Activists disrupt meeting as Greenwich Council nods through John Roan academy order

John Roan School
John Roan School is due to be taken over by United Learning in September
Greenwich Council has rubber-stamped the takeover of John Roan School by the United Learning academies trust amid angry scenes at Woolwich Town Hall, effectively ending a bitter struggle over the future of the historic Blackheath school.

Last night’s meeting was suspended after disruption by activists from the John Roan Resists campaign, which has opposed the forced academisation of the school. Later, Greenwich Council leader Danny Thorpe appeared to let councillors approve allowing officers to prepare for the takeover without showing their hands to vote, which led to more angry scenes.

The Department for Education ordered the school to become an academy after it was rated “inadequate” by Ofsted in March 2018. United Learning, which controls Bacon’s College in Rotherhithe and Newstead Woods School in Orpington, emerged as the front-runner to take the school over after University Schools Trust, which runs the Greenwich Trust School in Charlton, pulled out in December, saying it did not have the resources to turn the troubled school around.

Greenwich’s position contrasts with that of Brighton & Hove City Council, which has decided to ballot parents on whether a primary school which has also been branded “inadequate” by Ofsted should become an academy. In this case, the Labour minority administration said it was “fundamentally opposed to this attempt by the Regional Schools Commissioner to tell the people of Brighton & Hove that we must hand over our community school to become a private academy company without local accountability”.

Kirstie Paton, speaking for National Education Union members at the school, said Greenwich Council had “sat on its hands” and had threatened teachers with legal action if they took industrial action over the issue. She added that both Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party’s national leader, and Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, had backed their campaign, while Greenwich had “failed unforgivably” to carry through on a motion to resist the academisation of schools.

After declining to sit facing councillors, saying “I want to talk to my community”, she said: “Not one cabinet member has joined our picket lines, and we haven’t seen any public resistance to academisation. They have not once offered public solidarity to the 62 members of the National Education Union – on the contrary, they have actively tried to stop us taking strike action. We are disheartened that Greenwich has sat on its hands while other Labour councils have proactively joined the fight against academisation.

When Thorpe asked her to wind up her speech, Paton said: “We’ve got 342 years of history that you’re about to sign away. I think you can give us one minute more.”

But David Gardner, the council’s deputy leader, said the council had to take a “longer view”.

“We as a council do not write the legislation, it is written by the Conservative government. There was a time when I thought there was a slight chance that we might be able to avert the forced academisation – has there been strong improvement, everyone rallied around, everyone rallied together. But while there have been improvements, it’s clearly not been enough. That doesn’t mean it should be academised, but we are in a position where we are have a duty to facilitate the academy order,” he said.

“We’re not making a decision tonight, but we have to show progress, or the Department for Education could move in and close the school down or taken even more widespread [action].”

At this point, a protester interrupted the meeting to ask Gardner what he meant by “not making a decision”, and then continued barracking the councillors, causing the meeting to be adjourned.

During the break, Paton organised her own meeting, hearing from a sixth-form pupil who said pupils had already been told that they would be expected to wear business attire next year.

When the meeting resumed, Thorpe took written questions from the protesters and said the council was “not complicit with anything”, and added that the council had thrown resources at John Roan “to the detriment of other schools”.

Jackie Smith, the cabinet member for children’s services, said that as the councillor who had overseen the rebuilding of the school’s Westcombe Park Road site, “nobody feels the pain at handing over the school to an academy more than me”, adding that the council faced the threat of losing control of all its schools if it disobeyed the government order to turn John Roan into an academy.

She also said she had received 30 emails from parents who said they had had enough of the protests at the school. “‘The school needs to move on. Students and parents are sick and tired of political activists using the school to promote their agenda. I do not agree with the principle of forced academisation, but prolonging the agony will simply let down more students each month that passes,'” she quoted one letter as saying. “That is the flavour of all the emails I’ve had this week,” she said. “There are a significant group of parents that are asking us to get on with this. Our view on academies is clear… if the Labour Party take power, they will reverse academisation, and we totally agree with that, but at this moment in time we are compelled to comply with the order. We have no choice.”

Woolwich Town Hall
Police were on duty at the town hall

Confusion broke out as Thorpe moved to a vote, with two cabinet members raising their hands before the meeting was interrupted by one campaigner, Izzet Hickmet, who shouted: “You are not complying with Labour Party policy – this is a disgrace, Danny.” A second campaigner then started shouting that he could not see what decision had been taken, and then Thorpe declared the decision had been taken. Activists then loudly complained that they had not seen the decision, and the meeting was adjourned once again, with protesters shouting “you were elected to resist academisation” and “despicable”. Councillors returned later to continue with the rest of the meeting.

John Roan Resists demonstrators at Woolwich Town Hall
Demonstrators held a brief rally outside Woolwich Town Hall after the meeting

853 understands that councillors had already agreed in advance to support the decision. It is common practice in Greenwich for cabinet meetings to be preceded by a private meeting to decide on what lines to take.

Speaking after the “vote” – and with many in the room believing that councillors had gone to continue the meeting in private, with some considering occupying the committee room as a protest – Paton said she was “particularly disappointed” in Gardner, who held the council’s children’s services portfolio until last month, adding: “I hope to God that they learn from the mistakes tonight, and don’t do the same to Hawksmoor,” a Thamesmead primary school also threatened with academisation. “They’ve slithered down the hall to a dark space to make a decision,” one man shouted. It was left to a council officer to explain what had happened with the “vote” before protesters later gathered on the steps of the town hall.

United Learning’s chief executive Sir Jon Coles, who has taken a combative approach to the John Roan Resists campaign, met parents at an open evening on Monday. The school, which can date its history back to 1677 and a charity bequest to set up a school for the “town-born children of Greenwich”, is now due to become an academy on 1 September.

No other local media outlet was at the meeting last night – we are watching for uncredited use of our material. A playlist of most of the meeting (apart from a small section after the “vote”) is on the site’s YouTube channel.

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