With all the fantastic work that’s being done by PTAs the length and breadth of the country, you’d be forgiven for forgetting the wider campaign work that parents are involved in, often at a national level, beyond the school gates. Perhaps you’ve wanted to get involved in an educational campaign you feel passionate about, but you’re unsure how to go about it?
Julie Rayson: The Whitehaven Academy
The Whitehaven Academy: the removal of The Bright Tribe Trust
For parent Julie Rayson, the intention of getting involved in the Parent Forum meetings at her son’s school, The Whitehaven Academy in Cumbria, was to try and get answers to some of the issues at the school: “Back in 2014, when the Bright Tribe Trust took over, the school was in a dilapidated state,” Julie recalls. “The building was freezing in winter and much of it had to be cordoned off when it rained. By 2015, the Principal at the time, Mr. Grant, was doing the best he could with limited finances and communicating with parents via the Parent Forum meetings. The Forum was doing well financially with a good level of support for the whole school community and everyone generally felt positive that the school’s fortunes could improve.
“Once Bright Tribe had been in place for a few months, things started to change – and not in a good way. In July 2016, Mr. Grant disappeared almost overnight and the board of governors disbanded, leaving the school with inadequate governance.”
Julie says that many parents were extremely unhappy and weren’t getting any answers from the school. “At that point, I shared many of their concerns. Something just didn’t feel right. Over the coming months we saw staff resign and threaten to strike – and all the time the buildings were still in a terrible state, despite claims that several hundred thousands of pounds were supposed to have been invested.”
With parents receiving no information from the Trust, they turned to Julie and other parents who had been attending the Parent Forums: - “We soon became the ‘voice’ for parents and a bridge between them and the school. I too was worried about the detrimental effect this was having on my son’s education and well being, so we decided to set up the Whitehaven Academy Action Group to tackle the issues.”
Julie says that the Action Group held regular meetings with staff to see what was needed in the school and how the parents could fundraise to provide support.
She tells us that she made several Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to Bright Tribe and the Department for Education, which took months to come back. However, in 2016, she discovered that the government had given £320,000 to Bright Tribe for the installation of energy efficient lighting at the school. “Walking around the school you could see the work hadn't been done," she says. "Somebody needed to be held accountable and we had to find out what had happened to the money."
Julie was right. The contract for the lighting was given to a company owned by an associate of Michael Dwan, the Trust's sponsor at the time. This was then sub-contracted back to a company ran by Mr. Dwan.
“I was aware that an independent survey had been carried out which made clear the costs for the lighting and upgrading of the boilers were around £42,000 when the actual funds granted were over £500,000.00. What had happened to the rest of the money?”
Julie set up social media pages for the Action Group, to help raise awareness of what was happening at Whitehaven Academy. This helped to generate interest from the media and Julie spoke to some educational journalists on the national press: “I had to be careful, as I was mindful that my son was at Whitehaven. At the same time, I wanted to get to the bottom of what was going on and thought the media would enable me to do that. Since Bright Tribe had come on board, the school had been placed into special measures by Ofsted and seen six head teachers come and go.”
The BBC's Panorama picked up on the story and its investigation, which aired in September 2018, alleged that Bright Tribe received public money for building work, lighting upgrades and fire safety improvements that were either not finished or never started in the first place.
In July 2018, it was announced that the Bright Tribe Academy Chain would close, which Julie says leaves a bitter taste: “For my son and all the students that have been failed by the trust – if they had walked away earlier it might have had a different outcome for those students.”
Now a Councillor with Whitehaven Town Council, Julie tells us that Whitehaven Academy has a new academy sponsor: - “Last year, the Bright Tribe Trust pulled out of running the school amid deepening parental concerns over standards. The Department for Education is set to invest a significant sum into demolishing and constructing new school buildings.
“We just need to move forward now. With the right support and engagement from the newly appointed trust the future can be a lot brighter for the children attending Whitehaven Academy".
Julie’s top tip
Don’t ever give up. There were many times when our group just felt like we were getting nowhere fast – but then we’d have a breakthrough. We supported each other and now we’re all really good friends. Ultimately, we had a common goal and that was to make a positive difference to our children’s education.
Jo Yurky: Fair Funding for All Schools
Fair Funding for All Schools
Mum of two Jo Yurky decided to get involved in campaigning for fairer school funding back in December 2016. She’d been to an Open Day at her daughter’s new secondary school where the head teacher told parents that funding issues meant they’d had to increase class sizes: “I, along with many other parents, believed until that point that school funding was protected from the cuts we were seeing more widely across our public services. I remember looking around the room and wondering if everyone else had heard what I’d just heard. I wasn’t happy about it.”
Jo, from Muswell Hill, decided to do some research to get a better picture of the state of school budgets and came across the School Cuts website which provided information about the scale of cuts for all schools in England. Reports by organisations like the National Audit Office and Institute for Fiscal Studies identified significant cuts to school budgets since 2010.
She says she discovered that schools in the catchment area were asking parents for money on a direct debit basis, to keep the schools afloat: “Some schools couldn’t balance their books unless they asked parents to give a regular donation on a monthly basis.
“The issue is not with the schools for asking for donations; the issue is why do they need to do that in the first place? There is clearly a financial problem in our schools and asking parents for donations is not a long-term solution.
“I realised pretty quickly what a lie we had all been sold about school funding being protected. All that actually means is that the budget stays the same, so, in effect, schools see less money not only because of policies the Government has introduced but also because of inflation.
“It seemed to me that only a very loud and unified parent voice could stand any chance of changing the government's mind. So, through social media, I connected with parents in other parts of the country and, together, we decided to set up Fair Funding for All Schools."
The group spread the message about their campaign through an effective media strategy – posting on social media channels including Twitter and Facebook, and speaking to journalists on national newspapers and broadcast outlets.
Jo says that through these channels, parents all over the country could access a range of resources with advice on how to spread the word among other parents, setting up local groups, holding a meeting in school to raise awareness, as well as advice on targeting local MPs and council leaders in their own parent voices: “We also work with teachers, school leaders, councillors and MPs to deliver a collective voice for fair funding for all schools,” she adds.
Since starting the campaign, Jo says that they have built a network of over 55 local campaign groups the length and breadth of the country and have over 50k supporters. Working with other parent-led campaign groups like Save Our Schools and More Than a Score, the Fair Funding for All Schools group have staged events that encourage parents to get involved in the communities around their local schools. One campaign day involved ‘protest picnics’ in local parks on the last day of term and another, Floss4Funding, filmed kids and parents floss dancing outside the school gates. But there has also been more mundane but important activities: holding school meetings with parents and meeting local MPs.
“Our campaign message is simple: we are calling on the government to reverse cuts to school budgets; to protect per pupil funding in real terms going forward; and to implement a school funding formula that increases funding for schools where it’s most needed - but without cutting funding per pupil for schools in any other part of the country, so that no school loses out.”
Don't expect change to happen overnight, it's a hard slog!
Work with your governors, headteachers, teaching unions and PTAs to keep the school community together, helping each other.
Keep spreading the word with all the parents you know and target your local MP - they are the ones who can deliver the change we want to see and if large enough numbers of parents contact them, they will be forced to act.
Useful campaign links:
Jenni Dyer: Let Toys be Toys
Let Toys be Toys: campaigning for the removal of gender stereotyping
When Jenni Dyer’s first child was born in 2007, she started to notice the way that toy and clothing manufacturers market by gender: “Having a child really opened my eyes to the gender stereotyping that exists in our society. I work at the Institute of Physics and I especially noticed how science toys would be on the shelves in the boys’ section, whilst the girls’ section would contain toy hoovers and kitchen units.
“I worried about what kind of message that was sending out to children. I felt strongly that this stereotyping marketing was wrong on several levels and I wanted to do something about it.”
Mum of three Jenni first became involved in the Let Toys Be Toys campaign in 2012, as she helped the group to develop a range of resources for schools: “We went along to the National Union of Teachers’ Conference so that we could inform teachers about the resources they could access on our website – essentially lesson plans from Key Stages one to three – that would help them to educate children about gender neutrality. Things like getting girls and boys to line up separately creates barriers and we wanted to break these down in the classroom.”
Jenni, who’s also a Parentkind Trustee, tells us that awareness of the campaign grew among parents through social media and wide media coverage: - “This helped us to increase the pressure on some of major retailers, including John Lewis and Hamleys, to remove their Girls and Boys sections. Now, 15 retailers across the UK, including Boots and John Lewis, have removed the signs ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ from their marketing; Hamleys no longer has ‘girls’ and ‘boys’ floors. Our campaign isn’t against pink or blue. It’s about not having signs that tell children what they can and can’t play with.”
Following the success of Let Toys be Toys, the Group has recently launched a spin off campaign – Let Clothes be Clothes, as Jenni explains: “Gender stereotyping on clothing has been around for a while now. But what sort of message do T-shirts with slogans such as ‘Future WAG’ and ‘This boy is a genius’ send to children?”
Now with an army of volunteers and a string of awards under its belt, the group is still working hard to get the message through to other retailers: “There’s no doubt that lots of progress has been made in terms of fewer products on the shelves labelled ‘boys’ or ‘girls’. But we still receive lots of examples of gender stereotyping and unnecessary labelling - why do times tables books for girls and boys need to be colour coded in pink and blue?”
Jenni’s top tips
"Try to form a group to tackle an issue so that collectively you can make a difference. It’s important to feel there’s a support network and to share the tasks among the group. I would say start with something small and build from there, otherwise it might be overwhelming until you gain momentum. Finally, don’t underestimate the power of social media – it really helped us to get our message to the masses.”
Useful campaign links:
Twitter: Let Toys Be Toys
Facebook: Let Toys Be Toys
Online resources at lettoysbetoys.co.uk