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The Tories' bid to close Sulivan primary school is a triumph of ideology over evidence

The plan to demolish the award-winning primary to build a free school shows contempt for parents and for children.

The plan to demolish the award-winning primary to build a free school.
Michael Gove speaks at the Conservative conference in Manchester last year. Photograph: Getty Images.

Last week in the Commons, I asked Michael Gove  to save Sulivan Primary School in Hammersmith & Fulham from closure. Sulivan is currently rated the 233rd best primary school in the country which comfortably places it in the the top two per cent in England and Wales. The school holds over 300 pupils, from diverse and different social backgrounds, with over 30 different languages spoken. It is a model of an modern inclusive community primary. Recent accolades include a letter from Education minister David Laws praising the school and Boris Johnson placing the school in his "Gold Club list".

Despite all this, the school finds itself threatened with closure by the local Conservative council. One of the school’s few remaining hopes lies with Gove, who could grant Sulivan’s application to become an academy, removing it from the grip of what he calls the "dead hand" of local authorities.

So what was his response when I asked him to save Sulivan? First, he praised Hammersmith & Fulham Council – the enemy of Sulivan. Then he noted that Sulivan is not in my constituency (though some of its pupils live there), but that of Tory MP Greg Hands – whose silence on Sulivan’s fate has been total. Finally, he said I should not deny a good education to others since I had attended an independent school.

Gove’s response is typical of the way he operates, and shows why teachers and parents are losing any respect they had for him. But it is revealing nonetheless.  Firstly, he – like the Conservatives in Hammersmith & Fulham – thinks a good school must be a free school or academy, or an independent. Thus he ignores the evidence and disparages the majority of excellent schools in the country.

Secondly, he prejudges the decision on Sulivan – he will adopt unquestioningly the decision of fellow Tories to close Sulivan, rather than doing his job by considering its application for academy status.

Thirdly, he shows contempt for the hundreds of children, parents, staff and supporters of Sulivan by turning a reasonable request into a bit of silly political sparring.

The Tories’ proposal is to close and demolish Sulivan in order that a Church of England secondary boys’ free school can be built on its site. Officially, the council maintains that no decision has been made but Gove’s letter to me in January rather gave the game away. The Sulivan debate is not, as the Education Secretary would have it, a community versus free school battle with both sides in their trenches. Unlike Gove, the Sulivan campaigners are not prejudiced. They do not attack free schools, church schools, or this school in particular. Indeed Sulivan’s application to remain in business is as an academy is sponsored by the London Diocesan Board for Schools – which, in recognition of its excellence and ethos, wishes to adopt it as a community school in preference to a Church of England school taking its site.

They do, however, object to the personal and political ties between the senior local Tories and some of the free school’s sponsors. But this is something on which the Tories have form. It is only a few years since Peterborough primary – Sulivan’s neighbour – was closed to provide accommodation for a lycee sponsored by the French government. I should declare an interest – I went to Peterborough too.

Hammersmith & Fulham will not use capital to expand community schools despite a shortage of places. New schools are opening across the borough but they must be free schools or academies, even though one of these is already in the top 50 most unequal schools in the country (when eligibility for free school meals among pupils is compared to that in the catchment area) 

The Sulivan case is compelling and is receiving a lot of public attention for one reason only. The Conservatives are trying to close a great school for ideological and partisan reasons. No one should defend that, least of all the Secretary of State for Education.

Andy Slaughter is MP for Hammersmith and shadow justice minister