Monday, February 15, 2010

School Closure Occupation Guide

From Save Our Schools (UK)

How to Save your School From Closure
Based on lessons learned from two rounds of Glasgow school closure campaigns

If your school is selected for possible closure, you have a short window to have it saved. Often the Council lists a whole pile of schools for closure – painting as grim a picture as possible, knowing that it will back down on a few of the schools, so making the ultimate closure list seem more reasonable. The schools which put up the toughest fight are the ones that get taken off the closure list, so make sure yours puts up the toughest fight of all, and it should be safe. You have to move quick before the final council vote on closure – after that it is very difficult to get the decision reversed.

1) Occupation

The only sure-fire way to win is to mount an all out occupation of the school buildings. That involves a group of parents going into the school at closing time and then staying in overnight. Fear of negative publicity means councillors tend not to order police to clear buildings with force – so there is very low risk of that happening – instead they sit and wait out the occupation.

Most occupations are symbolic one night long occupations, which can be very good for a newspaper story, but won’t achieve much else.

A real long running occupation needs a shift rota of occupiers, helpers to bring in tea and food, someone outside to co-ordinate with media, politicians and authorities.

These are not easy things to take on. Don’t start them going until you’ve thought out the consequences and planned out the number of active campaigners required. Too few people means exhaustion and burn out for those carrying out the occupation, with risk of causing long term issues including even family break up – not something you want coming out of a school closure campaign! But if there is really enough of you, and you are all determined enough to see it through, then occupation is the way to win.

If you are going to mount an occupation, it normally has to be done before the councillors have had their final council vote on closure – so during and shortly after the ‘consultation’ period. It’s relatively easy to get councillors to take one or two real high profile campaigning schools off the closure list at that point, but very hard to get the decision reversed once it has been formally made.

2) Politics

School closures are political decisions, not official decisions. They are made by politicians, not by officials. Politicians love to try to divert blame to their hapless officials, but that is a game and a trap to divert activist time from the real target. In particular, the sham consultations on school closure (only played out because there is a legal obligation to make a pretence of consultation) are fronted by utterly powerless council officials. Don’t waste your time chasing the Director of Education and his or her assistants. Some officials are paid very highly for acting as the front men to divert pressure from the politicians, and some are good at keeping up the pretence, so always remember to not be fooled and keep after the real target.

Also be aware of which politicians are involved. In the case of the Edinburgh school closures only 29 politicians are involved. Those are the 17 Liberal and 12 SNP Councillors, who together form the administration. All other politicians - MSPs; MPs; Scottish Executive Cabinet Secretaries for Education (and yes even though by coincidence she is an Edinburgh MSP); British Government Ministers; Party Leaders; and so on – all have no involvement in the decision. Remember: precisely 29 men and women have the power to reverse this decision, everybody else in the world without exception is not involved.

However when dealing in politics, allies are always useful. Shun no one (excepting, god forbid, if any organised religious sectarians or racists should appear) – from the far left through to members of the Labour and Conservative parties. The more political people onside, the more pressure can be brought to bear. Elected politicians are scared of losing votes to rivals – so play on that fear. And activists within the political parties that are closing the schools can make useful allies – they can lobby internally and bring up awkward motions and questions.

Political allies are allies only though, not leaders. It’s your campaign, not theirs. You’re here to save the school, not drum up votes and members for them. Use them, but don’t be used by them.

3) Media

Journalists are short of time so prefer it if you can write the story for them as much as possible. Keep press releases short – in newspaper article style so journalists can pull out sentences for quotes. Include mobile phone contact details for more information, offer interviews with parents and pupils. Email press releases out and follow up with a phone call. If one journalist, it is worthwhile calling and emailing them direct for future stories.

4) Nicey-nicey

The nicey-nicey stuff – letters, petitions, consultation meetings – is generally a waste of time on its own. The legally proscribed consultation meetings in particular should be ignored, except where they can serve as an opportunity to involve more people in the campaign. The consultation meetings are run by a minor council official, who will report nothing back to superiors or politicians, and are designed only to help let off steam from parents and locals. Discourage people from attending them, except to use the opportunity to advertise the next active campaign tactic to the audience.

The legal route to halting school closures is normally also a waste of time and a diversion from effective tactics. It involves petitioning the Court of Session for Judicial Review of the closure. It has to be argued on a point of law – where the Council has not correctly followed the consultation procedures demanded by legislation. Normally this means nit picking over miniscule discrepancies (not timely enough notification, insufficient information provided, too few notices sent out) which, unless of hugely enormous scale, are unlikely to persuade unelected judges to over-rule a decision of elected councillors. Legal Aid will not normally be granted for the main part of the case, and raising funds for this unaided is such an enormous task that it will divert time away from effective campaigning. Legal Aid for the initial part – the first consultations with lawyers – is often granted, but that is ultimately no use except to the lawyers involved.

5) Nasty-nasty

Fight tough. Closing a school saves serious money. And selling school land off for private housing development is worth millions. No one is going to walk away from deals like that unless you give them a very good reason. Remember: they (the 29 councillors or whatever) are damaging your child’s education and happiness for financial gain.

Visit the councillors surgeries with delegations. Talk to their family and friends. Lobby, demonstrate, protest. They are making your families life uncomfortable – so repay the complement. You’re not in this to make friends, you’re in it to win.

6) If you lose.

Sadly, it sometimes happens – despite all your work, the school gets closed anyway.

Think that, as long as you gave it your best shot, there’s no disgrace in losing. You can’t win them all. Just as long as you make sure you win the next fight, then you won’t let the bastards get you down.

Children are, thank God, remarkably resilient and can bounce back from the trauma of a school closure with a speed that amazes us adults. They will need you to be there for them during the messy transition phase, of a few months or so. They don’t need you to be wallowing in despair at your defeat, or cutting them out of your life because the campaign itself has taken over. At the end point (though, please, not before), try and make sure you get your kids into a decent substitute school. In Scotland, switching religious schooling can often help – there may be a local school of the opposite religion left unclosed which would be better than crossing territorial lines. And be prepared to teach them yourself for a year or so to ease them over the adjustment to the new schools staging and levels.

7) Our time will come

School closure issues like this show the lack of democracy in our current political and community life. Large scale distant city governments elected every four years do not and cannot properly reflect the wishes of citizens. In the Edinburgh case, the closures are happening right after an election – but the parties responsible said nothing about this during the election, so citizens were not consulted. And it’s a long four year wait for the next election, by which time new issues have appeared anyway.

In an ideal world, local community neighbourhood councils would run the local schools, and they would only make major decisions from discussion and direct vote at a mass public meeting. That way, schools would be closed or opened only when a majority of local people wanted it. That may seem radical – until it is remembered that it is our tax money that is paying for the whole structure.

Both the SNP’s and (especially) the Liberal Democrat’s 2007 manifestos talk big about extending power to local ward area committees and community councils, in ways that would be a major step towards my ideal political structure. Local area committees and community councils are almost entirely powerless at the moment. But both those parties are better at talking about this than actually doing it. Because once politicians taste power, they become very reluctant to hand it away – unless forced to by public action. For that matter, both manifestos also come out against school closures. (The relevant excepts of the two manifestos are included as an appendix. They make ironic reading in light of the current closures in Edinburgh).

In an ideal world, parents should have sufficient free time off work to help raise their own children without relying solely on long school days and out of hours childcare. Childhood would become more a time of happiness, freedom, and play than of forced classroom attendance. Education would aim to develop rounded human beings more than drilling children for future service in a soulless labour market.

Someday I hope these things will be achieved. But in the meantime we are stuck with state schooling for our kids, and the job market we have, and it is up to us to make sure it is the best we can get for them. No one else is going to fight on their behalf.

Email: praxis.glasgow [at]
Mobile: 07966 930 728

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