. "This cannot be a bad thing for the area," he said. "As far as the religious aspect goes, I don't think it will be brainwashing the children. Pupils are intelligent enough to make up their own minds at that age."
If Thorne had seemed to be haplessly bounced into the plans for a Vardy Academy, the proposal that the Foundation should be handed a second Doncaster school, announced in the spring of 2004, proved more controversial. At least the residents of Conisbrough and Denaby had a better idea what to expect. And among them were teachers and - perhaps more importantly - parents prepared to put up a fight. Within a couple of days of the news that the council was considering the closure of Northcliffe comprehensive and the opening of another Vardy Academy, Kay Wilkinson and Tracy Morton had amassed a bulging file of information, and resolved to form Cadpag, the Conisbrough and Denaby Parents' Action Group.
Their Labour councillors refused to discuss the matter until after June 2004's council elections; when the council broke its silence, it was either noncommittal or brazenly enthusiastic about the Vardy proposal. The Liberal Democrats offered the parents' group their support in the run-up to 2004's local elections, but then quickly backed off, limply claiming that it would be best if the campaign wasn't compromised by politics ("It was as if somebody somewhere had said to them, 'Don't get involved'").
By the start of July, the parents' group had gathered close to 1,000 signatures on an anti-Vardy petition, and the local authority had held three consultation meetings, one for parents with children at Northcliffe and two for the general public. No other option - such as a strategy for keeping Northcliffe open and getting it out of Special Measures - was up for discussion, and the meetings followed a strict pattern: inquiries from the floor received a single answer from an assembled panel, with no comeback to the questioner. At the parents' meeting, attendance was rather compromised by the fact that the event had been scheduled for the same night as England's Euro 2004 match against Croatia.
"There was a line of men in suits," said Tracy. "John Burn was there. David Vardy, Peter Vardy's brother, came to the parents' one. There were representatives of the City Academies programme from the DfES, various lawyers, and Mark Eales, the Doncaster director of education. And our local councillors would sit at the back saying very little indeed."
"If you asked a question, even if the panel said, 'I don't know', you weren't allowed to make another point," said Kay. "There wasn't any consulting," added Tracy. "Nobody asked us anything: 'What do you think of this? What would your preferred options be?' We were not consulted."
When parents asked Burn about creationism, he appeared baffled ("He just said, 'I don't know what you mean by creationism.' He asked us what it was"). At the parents' consultation meeting, Tracy quoted a speech Burn had given in which he had said that teachers at Vardy schools should be "full-time Christian workers"; he told her that it was a personal view not necessarily reflected in the Foundation's plans for Conisbrough and Denaby. "At the first parents' meeting," Kay recalled, "somebody asked David Vardy why they were contributing only £2m while the government put in so much more. And he said, 'Well, I can always take my money elsewhere. I can go and buy myself a yacht.'"
As I later discovered when I met one of Northcliffe's teachers, Northcliffe staff had approached their consultations with both factual ammunition and a clever method to get around the insistence that they were allowed only one question each, and no comeback. Chains of questions were shared among teachers, so as to ensure that points could be pursued - as when one member of staff asked about the Vardy Foundation's stance on gay teachers.
"John Burn began his answer by saying, 'Well, we think it's a sin,'" the teacher told me. "When the staff gasped, he tried to broaden his response by saying that they believed in including everyone, and they had people working in their schools of the Christian faith, other faiths, and no faith - no one would be excluded on the grounds of faith. Then the guy who had asked it was cut off by the chair of the meeting. But we had follow-up questions, distributed around the staff. They were along the lines of, 'You seem to have made up your minds about which staff members are sinful and which aren't. How far does that extend? We have Muslim teachers on our staff. What about them?' Burn said, 'I don't think that's something we need to discuss at this point.' He fudged it."
At first, Doncaster's education authorities talked about rejecting the Vardy proposal if a majority of local opinion was against it. As the summer of 2004 progressed, that was changed to a "sizable majority". In July, a questionnaire similar to the one circulated in Thorne was sent to households in Conisbrough and Denaby. As had happened up the road, it remained unclear how many of them had been sent out, or what importance they were accorded.
In the meantime, Tracy, Kay and the Conisbrough and Denaby Parents' Action Group were anxiously waiting. They had extracted the odd concession from the Vardy Foundation - most notably, a guarantee that all pupils on the roll at Northcliffe, along with those year six primary pupils scheduled to go there in 2005, would be admitted to the proposed academy - but that left open to doubt the prospects for younger local children. On account of their supposed reputation for soaring academic excellence, academies tend to attract a volume of applications out of all proportion to available places: at the Vardy Foundation's King's Academy, for example, the ratio hovers at around 2:1. In Conisbrough and Denaby, what would happen to the kids who were either rejected or not entered at all?
For all their resolve, I wondered how Kay and Tracy viewed the prospect of Northcliffe's closure, and their kids' induction into the world of the Vardy Foundation. "That is very frightening," said Tracy. "I can't even think about it. I can't bear the thought of my daughter sitting in the classroom being taught by someone who's trying to lace her education with these extreme kind of Christian ideologies. It horrifies me."
The council's decision on Conisbrough and Denaby was postponed three times, and finally scheduled for early November. The results of the consultation would be published five days before the announcement; a ruse, it appeared, to minimise the chance of any disputes about its reliability gaining momentum. Along the way, council spokespeople told the press that local people were 60% in favour of the Vardy plan, a claim that came with no factual back-up, but that convinced the parents' action group that bad news was pretty much inevitable.
On Wednesday October 13, however, Doncaster's mayor served notice that Northcliffe Comprehensive would remain open, and that the Vardy plan was thereby binned. "A significant number of the local community - the teachers and the pupils - have spoken loud and clear," went Martin Winter's statement. "They do not want it for their children." By way of betraying his annoyance, the mayor duly appeared on the BBC's Look North programme, making the nebulous claim that, as against the educational miracles promised by the academy plan, four out of five Northcliffe pupils currently "failed" - exactly what they failed at remained a mystery. Sir Peter Vardy, meanwhile, haughtily offered the opinion that "far from celebrating, [the Parents' Action Group] should be reflecting on the opportunity they have denied their children for an education of the very highest standard in state-of-the-art facilities".
A few days after the announcement, I went back to Conisbrough. Tracy and Kay were at work in the Windmill Centre; the pensioners were in the middle of another game of bingo. Under a nearby desk was a wodge of copies of the Doncaster Free Press, with the front-page headline Academy Plan Axed. There was a palpable atmosphere of relief and vindication, though Cadpag had a new fight on its hands - pressuring the council belatedly to release the results of the Conisbrough and Denaby consultation, so that it might be used to help other anti-academy campaigners. Meanwhile, Sir Peter Vardy has talked about his schools eventually seeing to the education of 10,000 pupils.
"I believe that when the Vardy Foundation came in, they were given Thorne and Conisbrough as a done deal," said Kay. "And when we sprouted up and made all the noise we possibly could, I think they realised it wasn't going to be as big a walkover as they'd expected."
"We know that the mayor's very, very cross," said Tracy. "All he can actually be seen to do is to support Northcliffe from this point on. They can't close it, because they couldn't find places for the kids. Realistically, they have to support the school and get it out of Special Measures."
While I was in the area, I also decided to visit Thorne. There were 11 months left until the opening of the Vardy Academy, but no shortage of news about developments. Though the Foundation had made much of its concern for the school's surrounding community, a council youth centre on the school site was being turfed off. New premises had been found, but they would not be available until nine months after the academy opened. To cap it all, flats were going to be built and sold on the school site, though no one seemed very sure about what would happen to the proceeds.
There was also the small matter of the Vardy Foundation's record on exclusions. Schools run by LEAs suffer financial penalties for every pupil they expel; academies are liberated from such rules. Thus in its first year, the Vardy school in Middlesbrough had excluded 27 pupils - 10 times the national average. Staff-room opinion in Thorne suggested that if a similar purge came to pass at the new academy, some of the town's more difficult children would end up at the nearby comprehensive in Hatfield. The Vardy Foundation would doubtless crow about improved exam results; schools left within the control of Doncaster's LEA would bear the burden they had so conveniently sloughed off.
The Vardy Foundation newsletter spoke of fresh appointments, the necessity of applying for places at least a year early, and "outstanding" GCSE achievements at its two schools. There was also a 24-page prospectus featuring a watercolour of the Academy, replete with gleaming new buildings and what looked like its own lake, and promises of "raising standards and creating opportunities for the children of our area".
On the back was a photograph of Tony Blair, his hands outstretched in the vicarish pose that he habitually uses to convey passionate belief. Next to it was a seven-line quote from March 2004, in which the prime minister enthused about the Vardy Foundation's school in Middlesbrough. It amounted, he said, to "one of the best examples of modern social justice that I can think of"
© John Harris, 2005. This is an edited extract from So Now Who Do We Vote For? by John Harris, to be published by Faber on January 20 at £7.99.