Staff, students, and parents at Holland Park School in London are organising to oppose the proposed takeover by a giant academy trust. To defend education, the labour movement must fight to end academisation, and put workers in control.
Parents, teachers, and pupils at Holland Park School (HPS) have taken a defiant stance against the school’s takeover by multi-academy trust (MAT) United Learning.
On 31 March, parents organised in the Holland Park School Parent Collective (HPSPC) held a successful public meeting at Notting Hill Community Church, which comrades of Socialist Appeal attended.
In this meeting, the school community had a very clear message to the HPS governing body: that they are unfit to decide upon the fate of the school and must go.
Toxic work culture
The last year has proved difficult for the Holland Park School community. One of London’s top schools, it was engulfed in scandal after allegations emerged last summer of a toxic work environment at the state-funded academy.
Testimonies from former teachers lifted the lid on an endemic culture of bullying and intimidation, fomented by the leadership at the school. These revelations particularly exposed the abuses of power by Colin Hall, the HPS headmaster at the time.
An atmosphere where staff were insulted, humiliated, and publicly named and shamed led to many suffering from work-related stress, depression, and anxiety.
Teachers who wanted to leave the school had classes taken from them and were threatened with damaging references. Some saw job offers revoked as a result.
Concerns over the health and safety of staff and students after the outbreak of COVID-19 were shrugged off. Constant intimidation made staff fearful of speaking out.
This toxic behaviour is a reflection of that within capitalist society at large, which academies breed and replicate.
In an effort to cut corners and protect the profits of the ruling class, undemocratic structures are imposed upon workers and young people everywhere, and employers are given the green light to do as they please.
Colin Hall has since stepped down as headteacher. But as one parent told Socialist Appeal, the current interim headteacher was hired by the HPS governing body without seeking references or following the due process.
The main issue in this dispute is the intention of the HPS governing body to have the school join United Learning.
This giant academy trust is one of the largest MATs in the UK, overseeing over 70 state-funded schools, as well as fee-paying independent schools.
Under this setup, decision making is taken away from schools and handed over to a centralised bureaucracy.
But while the governors at HPS claim that joining United Learning is the best option for the school, serious concerns have been raised over the way the trust runs its academies.
A couple of weeks ago, staff at Walthamstow Primary school, managed by United Learning, went on strike for better pay and working conditions.
The school’s workers also cite a culture of bullying by the management, with reports including intimidation of staff and maternity pay being denied to a teacher.
The disturbing testimony of a parent at the John Roan School, managed by United Learning, sheds light on the grim reality faced by pupils and teachers at schools run by this trust. This parent describes the school as a “toxic environment where students are bullied on a daily basis”.
Shockingly, children with special educational needs have been encouraged to leave John Roan, whilst students struggling with homework face detention as punishment.
It is clear that MATs do not run their schools in the interest of parents, teachers, and students. It is therefore no surprise that parents at HPS are not in favour of the proposed takeover.
As the HPSPC points out, there is no obligation for HPS to join a MAT. This is just one of the options that the Education & Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) has asked the school’s governors to consider.
But the problem is that there are no parents in the current governing body, and all decisions have been made with no transparency or proper consultation of staff, parents, and students.
HPS is a highly successful school, regularly ranking amongst the top 5% in the UK. The reasons cited for why the school should join a MAT are spurious. Claims to improved safeguarding are rebutted by United Learning’s appalling record.
In reality, the takeover of HPS by a MAT is part of a wider academisation strategy, designed to take autonomy away from local authorities, so that cuts and counter-reforms can be pushed on staff and students without resistance.
We must therefore oppose the Tories’ whole programme of academisation, and fight instead for all schools to be brought under local authority control.
Stop the takeover!
The HPSPC is promoting a vote of no confidence in the school’s governing body. This demonstrates the radical mood that exists amongst those seeking to put a stop to United Learning’s takeover of HPS.
The governors have so far ignored the concerns voiced by the school’s community. It is clear that they have no intention of overturning the process of joining a MAT.
As the experience of the last year at HPS shows, removing certain bureaucrats from positions of power is ineffective if the same undemocratic governance structure remains in place. Parents, students, and staff must therefore step up their fight.
Teachers and staff at HPS, organised by the NEU and GMB unions, must follow the example set by the workers at Walthamstow Primary School, and place the threat of strike action front and centre in their discussions with school governors.
Since all other avenues have already been exhausted, there can be no hesitation in making good on that threat.
Parents and students must support strike action, and stand alongside the teachers on the picket lines, in a display of unity. Only such an escalation can bring a favourable end to this dispute.
What happens at HPS will determine what happens to other schools up and down the country. This is a fight against Tory attacks and academisation, and for high-quality public education.
As a first step, the current undemocratic governing body at HPS must be replaced by an elected committee composed of teachers, parents, and students, with decision-making power.
Across the country, meanwhile, local communities must be engaged in what happens to our schools. This means fighting for an end to privatisation and academisation in education, with all schools – including private and free schools – brought back under local authority control, as part of a democratic, socialist plan for the whole of society.
Under capitalism, education will continue to come under attack, with staff and students left paying the price. Instead, we need to fight for an education system controlled and run by the working class, for the working class.
Rui Cardoso, Kensington Marxists