Fortismere students in special Q & A session with local MP

Fortismere School hustingsLocal students from Fortismere school on Friday got the chance to question Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone and the other parliamentary candidates on policy, in a special Q&A session led by the school’s head teacher, Aydin Onac.

The students quizzed the candidates on a number of issues, ranging from local school funding to the Middle East crisis and economic recovery.

Lynne Featherstone MP comments:

“It’s been such an enjoyable and stimulating afternoon. I’m so impressed by the Fortismere students. They clearly have an impressive knowledge of political issues, as well as a hunger to learn more and understand the world we live in.

“With that kind of insight and interest, I’m sure they will go far in life, so keep it up guys!”

Fortismere hustings

Fortismere School invited the three main candidates in the coming election – myself as LibDem MP, Karen Jennings as the Labour candidate and Richard Merrin for the Tories – to be asked questions by the students. About 150 young people came to the ‘question time’ and I have to say they put some terrific questions.

It totally confirmed my view that our children and young people are clever, engaged, interested and tough questioners! A far cry from the media portrayal of them as hooligans and criminals.

We ranged across banking and the economy, the Middle-East, what we would do for young people in Haringey, tuition fees, MPs’ expenses and much more. They were sharp as needles and very, very direct!

Lots of support for the LibDems here.

Well done Fortismere.

Muswell Hill Holocaust Memorial Day

Young students from Fortismere School came to Muswell Hill Synagogue for Holocaust Memorial Day. Rabbi Mason welcomed them. I spoke to them about the current relevance of the Holocaust – about how hatred and discrimination goes on day in day out – even in our playgrounds. And how, when you hear anyone say something derogatory and disgusting about others – be that about being gay, disabled, black, whatever – if you didn’t speak up then you are complicit. And how important this is – and how – under pressure, a whole nation can change and become frightened into silence virtually.

Then came Joan Salter, whose own children had gone to Fortismere, and whose name was changed long ago by the American family she was placed with after the war. Whenever you hear a Holocaust Survivor’s story – you are moved to tears and you cannot believe man’s inhumanity to man.

Joan’s story was a bit different. For a start – she, her half-sister and both her mother and father survived the Holocaust – just. The tale is one of fear, hiding, danger, hardship, separation and endurance. But shining out in that story of survival really against all odds and a journey from Poland, to Paris, to Belgium, to Spain, to Portugal and to the USA, are those in those countries who risked their lives to shelter, hide, feed or help the individuals in this family.

They did risk their own lives to speak out and say that what Hitler was doing was hideous, evil and despite danger to their own lives, they would not be cowed and frightened and complicit – but stood full square to help those Jews that they could.

A wonderful story – and I have no doubt that the Fortismere students who heard it – will remember the lesson that is taught by the example of this one brave survivor.

A huge thank you to Tamara Broido and the Muswell Hill Holocaust Memorial Day Committee, Rabbi Mason and all who made this really valuable event possible.

Meeting Fortismere's Chair of Governors

Gruelling advice surgery – it can be so draining as people’s problems can be so deep and so distressing. I’ve noticed over the years how simply listening properly to someone who has been frustrated or downed at every turn often results often in the person crying, just because they can finally talk to someone who listens to them. At first I found this really hard – but now I understand that it is a release as finding someone to listen is hard in today’s society.

Then it was straight on to meeting with Fortismere’s Chair of Governors, Jane Farrell, to discuss the ongoing state of the school’s move to Foundation Status. The informal consultation being finished, we are now in the statutory consultation period. The informal stage results were that out of only a 6% response rate, 70% were against (to some degree).

I put forward the suggestion that – based on such a low response rate – the school should go back and ballot the parents, accompanied by a recommending report from the majority Governors who are for the proposal with an accompanying minority report from those Governors opposed. That to me is a way forward that would then, upon the result, re-unite a community which has been divided by this issue creating at times a pretty unpleasant atmosphere. Whatever, the outcome, the school must move forward with any divisions healed.

However, the school’s position is not to offer a ballot. The Governors feel that the statutory consultation period instead offers another opportunity for local parents and others to make their case – and that they as the Governing Body with the remit and duty for making decisions will take the decision based on the responses.

There are some complaints from parents who are asking the Government to review the processes on the informal consultation and consultation with stakeholders because they believe due process has not been followed and I have written to the Minister to ask that he investigate these claims.

One of the other real problems about the process is that the responses to the informal consultation were not available for public scrutiny as indeed neither will be the responses to the statutory consultation now ongoing and closing July 16th. I asked for the responses to be published and Gail – Gail Engert who is the Liberal Democrat Education Spokesperson on the Council and who came with me – very helpfully suggested that the Governors could even anonomise the responses so that we can all see the reality of the responses – but not who had made them. Jane said she would consider this. And I think if they will not ballot all parents – then we (all of us) need to see what people have said in their responses so that we can understand on what basis the Governors make and take the final decision.

So – a not altogether satisfactory outcome – as I do believe an all parent ballot would have been a way to settle the business that all could then fall in behind. Second best will be if the Governors agree to publish the responses. Otherwise, for those for whom the decision goes the ‘wrong’ way will never truly believe that the Governors did their duty and had ‘regard to the views of parents’. The Governors have always told me that they believed that the ‘silent majority’ support the proposal. They may be right – but seeing is believing.

Some issues on which I asked for clarification additionally which people have raised with me are as follows:

– people have been concerned that the land that Fortismere owns would and could be sold off. Jane assured me that both the Head and Governors are opposed to selling off any of the land whatsoever. Furthermore, that should this ever arise, it has to be agreed to by both the Secretary of State and the Council. The school has put two people together in a bursar role to start fund-raising for the money they need as a consequence of lack of financial support from both Government and LEA in terms of new buildings monies and the decrease of other funds.

– I had had reports of very worrying behaviour amongst pupils and was assured that the new Head has put in many new initiatives to tackle bad behaviour including a ‘tariff’ by which each misdemeanour carries a different weighting and therefore punishment, employing a behaviour manager, extra staff training on discipline etc. However, one of the problems brought to light is the number of exclusions which are overturned on appeal – something I will pursue.

– statemented children – during the proposals for Foundation Status many parents have been worried that the number of statemented children at the school will be reduced. This would be against the law and cannot happen. However, the school does have issues with the funding for statemented chikdren as if the statement gives the child over 15 hours teaching assistance – then that is extra funding – if not – then it comes out of the normal budget.

Anyway – there was quite a lot more – but this will do for now!

Fortismere School update

So – Fortismere – our local educational star in the Haringey firmament – has decided to move out of our close-knit school community and change to foundation status. That will now go out to statutory consultation for a very, very short four weeks – so if you want to have your say have it quickly. My understanding of the ‘informal’ consultation results were that there were 70% against this move albeit from a rather small response rate of 6%. I stand to be corrected on those figures as they are from reportage and memory.

The community is upset and divided on this issue. My personal position – as I am asked continually – is that the school should simply stay a good local community school. My role, however, is to try and make sure that the parents and community have a fair say in the future of this excellent school.

This proposal and decision has set parent against parent and has been extremely distressing for many of those involved. Parents of statemented children have come to me worried that the school will reduce their number. Parents in favour of the proposals have contacted me to say that they have been intimidated by those against the proposals – to the point of feeling unable to even voice their views in public.

I receive so many different stories about promises unmet on mode and extent of consultation, on one group thinking x and another wanting y. That is why I very early on wrote to the Head and Governors to hold an all-parent ballot. This was refused. But how else can we really know what parents want as a body? And the teachers? And the pupils? And the local community? We are all inter-linked.

The LEA are not blameless in all of this either. Nor the Government. One of the factors that prompted the school to take this path – or at least seems to have confirmed it in the direction it is bent on taking – is the Labour Government and the Labour LEA between them refusing to grant enough capital funding to deal with a degrading sixth form building and Portacabins that have been there for decades.

I went with the Head and school governors to Ministers before all this started because the Building Schools for the Future fund provided by the Government for new buildings and apportioned to Haringey schools by Haringey Labour LEA had put Fortismere at the very bottom – with clearly no potential to solve their building problems for the next ten years. The Government wouldn’t consider giving any more money – saying it was up to the LEA to distribute that fund. The LEA said they couldn’t distribute it any other way as the Government controlled the funding allocation by criteria which were weighted less to do with the need for new building and much more to do with deprivation factors. Inevitably the poorer areas received more funding – even if buildings in less deprived areas were more in need of work. That means that a high-achieving school like Fortismere with a relatively comfortable catchment wasn’t even in the game despite having crumbling building fabric.

So – I feel that the combination of LEA and Government has given the school the ideal excuse to go to parents and explain that if they didn’t take this path etc etc they would not be able to have the desperately needed new buildings. Only control over their own assets – which comes with this change – would supply the funding they need. Of course – a whole raft of other concerns are involved from possible selection to reducing the numbers of statemented children. Denials of this from the school. Counter denials from the campaigners who want to keep the school comprehensive.

I don’t know if the moves to call for a judicial review on the grounds of flawed consultation will come to anything – there may well be some mechanism and maybe some mileage. I still believe that there should be a ballot – not just to canvas true opinion but also so that once the decision is finally made it could have been fair and seen to be fair and therefore all parties could move forward together and put this miserable experience where no one trusts anyone behind them.

I offered to broker a meeting between Fortismere and the LEA but the LEA could not find a suitable time or date for such a meeting. A great shame – but seemingly the process rolls on, and now – in the last phase – there is just this statutory consultation and that will finish mid July.

Fortismere School's future

Tonight is the meeting on the way forward for Fortismere School, to which my colleague Cllr Gail Engert is going on behalf of the Lib Dems (as I can’t go) and putting forward our proposals.

There is a great deal of angst and bad feeling grown up in response to the school’s seeming desire to move to foundation status. The concerns are around moves to selection; reduction in intake of statemented children; and changing the criteria to enter the sixth form to only those students attaining A or B grades. People are worried that it will cause disharmony in our community of schools. However, the Government’s policy is to allow such applications.

There are, as I said, very strong views against the proposals – and yet a seeming determination from Head and Governors to go forward. The consultation is coming to a close. I asked the school to at least hold an all-parent ballot – but they have refused at this point in time.

So, what is to be done? What the Liberal Democrats have proposed is a five-point plan:

1) The closing date for the consultation should be extended and the consultation should be widely publicised in order to gather the views of the whole local community.

2) The Head and the Director of Education should meet urgently to try to resolve the conflict between the school and the Council. I’ve offered to facilitate the meeting in the hope that a way forward can be found that avoids the school pushing for foundation status.

3) The school should hold a proper public meeting to allow all points of view to be presented to parents and local community.

4) The school should be transparent and undertake to publish all the results of its informal consultation.

5) The Head and Governors should make their intentions on selection clear – and guarantee Fortismere remains a school for the whole community.

Gail’s comment for the press on this issue was, “Our five point plan ensures that all groups are properly consulted on the future of this successful school and that the results of the consultation are fully transparent. This school is a fundamental part of the local community and decisions on its future direction should take their concerns fully into account.”

Whilst I said, “It is clear that there has been a breakdown in communications between the school and Haringey Council, which has resulted in Fortismere pushing for foundation status. I want Fortismere and Haringey to resolve their differences and start working together for the benefit of parents and the local community. I have offered to broker a meeting between the two sides so we can resolve this dispute. I am hopeful that this issue can be resolved if all sides focus on what is important – the future of the school and the children.”

The future of Fortismere School

Several people responded to my blog posting about my meeting with Fortismere’s Head and the Chair of Governors.

The main thrust of the comment was the bit in my blog entry about the ‘categoric assurances’ I had received from the Head of Governors that there had been no discussion about becoming a Trust School.

I have been shown a copy of the Strategic Planning Paper prepared for the Governors by the previous Acting Head, which lists Trust Schools as a possible course for the school, and am now told that this was ‘fully discussed’ by them in a Governing Body meeting in May this year.

The second thread of concern seems to be around the Head’s intentions with regard to access to Fortismere for statemented children. Where the Head made it quite clear to me in my meeting with him that any statemented child would be able to name Fortismere as their chosen school – there is a counter view that there is a strategy in here somewhere to reduce the number of statemented children coming to the school.

I do not know where the truth actually lies on these issues. What I do know is that we are talking about the future of a school, a wonderful school, where we need the Head, the Governors, the teachers and the parents and pupils to all support whatever route is taken for the future. Therefore, it is paramount that there is no equivocation around the truth. With so much conflicting information around, it would be helpful to have a written declaration of intent signed by the Head and Board of Governors which addresses all the concerns and on which the parents could then vote in a proper democratic ballot. Then whatever the settled will of the parents it would be a basis on which all could move forward together with a common understanding.

Fortismere School

Meet with the Head of Fortismere School and the Chair of Governors this morning. In answer to enquiries about where I stand, I had laid out my views – subject to this meeting. Basically I am against foundation schools in principle because of my concerns over the breaking of ranks with the Haringey community of schools, the possibility of bringing in selection, the difficulty that might be caused by the draining of other schools if Fortismere then expanded, the possibility of loss of statemented places and whether such a move might place Blanche Nevile (school for deaf children and co-sited) in jeopardy. Most importantly, I have asked for a ballot of all parents – as the school will fare better if the parents are on board and seen to be on board with whatever decision is made.

However, I acknowledge that Fortismere has been put in an impossible position by Haringey Council. The meeting confirms my view that, although the Governors have been considering foundation status for around a year, it is the intransigent position of Haringey Council in terms of funding the repair and renovation of the unusable buildings that has forced this issue.

It became clear that it has been indicated to the school that the Council expects to fund any building through the sale of Fortismere’s land assets. There will be nothing forthcoming from the Council. Nothing forthcoming from the Government. And it is possible that the Council will decide to remove the £2 million extra squeezed out of them in the wake of the lack of funding from the Building Schools for the Future funding allocation.

Fortismere, not surprisingly, does not trust Haringey Council. Only a short while ago, the Council sold off one of the school’s land assets, Strathlene House, on the basis of a promise to the school that they would receive the proceeds. Pigs might fly. And that is the problem. Having been shafted, the Governors are making the only move they can to stop any sale of land for the moment. The move to consider foundation status freezes all assets. Their argument is that at least if the Governors have control in future, the school will receive the benefits of any sales.

I raised the key concerns and received the following responses:

– that Fortismere will continue to be comprehensive and play a full part in the community of schools in Haringey (indeed the new Head has a track record of already doing so in his previous authority)

– that this was not a means of introducing selection as they still have to operate within the national criteria

– that they feel the administration of waiting lists would be fairer and more local with foundation status than with the current situation, where they are administered by Haringey Council

– that this was not the start of the route to becoming a Trust School

– categorical assurances that the Governors have never even discussed becoming a Trust School

– that statemented children will still have the right to name and go to the school to which they wish to be sent

I asked them about a ballot of parents – and the answer was ‘we are considering a ballot / survey of parents’.

So! I remain of the view that the Labour Government’s policies on choice in schools will usher in the break up of the community of schools in locally administered areas. However, it is quite clear that Fortismere has had enough of Haringey’s cavalier attitude towards them in terms of treating them as if they are not part of the community of schools anyhow. Fortismere has not even had a place on the boroughs School Forum to date. I have no doubt that the Head and the Governors are moving to try and protect the school and its future in what they genuinely believe is the best interests of the school. That is why it remains absolutely crucial that the parents are able to express their view through a fair ballot.

From what was said, it was clear that the Governors believe that the vast majority of parents want the school to go down this road. If that belief is evidenced through a ballot then their case is genuinely made. Whatever my views in terms of education – I do understand the local problems that Fortismere is facing and so long as there is a democratic process will support the decision of the parents and school.

Fortismere School funding

Martin Horwood MP stands in for me for the first hour of the Police and Justice Bill in Parliament as I am going with the governors and Head of Fortismere School to present their case for funding. The school has a buildings crisis looming since Haringey Council allocated only £1.61 million out of the borough’s £165 million to Fortismere.

They present the case well – but the Government’s line was that they needed to work with the council on getting a fair share for their school. Well – they tried that didn’t they – and it didn’t work. There is a pretty underhand pressure being applied so that Fortismere will be forced to sell off grounds or assets. Whilst we all applaud funding being given with a bias towards helping areas with high deprivation – it goes too far when practically new schools are getting great dollops of cash and Fortismere – with buildings containing rooms that are actually unusable – is neglected.

Rush back to Parliament to take over from Martin on the Police and Justice Bill. The Government has changed diddly squat during Committee – and now at Report and Third Reading are similarly immoveable.

So the sweeping forced mergers of police forces against their will is still there. So much for local policing! They are bunging in the Prison Inspectorate with four others – a move condemned by all (except the Government); they are increasing summary justice without any judicial checks and balances; they refuse to go back and renegotiate our unfair and unequal extradition arrangements with the USA and they are centralising power into the hands of the Home Secretary – who will be able to direct the work of the police and police authorities throughout the land without appropriate safeguards.

Creighton Road Mini Roundabout

Meet Haringey traffic officer at the Creighton Road roundabout junction with Coppetts Road. It’s a nasty, fast flowing, heavy volume mini roundabout – where traffic shoots into the flow without looking and which Fortismere and Coldfall children have to negotiate to cross to school in all directions. Nightmare.

Unfortunately, the Safe Routes to School money for the area is only £50,000 and won’t pay for a proper junction with green phase pedestrian lights – and anyway the knock on from lights might stuff up the whole area. Whilst lots of parents would say so what and they don’t care – you can’t just ignore traffic consequences of any proposed measures. Some of the parents from Coldfall are there and the lighting officer. We all agree on new and better lighting so at least the motorists in winter have a flying chance of actually seeing the children. The traffic officer is mandated to go away and come back with proposals for what we can do with the money available.