Chaos descended on a Tower Hamlets council meeting last night over residents’ concerns about the future of a school under construction, resulting in councillors throwing insults at each other across the room.
Residents petitioned the council over the future of the yet-to-be-built £30m Westferry secondary school on the Isle of Dogs, which they fear will be turned into an “elite” free school by central Government, without public consultation. The locals want decisions about the school to involve the community.
Residents are concerned that a nearby free school, Canary Wharf College, favoured by Education Secretary Justine Greening would be given control over the Westferry school. Canary Wharf College has previously been accused of excluding children from poor families from its admissions process.
The controlling Labour group on the council backed the petition motion, saying that the process of selecting the operator of the new school should be “open competition…. and completely transparent”, and that the views of the parents should be at the centre of the process. The Mayor, John Biggs, was mandated to lobby Greening over the issue.
The debate over the petition dissolved into a political row when Independent Councillor Maium Miah callrf Conservative Councillor Peter Golds a “disgraceful man” and Labour Councillor Dave Chesterton accused the Conservative councillors of being “full of crap”.
One young member of the public was visibly frustrated and attempted to interject but shortly afterwards he was escorted out of the meeting by staff, apparently in tears.
Residents said they were concerned that the “free school presumption”, which automatically gives new schools academy status, would result in the school becoming a school that “would not serve the local community”.
One of those who signed the petition, the vicar of Christ Church on the Isle of Dogs Father Tom Pyke, said: “When I listen to local people about the Westerry printworks school site, they feel anger that it could be given to a school with no public record; anger that what should be a local process has been taken away. It is wrong to play dice with the future of our children.”
Academies and free schools have freedoms to individually decide school policy such as admissions policy, without local authority involvement.
Speaking at the meeting, Labour Councillor Amy Whitelock Gibbs said: “It is a shame that we can’t open our own community schools despite the fact that [many schools] in the borough are excellent.” A number of councillors referred to a 2013 report, which claimed that Tower Hamlets schools were some of the best in the world.
However, Conservative Councillor Peter Golds dismissed the questions raised about free schools as a “middle-class concern” and stated it concerned “the likes of Polly Toynbee” before launching into an attack on the Guardian columnist’s lifestyle.
Tower Hamlets Mayor John Biggs said: “We want proper open competition involving parents and the council… this school should be owned and supported by the community in the Isle of Dogs.”
About the oppositional nature of the meeting, Biggs said: “It’s a lot better than it has been, but obviously we have a bunch of councillors who are in denial about the borough’s past.”