Sunday, June 17, 2007

Halton School Closures

This piece is from Ronnie in Halton.

When in 1996 Tony Blair was asked what his three priorities were, he gave the now famous quote "Education, education, education!" After eighteen years of Tory education cuts, this must have been music to the ears of teachers who had seen their workload increase as they pay decreased.

In its 1997 Election Manifesto, the Labour Party announced "Labour will never force the abolition of good schools." Parents and teachers could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief that stability was about to be given to schools and that the education of children was about to be restored to its rightful place in society.

Enter Labour-controlled Halton Borough Council, covering the towns of Runcorn and Widnes on opposite sides of the River Mersey. In 1999, it was decided to close down and merge several schools in Runcorn including a secondary school. There followed a period of so-called consultation involving public meetings addressed by the Director of Education and the Chief of the Education Directorate. It soon became clear that this was a `done deal' and that any consultation was nothing more than window dressing. Demonstrations, including blocking the Mayors car with a huge sign and presenting him a petition came to nothing.

Two secondary schools, Norton Priory and Brookvale were merged, staff being presented with a blank envelope containing a note informing them they were to attend a job interview the following day. Almost the entire Maths department found other employment and several staff took early retirement. Despite the council mantra that the closures were about raising standards and not saving money, the new school, Halton High, was a disaster. It was too small and millions of pounds had to be spent extending existing buildings, the council appointed head had to be removed and the school was placed in Special Measures. Staff morale and parental confidence plummeted and the school was only saved by the dedication of staff and determination of pupils and parents. There is a new regime at the school, but the very active and large PTA has disbanded and it is almost impossible to recruit and retain parent governors. Parental involvement is treated with suspicion. It is Blair's Britain in microcosm where statistics are everything and content nothing.

Given this recent experience of an enforced amalgamation, it is easy to imagine the shock teachers, pupils and parents felt when they discovered from a local free newspaper website that further closures and amalgamations were in the pipeline.

The new proposals involve amalgamating The Grange and The Heath secondary schools (or `federating' them in council speak as `amalgamation' conjures up memories of the dismal Halton High School experience) in Runcorn, and amalgamating Wade Deacon and Fairfield secondary schools in Widnes. St Chad's Roman Catholic secondary school will become a joint Roman Catholic – Anglican School in Runcorn as the birth-rate is falling among Roman Catholics and those Anglican families who wish to have their children educated in a denominational environment send them to Chester.

The unfortunate Halton High School is to be razed to the ground and rebuilt as a Specialist Academy. There is some craftiness in this proposal as parents on the nearby well to do area of Sandymoor are reluctant to send their children to the working class area of Murdishaw where the school is currently situated. Instead, they send their children to Bridgewater School in Warrington. Building a specialist academy nearer to Sandymoor would encourage those pupils to be educated within Halton and at the same time local statistics for five A-C grades no harm at all.

All of this will involve hundreds of pupils travelling about both towns on what is an inadequate bus system. Runcorn has a pioneering busway which encircles the town in a huge figure-of-8. The original idea was that no one should be more than a few minutes walk from a bus stop and a frequent bus service would whisk commuters about the town free from the interference of private cars and commercial vehicles. Needless to say the planners did not foresee Tory bus deregulation and each evening the busway is virtually deserted. What parent wishes their child to have to wait in the gloom of a November evening for a bus which may or may not turn up?

At a recent consultation meeting it became clear that permission for the joint faith school had not been sought from the diocese and councillors were reluctant to say where the new academy would be sited. Staff felt LEA representatives were "evasive and ill-informed" and that these proposals were a "fait accompli" decided months ago by councillors mesmerised by the £80 – 100,000 million offered by the Government to push ahead with the plan. Most people believe the prime building land left vacant at The Grange and Fairfield also helped focus the minds of Labour councillors.

Not content with lumbering young people with a mountain of debt for having the temerity to attend university, Alan Johnson now wishes to cause as much disruption to their secondary education as possible. Blairite puppet Johnson is rapidly becoming as unpopular with teachers and students as he was with the postal workers he regularly sold out in his previous existence as right-wing General Secretary of the CWU.

The population of Widnes and Runcorn should unite to stop these closures and not fall into the same trap of 1999-2000 and think "thank goodness it's not our school which is affected!" They must put down a clear marker to Halton Borough Council on this issue not least because early in 2008 a review of primary schools within the borough is due to take place, the outcome of which will see more schools closed with more teachers looking for jobs outside of the borough and more anxiety for parents. They must pressurise Labour councillors (especially those who had their own children educated outside the borough while passing resolutions to close down local schools) and both Labour Members of Parliament, Derek Twigg, Halton and Mike Hall, Weaver Vale.


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