This is the second in a series of articles which tells my first-hand experience of the current toxic politics putting a dark cloud over Oldham.
Before rushing into the online content which has dominated much of the focus, it is important to take a step back, and set out the catalyst which drove the campaign. The beginning of the attack campaign was some years in the making before it appeared in plain sight, and this is where I will begin, because of the length of this piece, I will split it into two sections, with the second part to follow.
A FIGHT FOR SCHOOL INVESTMENT
For many years the council and schools in the town were reconciling three significant challenges; the first was the poor standard of education and outcomes, the second was the poor standard of school buildings, and the third was the low levels of interaction with young people from different backgrounds, with too many secondary schools drawing increasingly segregated cohorts from the White and Asian communities.
As the lessons from the Oldham Riots were repeated in both the Richie (2001) and Cantle (2008) reports, it was clear that as the self-selected segregation in neighbourhoods from both the Asian community and White community continued, there were few opportunities for young people from different backgrounds to mix, understand one another and to build friendships which transcended race and religious differences. This was termed ‘parallel lives’ by one report author, Ted Cantle.
And so, a programme of school reform was set, bringing together a number of smaller secondary schools to merge to form new academies under the Building Schools for the Future initiative.
It was supported by a range of other investment including the primary school twinning programme, the establishment of the University Centre Oldham, and the Regional Science Centre.
The programme was not without tension, both in the insistence that new schools had to be run by national academy chains, not under the local authority, and in the selection of new sites for the replacement schools.
Over the years the programme brought together the former St. Augustine’s School with Our Lady’s School to create the Blessed John Henry Newman RC College. The same programme saw the merger of Counthill and Breezehill schools to create Waterhead Academy. The merger of South Chadderton School and Kaskenmoor School led to the building of the Oasis Academy at Hollinwood.
It was also the intention to rebuild a number of secondary schools including North Chadderton, Saddleworth, Blue Coat, Crompton House, Royton & Crompton, and Hathershaw School, complimenting work already undertaken to build new schools for Failsworth School and Radclyffe School.
Throughout the period, though there were differences on the selection of school sites, there remained cross-party support, from the Labour controlled council to 2008, the Lib Dem controlled council to 2010, and latterly the Lib Dem/Conservative controlled council, before Labour regained control of the council in 2011.
A CHANGE OF GOVERNMENT
As the new coalition government took office in 2010 the school rebuilding programme hit a block with just 5 of the 13 schemes approved. Though investment totalling £137m was welcomed, it meant only those proposed to be merged and the North Chadderton School rebuild went ahead, with others seeing the promised investment pulled. This left pupils and school leaders with deteriorating buildings, some with critical health and safety issues.
The same government also ended the £25m annual Area Based Grant, which had been used to fund key projects, including building the Regional Science Centre, and a range of social investment programmes.
The council kept up the fight for additional investment with some success, as funding was secured for a range of new schools and improvements to existing schools.
To address the growing fragmentation of education provision in Oldham, and to create a new partnership I asked Baroness Estelle Morris to undertake a review. Over months discussions took place to develop a new way of collective school leadership across all schools, colleges, and partners. I believe this report was the foundation to a decent education system in the town.
The desire to build a new education partnership was soon overtaken by the insertion of the Governments ‘Area Opportunity Board’, which it claimed would see investment focused on improving outcomes for pupils. The board has been allocated over £9m over five years, but this is in the context of Government school funding cuts of £58m in the same period – equivalent to losing £298 per pupil.
OPENING THE DOOR TO NEW ENTERPRISE
As the government changed focus, it ramped up efforts to wrestle control of schools away from local councils, in favour of untested private sector and not for profit sponsors. For Oldham this meant opening the door to Free Schools which threatened to undermine efforts to create mixed schools, and which shifted the focus of investment away from addressing the poor standard of existing facilities.
For years consultations would appear from groups seeking to open new schools. It included proposals to open a school run by unqualified teaching staff in favour of former armed forces personnel.
The nature of confusion for the council and other schools in the area was significant; for instance, the Phoenix Free School project referenced above had been rejected by the government in 2012, approved in 2013 and later rejected again in 2014.
As the rush for Free Schools came, so too did claims on public land and buildings as possible locations for the new schools, some of which were required to part-fund the Building Schools for the Future programme, including South Chadderton School and Kaskenmoor School. Transferring these assets to untested new schools didn’t just compromise a public asset, it blew a hole in funding for schools which already had projects approved.
For Oldham the change in government focus meant funding being diverted to two projects; Greater Manchester University Technical College (GM UTC), which would be based on land owned by Oldham College, and the Collective Spirit Free School, as a sister school to the Manchester Creative Studio School.
This second venture staked a claim on the former South Chadderton School site, with RISE 2010 CIC, a company owned by the school CEO Raja Miah, facilitating the bid. The company had previously been contracted to deliver ‘resilience building of communities to exploitation from extremists through the fall out of sexual grooming cases’ in South Yorkshire. He would be acutely aware of both the tactics deployed by the far right, and the impact felt when a whole community, race or religion was targeted by those seeking to spread hate and division.
The company was struck off by Companies House as the doors opened on Collective Spirit Free School, with trading companies established which would provide services directly to the school including Collective Community Partnerships and Social Mavericks Limited.
Concerns were raised early about the establishment of both schools. On the former, that the proposal to admit pupils from 14 years old onwards would disrupt, not enhance education, and that the school system couldn’t plan across years with the uncertainty of losing pupils midway through their secondary education. There were also concerns that funding and land which should have been used to repair the crumbling college estate was being diverted, at a time when austerity had kicked in.
For Oldham College this had a significant impact. The proposal to build a new college campus was scrapped by the coalition government, and to add insult to injury the UTC would be built on its land with a new building standing alongside others which were propped up with steel reinforcements to prevent them falling down.
For Collective Spirit Free School, the proposal raised concerns because of the inexperience of the leadership team involved, the proposal was to use a former school which had been merged to facilitate greater mixing and cohesion, and that the condition of the building was too poor to continue using as a school, raising concerns about the safety of the pupils attending.
As time went on it became apparent that both institutions were struggling to attract stable leadership, teaching staff and pupil numbers. In addition, reports had been made that the standard of teaching was increasingly becoming a concern.
Those few voices of concern grew into a collective demand for action, with highly damaging allegations of corruption, conflicts of interests and safeguarding failures.
The pupils, parents and staff deserved to have their voices heard, and I was determined to support them.
The next post will explore in more detail the rapid descent into failure, government intervention, and the investigation report which sparked the campaign of harassment and abuse in Oldham.