Stoke-on-Trent Central parliamentary candidates attended an open Community Schools Action Group Meeting at Bentilee Neighbourhood Centre on the evening of April 28th.
CSAG chair MARGARET LOWE opened the meeting and introduced the candidates. Active CSAG campaigner WENDY BOOTH sent apologies for absence. BARRY STOCKLEY (CSAG) chaired the meeting. He outlined the background to the CSAG campaign. In 2007 there were surplus high school places. Mitchell High School and Berry Hill High School showed cooperation by volunteering to close on condition that there would be a new build school on the Mitchell site to accommodate pupils from both these schools. The city council then appointed SERCO which was a most disastrous decision for education. The SERCO proposal was to merge Michell with Edensor and Berry Hill with St. Peter’s. The proposals were rejected totally by parents at Mitchell, Berry Hill, St. Peter’s and many from Edensor. Reports from consultation meetings had been grossly distorted. At a meeting for Berry Hill and St. Peter’s a motion was proposed to reject the merger. Every parent and governor voted to reject the merger but this was not reported. Barry, together with Mark Fisher MP, had challenged Ged Rowney, SERCO director of children and young people’s services and Tracey Penrose, project manager for BSF, over this. Tracey said she must have overlooked this. Many councillors are supportive of the CSAG campaign for a school on the Mitchell site but those appointed to cabinet do an about turn. Mark Fisher always supported the campaign. Each candidate was then given 3 minutes to introduce themselves and express their views as follows:
GARY ELSBY (Independent) explained he had been a member of the Labour party but had walked out because of what had happened. He had produced 20,000 leaflets in the 2008 local election campaign, but then the persecution started for standing up for Mitchell High School and Dimensions swimming pool. He had been removed from the membership list. Council leader Ross Irving had made fun of CSAG and of Pat Smith, Mitchell chair of governors. He had been condescending. Gary said councillor Peter Kent-Baguley is right because he says if we keep up the pressure we will win.
SIMON DARBY (British National Party) introduced himself as the deputy leader of the British National Party and said some might think that means he is wicked but he is not a bad man, he is just a normal guy. He does not believe in the BSF social engineering agenda to create an academy with only two parent governors. Schools should not be run by private companies which profit at our expense. He declared himself fully on our side.
NORSHEEN BHATTI (Conservative Party) said Labour had not been consulting with parents and teachers, which is important for schools. She has visited Mitchell High and congratulates the school for winning an award for the most improved school. She was touched by the children and how much they loved their school. There was passion from the teachers. She said there should be social responsibility and parents and teachers should be given the power to set up their own schools. She also said she was there to listen and wants to put people’s views first.
MATT WRIGHT (Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition) said what we are seeing is the systematic privatisation of the education system. Academies will be a disaster with worse travel to school. The sponsors choose the governing body and are in charge of ethos. It would not be good to have religious fanatics or companies in charge of schools. Tens of thousands of building workers are out of work. We need to rebuild or refurbish community schools. There should be no cuts to pay or conditions of staff and no compulsory redundancies. There should be no private finance initiatives because these result in the tax payer footing 300% of the building cost. He advocates a joint campaign of all schools under threat.
BRIAN WARD (City Independent) introduced himself as leader of the City Independent group on the council. City Independent councillors Rita Dale and John Davis had backed this campaign the whole time and talk about it every day. He said this is not an MP decision, the city council will make the decision. The protest should be directed to the council. He said Labour councillor Adrian Knapper had also backed the campaign at times. Brian said he had first heard of the fight to save the school at a meeting at Mitchell High. He is in cabinet now having previously been in opposition but nothing had been said at cabinet about this issue. Officers have been sent to check the sites and numbers to see if they are right. Brian said he bases his whole ethos on community issues. He said the public wants a school on Mitchell, not on ‘Springfield’ and to know why they should vote for one parliamentary candidate rather than another. He would have liked to ask Tristram Hunt the Labour candidate about the Labour government. Deals had been handed down from a Labour government which underfunds the council by £300 per child.
Margaret Lowe then read statements from the parliamentary candidates who were unable to be present:
PAUL BREEZE (Independent) said it was evident CSAG hearts are in the right place and we have passion. CSAG has a strong and logical case with evidence for the merger and site we want. Paul said he is fully independent and if elected will back CSAG 100%
ALBY WALKER (Independent) said there should be a new school on the Mitchell site and another on an appropriate site near Edensor. He opposed the Park Hall site and had organised the call in of this decision when he was a British National Party councillor. He is now an independent councillor.
JOHN REDFERN (Liberal Democrat) does not want to share a platform with the BNP. He is not happy with a new academy on Park Hall because of fears about safety and busy roads. He does not think it would improve education standards.
TRISTRAM HUNT (Labour Party) said it was already clear the only way forward is to have two local schools and he would fight tooth and nail for a school in the heart of the community. He had attended a previous CSAG meeting and visited Margaret Lowe at home. He is 100% behind us.
CAROL LOVATT (UKIP) had not responded at all.
The meeting was then opened for questions to the candidates.
MIKE COLEMAN (British National Party councillor and parliamentary candidate for SOT South) asked Brian Ward if he was in favour of Mitchell staying or going. Brian replied that it had never been discussed in cabinet and that the decision had been made previously by the mayor. Brian stated that he is supportive of a school on Mitchell.
PAT SMITH (Chair of governors at Mitchell) said she should put Gary Elsby right on his quotation. City Independent councillor Ian Mitchell was the one who was nasty and wanted a bulldozer through Mitchell High School. Ross Irving and Ian Mitchell had been invited to visit Mitchell High School four times, but each time the personal assistant had rang to cancel. It seems they dare not come anywhere near. In trying to speak to them she had just got insults. Stoke-on-Trent College, the intended academy sponsor, want a 1300 feeder school for the college. Pat said the experience with Stoke-on-Trent College is not wonderful. Nobody has spoken about the wonderful results for adults at Mitchell High. 1500 adults have learned in the community learning centre there, the learn direct there works because it is in the community. Mitchell and Berry Hill are happy to merge because they can form a natural community hub.
TERRY CROWE (Chair of governors at Berry Hill) said Ross Irving and his cabinet are trying to destroy education at the two schools. Terry said he had opposed the independent and Labour elected mayors and the Conservative council leader. This is not party political, it is a fight for the children out there. Terry asked Brian Ward to come off the fence because he has the power but has not faced up to his responsibility. He said Mike Coleman had brought up the issues in the council but they had tried to ridicule him. He asked Norsheen Bhatti if she would speak to Ross Irving and tell him to get off his backside and do something. He asked her if she was prepared to tell Ross he has got it wrong.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said if she were elected she would make representations everywhere.
TERRY CROWE asked Brian Ward to speak to Ross Irving.
BRIAN WARD said we must go though a process, we still have Mitchell High today and can not guess what happens after the election.
GRAHAM WALLACE (CSAG) asked Norsheen Bhatti why she said the Labour party had done this. Her Conservative party had been in charge of the council cabinet for 9 months now.
MICK STONE (CSAG) said to Brian Ward that he was sorry it appeared he was being given a hammering but his question was simply that as leader of the City Independents which have a majority of councillors, he should have influence, so what has he actually done since becoming leader of that group for this campaign? Mick put forward his theory that the area is seen as a hotbed of support or the extreme right and the establishment don’t like that. The area is seen as a poor working class area full of thickos on crack. So taking two lumps of the community and sending them in opposite directions was a ploy to water down support for the extreme right. But Mick thinks this could create the reaction they are trying to stop.
BRIAN WARD said there had been umpteen meetings with SERCO and the new chief executive of the council and there are issues so he did not want to give false promises. There was a desire to move the school because education was poor. Brian said he had backed Trentham who ran a good campaign. As he is not the ward councillor he does not know Mitchell High School. The independents have made more waves in the city than anyone.
GARY ELSBY said he had heard all sorts of stories about wanting the land, he didn’t accept the point about the far right, this area is underprivileged so why not build a school here?
SIMON DARBY said they are doing this in Burnley too, trying to mix muslim and white children. They are busing them around and they don’t like it. This government enforced bullying shouldn’t be happening. He said it is good to see support to fight this here, if we fight it he will back us.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said there is nothing British about the BNP.
SIMON DARBY said he was more British than Norsheen.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said if she were elected she would be supportive because children matter.
MATT WRIGHT said this would rip the heart out of the community and with the scale of public sector cuts to come we need unity in communities, not division.
ADRIAN KNAPPER (Labour councillor) said to Norsheen Bhatti that this is a council decision and if the two schools option were put to the council, Labour and the British National Party and others would support a school on the Mitchell site and another in Longton. He said the only thing in the way is the executive; Brian Ward, Ross Irving and Liberal Democrat support. Norsheen should go to Ross and get him to go ahead with what we want.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said the reality is the decisions have been made and the council’s hands are tied.
ADRIAN KNAPPER stated that schools minister Vernon Coaker would not block the two school option.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said it was not a decision made by the Conservatives but if elected as MP she would do as Adrian Knapper had asked.
BRIAN WARD pointed out that it is a cabinet decision, not a full council decision.
BARRY STOCKLEY suggested a vote of no confidence in the council leader.
JOHN DAVIS (City Independent councillor) said he is a governor at Mitchell High School. He had never seen so many lies and distortions of the facts than on this issue. The first time the proposal was discussed was over two years ago. The council have said for many years that this is a government decision and we are not allowed to build on the Mitchell site. At that time there was a Labour elected mayor and Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat elected mayor’s board. Mark Fisher had been brilliant and talked to the minister who said the site of the school is up to the city council. The current minister says we could have two schools. Another lie is that if we don’t agree it will affect funding and other schools. They have tried to set schools against each other. John called this ‘insultation’ not consultation and said the dictatorial decisions are ludicrous. But John said he believes in people power and we can beat them on the arguments. John asked the candidates if they would, like Mark Fisher, ignore the party whip and stand up for the community even against their own party.
BRIAN WARD said he would do better than that because he would save the school.
MATT WRIGHT said he would stand shoulder to shoulder.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said she would put people first.
SIMON DARBY said he would be 100% behind the fight.
GARY ELSBY said for 27 years he had stood by Mark Fisher’s side and Mark had asked him if he would take on the role of MP. He said Rob Flello MP was taking all the credit for saving Trentham High School and yet the community themselves had put up signs all over the area saying Trentham High School not for sale.
ANDY BENTLEY said when SERCO put forward their proposal the socialist party got 5000 names on a petition for no closures, no loss of jobs and new buildings if needed. His suggestion is every councillor should adopt a different strategy, instead of planning cuts they should plan what is needed as sufficient government funding and launch a campaign to force the government to give us the money. This has been done in Liverpool in the 1980s and they even got money out of Margaret Thatcher. Andy asked who would support such a strategy instead of money going to rich bankers.
BRIAN WARD said every child in the city gets £300 less than the average for the country and where have the MPs been to rectify this?
MATT WRIGHT agrees with Andy because the money needed is like crumbs from the table compared to the richest people in the country.
NORSHEEN BHATTI said Labour had said education, education, education so it is scandalous we get less than others, due to the city’s Labour MPs.
SIMON DARBY said bailing out the bankers, gamblers, was a disgrace and we are paying the price. He would abolish investment banks, have no front line cuts, pull out of the war in Afghanistan, having had an illegal war in Iraq, pull out of the EU and stop foreign aid. Common sense is needed and we should look after ourselves more.
GARY ELSBY said laws should be reintroduced to stop the banking fiasco. He had fought all his life for what he believes in. Labour have done some good things. He said national insurance should not be increased. We should demand no special favours but just the same as everyone else has, which should be easily fundable.
NICKY DAVIS (CSAG) said that by the year 2020 the current SERCO plan will mean we will be short of high school pupil places by about 500 for the Discovery school, wherever it is built, 350 for the new St. Peter’s and 300 for Sandon. What is the best plan to deal with these shortages?
GARY ELSBY said an extra high school can be built in Longton. Caps on immigration will come. We must plan properly for the children and if necessary build more schools. He said the answer is simple, they should give us the money.
SIMON DARBY said it is despicable because it involves private companies so it is about profit and he knows the way these people work with their ethos of selling off public assets. He suggested what is needed is an investigation into the private companies involved and who has directorships involved with these companies. Immigration is problematic.
NORSHEEN BHATTI admitted she does not know, to be honest. We don’t have the funding, education is in crisis and we need to take control.
MATT WRIGHT said we should kick private companies out of schools, increase capacity and employ more teachers. Immigration would not be an issue if public services could cope with demand.
BRIAN WARD said the Labour government has done more privatising than Thatcher.
DAWN KELLY (CSAG) said it gets on parents nerves that they are told pupil numbers are going down at Berry Hill High School but the only reason for that is because of the threat to the school. People are sending their children elsewhere but if a school were to be kept on the Mitchell site they would come back.
KEN said there had been underfunding for years and asked if we should blame the MPs or the council.
BARRY STOCKLEY said we are not underfunded in BSF capital funding, it is the way it is used that is the problem.
BRIAN WARD insisted there was underfunding.
TERRY CROWE had attended a meeting to make teachers and other staff redundant because Berry Hill was targeted for closure. Terry backed up Dawn Kelly’s point. He said as Brian Ward had made a statement he would keep a school on Mitchell if elected, then why not do it now?
BARRY STOCKLEY thanked the 5 parliamentary candidates who had attended.
The meeting finished with a video showing how Mitchell and Berry Hill pupils worked together.