Monday, 6 December 2010

Chair of Governors says ‘Pupils need affluent parents to help’

When Fiona Millar was elected as a parent school governor at Gospel Oak primary school 18 years ago, she says she had no idea what was in store for her.

Within months of taking up the post, she realised that the school, which had previously enjoyed a glorious history and had been the choice of many affluent parents, was deemed by Ofsted to be “failing”.

On top of juggling a hectic career in journalism, Ms Millar found herself thrust into late-night meetings while confidence in the school evaporated and it “haemorrhaged parents, teachers and pupils”.

“It couldn’t really have sunk any lower than it did,” says Ms Millar, whose partner is Alastair Campbell, once prime minister Tony Blair’s director of communications.

Ms Millar is preparing to step down from her role as chair of governors.

“Several governors took their children out of the school and we slumped to the bottom of league tables.

“Inspectors shone a bright light into some very murky corners and revealed a dysfunctional, poorly led institution, in which many class teachers were floundering and pupils failing. Just 37 per cent of children reached the required KS2 level in maths, where that figure is now over 80 per cent. It was a pretty low standard of education.”

Ms Millar kept her children in Gospel Oak and turning the school around became almost an “obsession” for her.

Along with a group of parents, she fought for better teaching across the board, and slowly but surely standards improved. Finally, following the appointment of current headteacher Alan Seymour, who was drafted in to advise on recruitment but ended up taking the job himself, the school has gone from strength to strength.

So why has she chosen this year to retire?

Ms Millar said: “Well there are number of reasons really. My term was coming to an end and I’ve recently become chair at William Ellis, making it hard work juggling the governance of both schools. Gospel Oak is now very stable, whereas William Ellis had had quite a turbulent time, so I decided I would rather dedicate my time to William Ellis.”

The most pressing challenge is to find a new headteacher for the all-boys school William Ellis, which has had two permanent heads and one interim in the last two years.

In 1995, Ms Millar left her job at the Daily Express and spent eight years as an aide to Prime Minister’s wife Cherie Blair. This position meant her interests and views became exposed to public scrutiny. In 2003 she hit the headlines after writing a letter to parents critici sing funding cuts that would have forced the school to slash its budget by £127,000, axing school trips and site refurbishment plans.

More recently a debate with journalist Toby Young over his plans to set up one of Michael Gove’s Free Schools in west London ended with a vicious personal attack on Ms Millar, during which he referred to her as a “nasty piece of work”. But she takes that largely on the chin.

“I think my time at No 10 made me immune to all that really,” said Ms Millar. “Clearly Toby Young doesn’t like anybody questioning him. We’d had a bit of an on-line debate and then he just went berserk. The irony is he went to William Ellis so he’s a local school boy himself.”

Where Ms Millar disagrees with supporters of free schools, such as Mr Young, is over the role of parents, and she has written extensively on how they can shape their children’s schools rather than opting out of the comprehensive system. To this end she has launched a website called the Local Schools Network.

“My children all went to their local schools [Gospel Oak, Parliament Hill and William Ellis] and they’ve all achieved and gone on to good universities,” she added.

“The truth is that children who come from affluent backgrounds with educated parents with books, conversation and a positive home learning environments can overcome some weak teaching.

“It is the children who are not in that position that are short-changed if more affluent parents leave.”

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