Open Letter to The Prime Minister

Aims to spur action against destruction of state schools & their playing fields

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Jason Leech


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September 10, 2013

Jason Leech (pictured right) during his time on BBC's The Apprentice), is an ex pupil of Elliott School.

His letter informs the PM that, though a state comprehensive, Elliott sent students to Oxbridge every year and educated Jason , Pierce Brosnan, the XX, and children of cabinet MPs (though not local resident Nick Clegg's son).

Jason told, "Despite being a successful school, woeful neglect over more than a decade plus the demise of Building Schools for the Future, the convoluted creature that is the Priority Schools Building Programme plus this farce of foundation and free schools, academies and grammars (some accountable to local authorities, others to Whitehall) all this has allowed this school to have 4 acres sold off by one of the richest councils to private developers who might receive planning permission next week to build luxury flats (and no affordable housing) over multi-purpose games courts, green space and badgers..."

Dear Prime Minister,

In the wake of the 2013 A-level results, much comment has been made about admissions to the university considered one of the best in both our country and the world, and which we both attended: Oxford.

Is it not about time that the Government dispelled the notion of Oxford as anything other than a diligent meritocracy by admitting that the lamentable condition of state schools is the singular critical reason why state school students are not being admitted in as high a percentage as their independent sector peers?

The Guardian’s recent ‘exposé’ of Oxford’s admission figures for 2010-12 showed that more offers were made to applicants from independent schools than from comprehensive state schools even though the fee-payers were in the minority. Bizarrely, this was made to seem Oxford’s fault.

I am no great aficionado of league tables so I will not labour the point that in the ‘Top 20 Schools’ determined by the Financial Times last year, only three were state schools and none of those were comprehensives. I dread to see the same tables this year. If I simply describe to you the current condition of the state comprehensive I attended, you will be surprised that the ratio admitted to Oxford from state schools is actually as high as it is.

Elliott School is a Grade II-listed building, designed by the same architects who built the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. Architecturally, it encapsulates the ‘Festival Style’: the triumph that propelled this nation through the austerity which followed the Second World War. It currently stands in nine acres which include half a dozen multi-purpose games courts, an outdoor stage, a nature garden and a plethora of mature trees, one of which lives on for a contemporary of mine who died on that spot.

Educationally, Elliott has nurtured not just my mind and all the others it sent to Oxford or into the professions through other universities, but also the kernel of talent now blossoming in cricketer Geoff Arnold and Team GB footballer Fara Williams and in creatives like Pierce Brosnan, Gabriel Thomson (My Family), Joe Armstrong (The Hollow Crown), the XX, Hot Chip – to name but a few individuals besides myself whom you might have seen on your TV or heard on your iPod. Elliott’s teachers did not teach your own children, but your colleagues in the House have entrusted their own.

This was a highly successful school in an inspiring setting by any account, and yet it has been dismally failed by local and central government.

Part of the historic building is about to be demolished and, worse, the Department for Education gave consent under Section 77 to sell 40% of the school’s grounds, during the Olympics, despite the area of playing fields left falling well below the minimum recommended by the DfE, despite 96% opposition in the local public consultation and formal objections from English Heritage, the Twentieth Century Society, the School Playing Fields Advisory Panel, Sport England and many other local stakeholders, and without properly exhausting alternatives as is the statutory legal prerequisite. 3.7 acres of sports provision, greenery and history is about to be bulldozed to make way for luxury flats, subject to planning permission which will be decided by Wandsworth Council (the seller who stands to pocket £34m).

How has this disgraceful situation come to pass? Because this landmark school, a beacon of state comprehensive education, was left to rot by its local council as responsibility for maintaining schools passed through hurried, short-sighted, convoluted policy from schools to councils to central government too quickly for sensible planning and all amid cost-cutting dogma. It meant that Elliott, set to be refurbished sympathetically through the Building Schools for the Future, had that refurbishment denied it. It was rejected too from the Priority Schools Building Programme, even though chunks of concrete and panes of glass have fallen from the building. Wandsworth Council, knowing it would be shot of the burden within a few years, refused to draw on over £100m in cash and cash equivalents appearing on its 2010-11 balance sheet or engage seriously in finding a long-term solution to preserve this public asset.

To this date, only lip service has been paid to democracy and to cries by private citizens themselves to be given time to seek out alternative funds, even though to begin refurbishment but delay land sale for two years would cost less than the public money the council risked in the first place. Some would think that selling school land was a foregone conclusion. In fact, on 4 July, when concerned parents, teachers and local residents were in Wandsworth Council Chamber ready to debate alternative solutions to the comprehensive school’s refurbishment (but whose deputations the Chair refused to hear), Mr Gove was enjoying drinks and canapés with local Conservative party members at the exclusive Roehampton Club. A sad but, perhaps, very telling coincidence, particularly in light of the sheer mendacity which has spewed out of Wandsworth’s Town Hall.

14 key reasons were presented to Wandsworth and the Department for Education against selling Elliott’s playing fields last summer as the Olympics were in full swing. The full document with all the minutiae is available on-line. The document’s most important point is the general principle, true up and down the country and, apparently, forgotten: resourcing state schools far outweighs the costs to the taxpayer.

The Guardian published a more insightful guide to taxation last year which made it plain for all to see that the benchmark Band D council-taxpaying, nuclear family on an average combined income of £50,000 will already be spending £1,500/annum on subsiding education in the UK through their nationally-levied taxes. When hard-working families struggle to raise deposits to climb onto the housing ladder, where will they find another £12,000/year which is the unaffordable cost of private education in schools local to Elliott? We worked out that to raise a comprehensive school like Elliott to a standard competitive with its private counterparts amounted to as little as an extra can of baked beans in the weekly shop. Gives ‘Value Beans’ a whole new meaning, doesn’t it?

The effect of penny-pinching or allowing the market to govern the nation’s education? Those who cannot afford to pick and choose (state or private) are truly deprived; their social mobility ground to first gear whilst those privileged from birth soar into the sky. But spare a thought for higher-rate taxpayers who opt out of the system because they rightly want better for their children: they are those most cheated because they end up paying for education twice.

And we know too from the summer riots of 2011 or in funding a criminal justice system to deter them, or even from jargon like ‘NEET’ and ‘ASBO’, that both the economic and social cost of poor education is far more expensive than funding education directly.

I suppose that we must swallow the fact that whilst apparently pointless politics is played with children’s education, fracturing their chances of fulfilling their dreams, tedious, errant whingeing is directed at Oxford in a deft sleight of hand to distract focus from the real issue.

Oxford is not the be-all and end-all in education, nor is university, necessarily; but secondary school is where children are turned into adults, prepared to work and to vote. Secondary schools are where the face of our society is forged, the mind opened and the moral compass set. To neglect state schools is as much a social crime as the illegalities which this neglect will make inevitable.

Realistically, I suppose all those who rely on state education in this part of South-West London – betrayed Conservatives and LibDems (unlike Nick Clegg who only lives a 5-minute walk away but decided to send his son many miles away), Labour voters and others – all should resign themselves to the fact that you will not grant this comprehensive a final stay of execution before the axe falls on its playing fields when the Planning Committee meets on 10 September.

If, however, you are as appalled as I, and if Whitehall now honestly thinks it can run schools and education better for society than‎ local authorities, well, then, here are the perfect foundations on which to create a visionary school, an exemplar of what the state system can achieve.

But I suppose that there are probably many other, more galling and shameful examples of destroyed state schools elsewhere in the country and that I might have more luck scavenging for pie in the sky on the back of a flying pig than waiting for this Government to genuinely improve state schools.

May I ask for one thing then? If this state comprehensive is to be brutally dismembered to profit Barratt (famous friends of Margaret Thatcher) and a gated estate of luxury flats replaces community playing fields, may I call on you and the Government to stand up for Oxford? May I call on you to admit that the Big Society was always meant to be broad, but it was also always meant to be deliberately unequal.

Yours sincerely,
Jason Leech


September 9, 2013