More than 300 protesters converged on the town centre in Darlington, north east England, last Saturday to protest against council plans to close two local schools and replace them with a city academy sandwiched between a factory, a lorry park and a recycling tip.
The demonstration was organised by Save Hurworth And Rural Education (Share), which has brought together local parents and residents opposed to the academy plans.
“This is about stopping these academies and the privatisation of our children’s education,” says Jill Russell, chair of Share.
Her two children attend Hurworth Comprehensive, one of the schools earmarked for closure.
Like other parents, Jill is not convinced by Darlington council’s claim that the closures will work to the benefit of pupils at both Hurworth and Eastbourne Comprehensive, the other threatened school.
She sees Darlington council’s plans as an attempt to drive any vestige of community control out of the education system by handing it over to big business — an ambition shared by at least two prominent local MPs, Tony Blair and Alan Milburn.
“We’re just one big experiment for central government,” says Jill. “They’re pushing things through here that they intend to push up-and-down the country. We’ve got to say no here — you’ve got to stand up to the bullies.”
It’s not hard to uncover evidence that city academies are not the panacea that New Labour policy wonks would like us to think. A few miles down the road in Middlesbrough sits the huge green dome of Unity city academy.
Unity was built on the site where two “failing” schools previously stood. It was the first city academy to be built — a standard bearer for New Labour’s vision of privatised education.
But despite all the trumpet blowing, local residents soon got a taste of what academies really meant when Unity’s bullying directors cut 40 teaching posts and sent student grades spiralling downward.
“I used to work at Unity before it moved to the new building,” said one protester at the Darlington demo. “We were always being told that the situation would improve once they relocated — but that just wasn’t the case.
“The first thing they did was cut teachers’ jobs — and that’s what will happen if they get their hands on Hurworth and Eastbourne. The present situation’s not perfect, but taking decision making away from parents is not going to make things better.”
Imaginative campaigning has already ensured that the protests are having an effect. Saturday’s gathering saw a “Tony Blair” being presented with an Asbo by school students in front of local media.
Pressure has forced Tony Blair to have a change of heart. The Sedgefield MP has agreed to meet with Share campaigners, despite having initially rejected their advances on the basis that the academy plan was “a local issue”.
“When we’d caused enough of a stink and ruffled his feathers, we got a letter saying he’d meet,” says Jill. “I’m certainly not holding my breath — so we’re keeping the pressure on.”
Protesters know it will be difficult to shift the government, both local and national, from its objectives. They are only too aware of the vested interests they face — the prime land on which the current schools rest is being earmarked for a hotel, casino and executive housing.
But they know what they have to do to win. “We’ve come together to say enough is enough, and start raising your voice, and not put up with cut after cut,” says Jill.
Share is now planning a march on Downing Street, as well as holding a “Mad Hatter’s tea party” in the locality, which is associated with the Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.
If Share activists and others opposed to academies have their way, Tony Blair could find his Trafalgar celebrations scuppered and his flagship education policy sinking fast.