Five lessons we can learn from the 15-month battle for Cavell Primary school’s future

New signage hails the end result of the controversy about the future of Cavell Primary School in Nor

New signage hails the end result of the controversy about the future of Cavell Primary School in Norwich. Photo: Steve Adams. - Credit: Archant

Last week marked the end of one of the most bitter controversies over education in Norfolk in recent years. Now the dust has settled after the battle for Cavell Primary school in Norwich, education correspondent Martin George asks what lessons we can draw from the dispute.

Protestors staged a one minute's silence and laid flowers the renamed Edith Cavell academy and Nurse

Protestors staged a one minute's silence and laid flowers the renamed Edith Cavell academy and Nursery. Photo: Steve Adams.

Cavell Primary school. Picture: Denise Bradley

Cavell Primary school. Picture: Denise Bradley - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2012

Norfolk County Council shows just how determined it is

Norfolk County Council has always said it is neutral on academies, but over the past year it has vigorously pushed schools in special measures to convert, saying it is following the Department for Education's expectations.

The Save Cavell campaigners have been vigorous and determined opponents, and the council's steadfastness in backing conversion in the face of their probing arguments has demonstrated just how determined it is to stick to its academy policy.

One factor may be the weak position the council finds itself in when dealing with the government. For more than a year, it has feared the government may strip it of its Children's Services Department. With this Sword of Damocles hanging over its head, a confrontation with the government over its flagship education policy would not have helped its cause.

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It's an uphill battle for academy opponents - especially if they lack key support

The last year has demonstrated just how difficult it is for anti-academy campaigners to stop a school being converted.

Opponents have had rare successes in other parts of the country. Last year, Snaresbrook Primary in Redbridge, north-east London, was put in special measures, and like Cavell a follow up inspection found its improvement plan was 'fit for purpose'. In October, the DfE announced it would not intervene, saying the school did not have a history of under-performance, and had made significant progress.

A key difference was that Redbridge Council opposed academisation, while Norfolk County Council supported it. Cavell campaigners tried petitions, legal challenges and alternative models, but with the combined weight of the government and council against them they faced an uphill battle.

Getting out of special measures isn't enough to stop the academy process

The government has made it clear it expects schools in special measures to become academies under a strong sponsor, a policy Norfolk County Council follows. What Cavell has shown is that escaping special measures does not necessarily remove the pressure to convert.

Ofsted took Cavell out of special measures after nine months, but its interim governors said it still needed 'the experience, practical support and challenge that will help the school progress on in its improvement journey and secure a strong and successful future for the school'.

Campaigners who sought a judicial review argued that, once the school was out of special measures, it was no longer eligible for intervention, and that the interim governors did not have the authority to change its legal status. They failed.

Consulting parents is not the same as giving them a veto

School governors must have completed a consultation about a school becoming an academy before it and the government sign a funding agreement, but the Cavell process highlighted ambiguity about this process.

DfE guidance says the governing body 'will decide who to consult, how and how long the consultation will run'. Months ago, Cavell's interim governors sought the views of parents before deciding to seek an academy order and selecting the Right for Success Trust as sponsor.

It did not announce until six weeks before conversion that it would hold a consultation over the specific proposal. To the anger of the Save Cavell campaign, it did not include a 'yes or no' question about whether the school should convert.

A consultation in 2013 found strong support for Cavell joining an co-operative trust, and in a letter to Michael Gove, council leader George Nobbs pointed out the most recent consultation 'did not find a single parent who supported the school becoming an academy'.

Cavell shows that, while consultations may be necessary, they are not decisive, and can be trumped by other considerations.

Local politics might be shifting slightly towards academy opponents

In public, Norfolk County Council never wavered in its support for Cavell becoming an academy, but behind the scenes senior politicians had increasing doubts.

The dispute caused huge controversy in the local Labour party, the largest group in the ruling coalition, and in February cabinet member Sue Whitaker broke ranks to publicly call for a re-think after the school came out of special measures. By coincidence or not, the Labour cabinet member for education, Mick Castle, lost his responsibility for education in May, and in June the council's Labour leader and new Lib Dem education lead wrote to Michael Gove to highlight many of the arguments deployed by anti-academy campaigners, without actually endorsing them themselves.

It is far from clear that, if another school found itself in similar circumstances to Cavell, the politicians would allow the council to pursue academy conversion at all costs.