Roger Finbow… meet Barbara Streisand.

According to the Guardian, things don’t seem to going too well for Michael Gove’s flagship free schools programme in Suffolk:

There are around 10,600 empty school places in Suffolk. Or, to put it another way, if 10 average-sized secondary schools were closed down, there would still be a place for every child living in the county who needs one. Which made it somewhat surprising, therefore, when the Department for Education approved four free schools in the county, with a further two in the offing.

“The Suffolk free school scandal”, as local campaigners are calling it, has turned this rural county into an ideological battleground for the education secretary Michael Gove’s flagship policy. Millions of pounds are to be spent on setting up and kitting out new schools that are simply not needed, and in most cases not wanted, by local communities.

A particular bone of contention seems to be a free school in Beccles, which is being set up by the Seckford Foundation and is due to open its door in September but which is seemingly proving to be less than popular:

One of the coalition’s flagship free schools has just 37 applications for children to start this September, despite originally planning to open with places for more than 300.

The Beccles free school in Suffolk, a secondary school for children aged 11 to 16, is due to open with three year groups this autumn. In one year group, just 10 children have applied to join.

The school’s backers, the Seckford Foundation, originally planned to open on a site with capacity for 300 pupils but scaled back to 162 children after moving to a temporary site this year. The school is due to move to bigger premises next to an existing comprehensive school, Sir John Leman high school, from 2014.

There appears to have been quite a lot of local opposition to this particular school, including a petition signed by over 3,000 local parents compared to 21 parents who suppored the school when proposals were put out to public consulation. The school has even resorted to offering local parents, and children, a few sweeteners – free uniforms, free school meals and a free iPod Touch for the students – but has still only managed to secure 37 applications for places to date.

So, all a bit embarrassing for Gove and for the Seckford Foundation, but now things are going to get even more embarrassing.

As always, when I sit down to consider about something, the first thing I do is carry out a few basic background checks via dear old Inspector Google, all of which led me to the blog of James Hargrave, the Chair of Governors at a primary school in Suffolk and a self-styled citizen blogger/journalist. Now James has, it seems, been making a bit of nuisance of himself by asking awkward questions, liveblogging public meetings and expressing opinions about these free schools, that the locals don’t appear to want, that haven’t gone down a bundle with the Seckford Foundation. He even appears to have resorted to humour at certain points.

And so, a few days ago, James earned himself the ultimate blogger’s accolade, a nastygram from Roger Finbow, the Chairman of the Seckford Foundation, which included the following demands:

In light of the above, we require that you:

(a) Immediately cease any further contact or communication (whether by email, on the phone or in person) with our staff. If you have concerns or queries about the Seckford Foundation and our activities, direct them to me in writing.

(b) Immediately remove the “Hitler’ posts identified in paragraphs 4 and 7 above from the Blog and all other sites where you have posted them.

(c) Immediately cease making defamatory statements about the Foundation and our employees.

Please reply to this letter in writing by 4.00pm tomorrow (6 July 2012) confirming that you have complied, and will continue to comply, with the above. I look forward to hearing from you as a matter of urgency. In the meantime, all of our rights are reserved.

James has, naturally, posted the nastygram to his own blog, together with his own response and I’d suggest you read both as I don’t propose to go through both documents in their entirety as some of the allegations included in Finbow’s nastygram are very much of the he said, she said variety and as James firmly rejects Finbow’s version of these events its not possible to assess them properly, one wat or another.

Nevertheless, there are a few passages in Finbow’s nastygram which merit comment, strting with his opening gambit:

I am the Chairman of the Seckford Foundation (“the Foundation”).

It has come to my attention that over a period of months, you have pursued a relentless and defamatory campaign against the Foundation and its employees (and Graham Watson in particular). This course of conduct amounts to harassment of the Foundation’s employees.

*Watson is a director of the Seckford Foundation.

Defamation and harrassment, eh? That’s pretty much the standard format for what Ken at Popehat refes to as a complaint of ‘Butthurt in the First Degree’ (BIFD). Nevertheless, as Finbow has chosen to use the D-word this raise certain expectations, i.e. that the rest of the letter will set out of the specific words or statements that he considered to be defamatory on pain of being deemed a hectoring jackass should he fail to come  up with the goods.

I am aware of your blog (http://blog.hargrave.org.uk/) (“the Blog”) and your claim that we (and Graham Watson in particular) are engaged in “Orwellian tactics” to silence opposition. That allegation is baseless. On the contrary, the Foundation has no objection to free and vocal debate in relation to its activities, including those which you vociferously oppose. However, your behaviour has crossed the line into
harassment. I am genuinely concerned at the level of alarm and distress your behaviour has caused. Particular examples of your inappropriate behaviour are set out below:

So, to sum up Finbow’s position, the allegation of resorting to ‘Orwellian tactics’ is baseless, which is why I’m sending you a nastygram that demands that you cease all further contact, remove material from you blog and generally stop writing about us altogether…

…so where do I send the invoice for the cost of another replacement irony meter.

So far, things are definitely veering in jackass territory, but now we come to the specifics of James’ alleged behaviour as it relates to claim of defamation:

On 16 May 2012, another public consultation meeting in relation to free schools was held at Ixworth Middle School. Subsequent to that meeting, further defamatory postings were made by you on the Blog specifically in relation to Mr Watson. You claimed that articles about Free Schools had “mysteriously disappeared’ from websites and that the Foundation were using “Orwellian tactics” in relation to a local newspaper group and were re-writing articles. That allegation is entirely false.

Did he really?

James’ response on this point is very clear:

I didn’t attend the meeting in Ixworth. Following this meeting a newspaper story was removed by Archant and it was then rewritten. I was specifically told by their newsroom that this followed a complaint by Seckford. What part of this are you denying?

Havign check James’ blog, I think the specific post that Finbow is complaining about this this one, which included the following statements:

Yesterday this is essentially what the Seckford Foundation did. They succeeded in re-writing history and removing inconvenient facts by getting a local newspaper group to remove newspaper articles and replace them with a more sympathetic article. Truly Orwellian.

The inconvenient truth of Graham Watson’s over-optimistic statements that approval would be given by the end of May is removed as if he had never said it.

As for the incident in which articles disappeared and then reappeared minus a quote which seemed to suggest that approval for the free school was a done deal, even though – officially speaking – no decision had been taken, this is very well documented on James’ blog. Also, if you’re going to quote the words complained of then you might at least go the trouble of quoting them correctly – nowhere does James use the words ‘Orwellian tactics’ and the quote from Watson in which he claims that the whole thing is a done is certainly included in the original version of the article, which was pulled out of Google’s cache by WikiSuffolk.

So unless the contention is that James was given a bum steer by his newsroom source in regards to Seckford complaining about the original article then it looks to me as if Finbow is pissing upwind with this one.

Next item…

On 24 May 2012, you posted on the Blog an article entitled” Who do you think you’re kidding Mr Watson?”. The suggestion in that article of association between Hitler and Mr Watson is wholly inappropriate. Given your behaviour, and in particular the cumulative effect, this is not a harmless joke.

Sorry?

Look, the full post goes as follows:

A bit of light diversion! Those of you following the Suffolk Free Schools debacle on this blog and on Twitter may well have seen Jeremy Rowe, Head of Sir John Leman making one of his Churchillian quotes about fighting the free schools. Someone has sent me the following cartoon which those of you that remember Dad’s Army might find amusing.


Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Watson
If You Think We’re On The Run?
We Are The Boys Who Will Stop Your Little Game
We Are The Boys Who Will Make You Think Again
‘Cause Who Do You Think You Are Kidding Mr Watson
If You Think Old Suffolk’s Done?

In case you have forgotten or never saw it here are the opening credits to Dad’s Army

I’ve skipped the opening credits video, as I’m sure you’ve all seen it before but as far as ‘associations’ with Hitler goes, this falls some considerable way short of suggesting that Watson is planning the annexe Great Yarmouth and drive the Jews out  of Ipswich, so demand its removal from James’ blog strike me as being nothing more than pure, unadulterated, butthurt.

Oh, and do call me Spartacus on this one, of course.

Later that day, Mr Watson attended the Lowestoft Town Hall meeting. You again attended and posted a live blog of that meeting. You claimed in one of your posts that Mr Watson’s comments amounted to “a plausible deniability strategy” and you made some false and seriously defamatory comments about him and the Foundation.

Quite what these ‘false and seriously defamatory comments’ are I’ve no idea as Finbow fails to identify exactly what he’s complaining about, but the ‘plausible deniability strategy’ comment was actually made by a local councillor and not by James.

And finally…

On 2 July 2012, you posted on the Blog and on You Tube a video which was clearly intended to represent Mr Watson as Hitler. In the context of the above, this again falls outside the scope of a mere joke and has served only to increase our concern as regards the harassment of our staff.

Yes, James made his own Downfall video which he has now taken down for reasons that sound genuinely unpleasant and – to introduce another author – altogether Kafkaesque.

Last week I posted a “downfall” video about the Beccles Free School fiasco. The Seckford Foundation asked me to remove it as they suggested that it portrayed their Director Graham Watson as Hitler.

I have tried to explain to Seckford that the Downfall video is an Internet meme and that there are literally thousands of them and I refused to take the video down.

Something happened today that has changed my mind and which I think is really quite chilling. I received a phone call effectively summoning me to a meeting with someone from Suffolk County Council to discuss this video.

The matter had already been discussed with the Head of my children’s school where I am also the Chair of Governors.

I eventually spoke to this council officer who wanted to drive all the way from Ipswich with a colleague to talk to me about about the video. The officer refused point blank to discuss the format of the meeting and who would be present and eventually “closed the conversation down”.

I did manage to establish that the complaint came from an elected county councillor who the officer refused to identify. Apparently this officer had been “asked” by the Monitoring Officer of the Council, Tim Ryder to talk to me to get the video removed. Ryder is the Council’s most senior legal officer.

All this is very strange because School Governors are not accountable to the County Council.

In the end I declined to attend the meeting. I have removed the video to try and keep my children’s school out of this debacle.

So the allegation here is that a council officer was dispatched to lean on James to secure the removal of the video taking the piss out of private organisation at the behest of an unnamed county councillor and the council’s most senior legal officer, which all sounds extremely dodgy when – as should be apparent from Finbow’s nastygram, all we actually have on out hands here is a bad case of butthurt and a bunch of empty threats. If nothing else, James should seriously consider tossing in FOI and DPA requests for any information related to this complaint and the manner in which it was handled by the County Council.

Something rather iffy seems to be going on in Suffolk and that calls for but one response…

You know it makes sense.

  • As an ex-Ixworth Middle School pupil and knowing the area backwards (old schoolmates are also involved on both sides) I’ve been all over this for ages, and it does indeed stink to a high degree – the role of ambitious local MPs (Therese Coffey and Matt Hancock) also merits investigation, as does the kind of cupcake Conservatives who are pushing conversion of redundant middle schools into free schools.

    In the end, it turns out to be about the gravy, and seeing how many parents you can con into your EBacc crammer ready for when Gove gives the green light to extract profit out of the enterprise. The DfE are complicit in this, going so far as to smear existing schools, presumably in an attempt to frighten people into the arms of the spivocrats.

    Ironically the Beccles lesson is that if you fight back and treat it as a genuine competition (i.e. put your case why your school is better for kids) you win.  That the DfE and Seckford cry ‘foul’ when an existing school *competes for pupils as they allegedly want all schools to do* is a massive giveaway.

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