A new model of parent power for the future and an idea for Labour

This article first appeared in the Guardian

All eyes will be on Labour leader Ed Miliband today. With just over eighteen months to go until the General Election,  expectations are high that he will use his conference speech to flesh out a programme for government.

It is a year since the announcement of the “Tech Bacc “and almost four months since Stephen Twigg used a speech to the RSA to spell out in more detail what Labour might do in education if victorious. Amongst the ideas floated were an end to unnecessary free schools, a possible new role for local authorities and a commitment to continuing the idea of parent promoters.

The vision is sketchy, yet a model for what Labour could do is actually staring the party in the face. Barely seven miles from Westminster ( but a million miles from the coalitions pet free schools ) is the Elmgreen school.  Pioneered by parents with a Labour council under the last Labour government, it could provide an innovative blueprint for the future.

With seven full year groups and now celebrating its second set of GCSE results, which exceed local and national averages, the South London school is popular and oversubscribed.

Yet unlike the Coalition early free school projects, Very few people seem to know about Elmgreen. Approaching its new BSF building in leafy Tulse Hill, it is not hard to see why.

The name of the school is barely visible from the street,  in keeping with the resolutely modest style both school and founders have fostered during the last ten years. In that time they have received over 20 offers to take part in TV films about the project and turned them all down, preferring instead to focus on establishing the school and embedding their co-operative ethos and unique governance model.

The idea for Elmgreen emerged in 2003. At the time there was a chronic

shortage of secondary school places in the West Norwood area of Lambeth. Recognising that, and in a direct mirror image of the new school process that prevails today where power rests with central government, the local council set out to encourage a parent led school.

A group of campaigning parents, centred around a local primary school, was already meeting round their kitchen tables, talking about what a dream community school might look like. Founding Chair of Governors Sandy Nuttgens says that from the start the parent promoters knew that what they were doing was more important than the individuals concerned. “It wasn’t about us, it was about what we were creating and why”, he said.

By 2004 the group had collected a formidable list of local parents who would back the school and were given what Nuttgens describes as  “ absolutely fantastic support “ from Lambeth Council. ”At no point did they say you have got to have a school like this. They said what do you want and how can we help facilitate it”, he explained.

The school opened in a temporary site in 2007 and moved into its BSF building two years later. It is still one of the most oversubscribed schools in the borough and living proof that parent promotion, the maintained sector and strong local authority links can co-exist.

The group rejected the option of becoming an academy:” We realized that we may get autonomy that way, but we would also get isolation,” said Sandy Nuttgens

” Another local academy was already starting up around the same time but it only had one parent on its governing body. We knew that wouldn’t give us the same level of connection with the school once it was established. We wanted to retain that primary school sense of community and take it into secondary school.”

So the group opted for voluntary controlled status. The school is maintained, has a degree of autonomy from the local authority but can still benefit from advice and support from the council.

But it is the foundation trust and governance model that really sets Elmgreen apart, not just from the current wave of parent promoted free schools, but from many other existing voluntary aided, controlled or foundation schools.

Behind the governing body sits a foundation trust, to which any local parent of school age children within two miles can belong. The trust currently has over 600 members who elect five directors to sit on the school’s governing body. Seven elected parent governors, and eight staff, local authority and community governors mean that parents always have the majority, but the original aim of the founders to maintain strong community and council links is also enshrined.

And, according to Chair of Governors, Helen Ward, this doesn’t just ensure an unprecedented degree of parental involvement in the school. It also means that their schools’ founding ethos is future-proofed as the founders and their children move on and out of the school

“There was a very strong feeling from the start for a local comprehensive school that was not selective in any way – lots of other schools around here were selecting and people wanted something simple and straightforward”

The school follows the LA admissions criteria and is very inclusive; over 60 per cent of pupils are eligible for the pupil premium; two thirds are from black African or Caribbean families. Elmgreen takes in a high proportion of pupils through the LA fair access protocol.

The original parent founders were also passionate about the idea of mixed ability teaching, vertical tutoring, a broad creative curriculum and parental involvement at every level of the school, which according to headteacher John Wilkinson can be both challenging but stimulating.

“Schools don’t normally hear that level of user view at a strategic level. So it is about re-thinking about how you receive comments from your users and that is sometimes a challenge for the staff, and me, but it is why I took the job on.”

A satisfactory Ofsted report a few years ago, provided one such challenge, but the parents, trust and governors rallied round the leadership of the school.

“We were determined we would make the right improvements, do it our way and that has made everyone feel very strong about our future,” said John Wilkinson.

In spite of Elmgreen’s seemingly progressive ethos, there is nothing lax or easy going about  the school. The atmosphere in the large airy atrium is calm and orderly , uniform is strictly worn and newer parents seem as enthusiastic and committed as their predecessors. Karen Walker, with two sons at the school, believes the ethos of the school becomes stronger as the years pass.

“I wasn’t part of the original founding group but I bought into the ethos of excellence combined with inclusion. Everything here is about putting  the children before the school. So the push about selecting your GCSE choices isn’t about what is best for the school or what happens if you take that subject and fail, it is about what can we do to support you.

“As you get further into your journey in secondary education, meeting other parents, you see what happens in other schools wherechildren are being streamed, not allowed to do certain subjects or made to do a half of one GCSE and a half of another. And then you realize how precious thisapproach is.”

But is the “Elm Green Way” of which the current parents are so proud susceptible to change, or to hijacking by a vocal group of parents who want a different approach.

“If a group of parents came along with a different philosophy –it could be raised at the AGM or parent council meetings but they would have to carry the larger group of parents with them.” said Sandy Nuttgens.

Nor is the relationship with the local authority up for negotiation. “There is a   deep-rooted connection between the school, the community and Lambeth.” said John Wilkinson. “The council made a positive action to enable an act of citizenship and we shout loud and proud about that”

So could this prove a road map for Labour now, capturing real parent power while  squaring the circle between the old “local authority” model of school, and the coalition centrally directed “free for all”.

Labour MP Steve Reed, who was leader of Lambeth council when the school opened, has been encouraging his party to think along these lines. “The Tories claimed their model of academies and free schools would hand power back to parents, but it doesn’t. They hand power to education corporations or individuals who often lock the local community out.

“Elmgreen shows there’s a way to empower parents and open the door to creativity while maintaining what’s best about a local family of schools working with their local council. This is a model Labour should promote more widely.”


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