I was planning to write a post about Ofsted this week, but in honour of Marcel Proust , the granddaddy of self publishers, who published In Search of Lost Time exactly one hundred years ago today, I have decided to delve into the past a little.

Eight years ago my school was threatened with closure.  Here is a brief summary of the first part of our story. I would welcome comments from anyone, but particularly from anyone who was involved in the campaign and would doubtless be able to fill in details that have escaped my memory.

My School is an 11 – 16 comprehensive in Bury with around 800 students.  I say it is in Bury, actually it lies pretty much on the border of Bury, Manchester and Salford.  So whereas Bury is a high-flying authority, our intake has always been the other side of the national average in terms of intake.  We benefit from a really good mix of kids, both socially and in terms of ethnicity, with around 40% pupil premium and over 30% EAL (there are over 40 first languages spoken amongst our students.)

Big is Beautiful?

In the Autumn of 2005 Bury LA carried out a ‘strategic review’ of secondary school provision in the borough.  They did this ostensibly because of a dip in the birthrate.  There was also a stated but less emphasized desire to move towards a smaller number of larger secondaries in order to realise economies of scale.

Nearby Manchester had gone through a similar exercise some years earlier. In the early 90s I worked at Oakwood High (now Chorlton High), which back then had around 800 students.  It is now an academy with 1600.  My stepdaughter went to Whalley Range High, which had getting on for 2000 students.  I can remember going to the option evening there, when she was in Y9.  The waiting area was like Piccadilly Station at rush hour.  The school is so big most of the teachers don’t know half the other teachers, let alone all the students.

The teachers and parents in my school didn’t care for ‘economies of scale’.  We appreciated (and still do) the human scale of our school, where everyone knows everyone else.

The decision is made

By the end of the Autumn term of 2005, Bury announced that it would definitely be closing two schools and that it had narrowed the field down to a shortlist of six.  We were of course one of the six.  A short consultation period was declared (not an uncommon tactic, to consult over Christmas!)  I hastily put together a petition, which I sent round all the staff on the last day of term and posted to the authority.  I should point out now that I wasn’t a union rep at that time, but I had some experience as a political activist so I knew that if no one took the initiative to mount some sort of self-defense, nothing would get done.

One afternoon in the middle of January 2006 the head sent a message round the school that there would be an emergency staff meeting at the end of the school day.  The mood was somber as we assembled in the hall.  The head announced that a decision had been made, that sadly our school had been earmarked for closure, and there was nothing that could be done about it.  He said that he would try his best to get the best terms he could for staff.

No one else had anything to say about the matter (everyone was in shock I think) so I stood up and said that we shouldn’t just accept this, that we knew ours was a good school that didn’t deserve to be closed, and that we should fight tooth and nail to defend it.  The head responded that he sympathized but the decision had been taken and there was nothing we could do about it.  One of the deputies said, “Don’t put your head above the parapet Roy, you’ll be looking for another job in Bury soon.” After the meeting the same deputy said that it was 99.9% certain that our school would close.  I regarded the 0.1% as a sliver of hope worth pouncing on!

The next morning the head called me into his office.  He said, “Roy, I’ve been thinking about what you said in the meeting yesterday and I think you’re right.  I think we should fight it and that’s what I will be advising the governing body.”  I was over the moon.  With the head teacher on board I knew we were in with a fighting chance.

Mobilising the Community

The head agreed with me that we needed to move quickly.  I suggested calling a public meeting in the school to gauge local opinion and to try and get parents on board.  The head let me put a letter out to all parents that afternoon and we scheduled a public meeting for a few days later.

We had heard about a man called Mikhil who had been campaigning against the strategic review in Bury town centre.  Mikhil had children at another high school in Bury, (one that was no longer under threat,) and he had been collecting signatures on a petition opposing all school closures.  We managed to track Mikhil down and invited him to address the meeting. Mikhil would prove to be a key player in our campaign and an invaluable source of advice to me.

The meeting was held at 4pm a few days later.  Probably not the best time for anyone who was at work, but nevertheless quite a few parents turned up, including parents from local primary schools who didn’t want their local high school to close.

The meeting agreed unanimously that we should campaign against the closure and we set up a Save Our School campaign there and then.  Our first action would be to lobby the Council Executive meeting on 31st January, which was where the final decision would be taken.  The head let us put a letter out to parents calling for support for the lobby.

Direct Action wins round one of the battle

The 31st January was a cold day, but at least the rain held off.  I headed into Bury with my family not sure what to expect.  I knew a few of the teachers and parents were coming, and some of the students too, but I couldn’t believe my eyes when I turned the corner at the town hall.  There must have been over 200 people there, with home-made banners and placards.   I had brought a loud hailer with me so I spoke to the assembled crowd and got some chanting going.

The Executive meeting was due to take place in one of the committee rooms.  There was only room for 12 members of the public, and those places were taken by governors of the two schools facing closure.

There were so many protestors outside the Town Hall that there wasn’t enough room for us all on the pavement.  A group of our students stretched their banner across the road, blocking the traffic, and several others joined them.  The head teacher asked if he could borrow my loud hailer.  I assumed that he was going to tell the students to clear the road, but on the contrary, he stepped into the road and expressed his full support for their act of civil disobedience.

Eventually, a message was sent out from the Town Hall that the Executive had agreed to move the meeting into the Elizabethan Suite (an adjunct to the town hall which is the largest function room in the town) so that everyone present could attend.  We all knew that they had moved the meeting to get us out of the road!  The mood in the street was euphoric as we filed with our banners and placards into the Elizabethan Suite.

The students have their say

All the public seats soon filled up and protestors lined the sides and back of the hall.  The Executive took their seats on the stage.  A microphone had been set up in front of the stage and facing it so that members of the public could express their concerns.  The leader of the council explained the reasoning behind the proposal to close the two schools but he assured us that he would listen carefully to our views.

Governors and other senior people from the two schools then took the microphone to deliver prepared speeches on why their own school should be kept open.  I found this part a bit downbeat and decided to up the ante a bit.  I went up to the microphone and let rip at the councilors.  I asked them why they had chosen to close the two schools with the highest levels of social deprivation.  I told them that if they persisted with this decision they would face the biggest campaign the town had ever seen.  My raw anger went down well with the protestors, and with the students in particular, who leapt to their feet clapping and cheering.  (The next morning I overheard a Year 9 student gleefully telling another child that Mr W had “gone sick” at the councilors.)

When I returned to the back of the hall I was surrounded by students.  I tried to persuade them to go to the microphone and put across their point of view.  I eventually convinced one or two to do so.

When the other students saw their peers speaking at the microphone they gained the confidence to follow them, and soon the aisle in the center of the hall was filled with a long line of school students, who went up to the microphone one after the other and politely told the councilors why the school they loved should be kept open.  It was one of the proudest and most moving experiences of my life.  Thinking about it now still brings a lump to my throat.

There is no doubt that it was the young people who swung the balance in our favour that evening.  The leader of the council announced that the executive would withdraw to consider their decision.  20 minutes later they filed back in.  The leader announced that the public meeting had given them pause for thought and that they would defer the decision for another week to give them time to think about it more carefully.

We thought at that point that we had won.  How could the council go ahead with the closure after such a display of opposition?  Our celebrations proved premature however, and it turned out that we were just at the beginning of what would prove to be a long and often bitter campaign.

To be continued…

Follow me on twitter @royNUT