Independent Working Class Association put local children first while spiteful authorities play politics
Our main motivation for organising the BBL Mile along with well-known local runner Paul Brackett and the staff at Pegasus School was to encourage youngsters from the Blackbird Leys area to get involved in recreational and competitive running and to do this within a supportive community environment.
In 2012 our activists worked alongside Paul and Pegasus staff to organise the Pegasus Olympics where we used our contacts to bring men and women from across the sporting world to Blackbird Leys to entertain and inspire youngsters. As part of this festival of sport we re-launched the BBL Mile, an old estate tradition that Paul fondly remembered from his younger days. By this time we had built up an excellent working relationship with staff and parents at Pegasus, having visited on a number of occasions to engage with children and encourage them to get involved in ‘The Mile’. In 2013 we were part of the team that organised a second successful BBL Mile and as a mark of respect for our ongoing work in the local community we were subsequently granted the use of the school hall by Pegasus headmistress, Jill Hudson, for our annual Working Class History Month celebrations. Following the success of this event we were invited back for History Month in 2014.
Though we oppose in principle state schools taking the academy route, once Pegasus, Windale and Orchard Meadow schools had made the decision to join together under the banner of the Blackbird Academy Trust, we decided, in the interests of the children, to make the most of the situation and we welcomed the opportunity to work with all three schools. As such, plans were discussed to extend our Working Class History Month events into the classroom; we had agreed in principle to bring our athletics coaches into the playground on a more regular basis to help plug the woeful provision of state/academy primary school sport, and we looked forward to working together towards a bigger and better 2014 Blackbird Leys Mile. Sadly, the interference of Oxford City Council and of the trustees of the Blackbird Academy Trust put paid to our ambitions.
Weeks before last year’s BBL Mile, the Blackbird Academy Trust received an email from Oxford City Council’s Events Officer, Alison Drummond, falsely claiming that the IWCA Athletics Club is not an official club and that our club was run by ‘one individual man’. The inference of the email was that we had falsely portrayed ourselves to the Pegasus staff, parents and pupils and that our club is neither licenced nor insured when in reality, given that all our volunteer coaches and assistants are Disclosure and Barring Service cleared – many of them having been DBS checked before joining the club because they are childcare workers, we probably have more DBS qualified staff than most established athletics clubs, and as our coaches are UK Athletics registered we have comprehensive events insurance.
The Pegasus School Manager was at the time personally informed by IWCA AC coach Stuart Craft that the allegations against our club were untrue, but the manager explained that the truth was irrelevant as: ‘… things are different now that the school is an academy; we now have to do what the Trustees tell us’.
A few days earlier, trustees had also ordered Pegasus to stop the IWCA from using its premises for our Working Class History Month events on the grounds that we are ‘too political’. Yet the pro-working class politics of the IWCA had been common knowledge for 15 years on Blackbird Leys (not least because we represented the estate on the City Council for a decade!) and, to our knowledge, had been of no concern to staff and parents at Pegasus School at any time up to the intervention of the trustees.
A few years back when the IWCA actively campaigned against the Labour Government’s plans to turn local state schools into academies, one of the issues we cautioned against was the impending move away from local democratic control of schools (admittedly, limited as this is today), but even we were surprised at the speed in which the Blackbird Academy Trust clamped down on the IWCA’s grassroots community engagement with Pegasus School, using the pretext of both the defamatory email and the argument that ‘the IWCA is too political’ (a phrase incidentally, that has cropped up once before – in a Labour Party election leaflet!)
On 19th February 2015, Andy Barber, spokesman for England Athletics, confirmed to the Oxford Mail that the IWCA is indeed one of its registered clubs, yet when Mail reporter Alex Wynick contacted the City Council, rather than apologise for the defamatory allegations its spokesman, Chofamba Sithole, shamefully tried to deflect the blame away from his employer, insisting that: ‘Our enquiries with UK Athletics revealed the (IWCA Athletics) club was neither affiliated nor registered with the body’. Yet the Council’s Events Officer had, by her own admission, acted on the spurious basis of an anonymous voicemail and then failed to contact the IWCA (which would have hardly been breaking the Enigma Code, given that our details are publically available and our former city councillors are known personally to Town Hall staff). She then failed to do the most basic google search which would have revealed that we are a Run England club affiliated to England Athletics, whose parent body is (you guessed it) UK Athletics.
Taking all this into account, it’s hard to believe that the Council made any effort at all to discover the truth especially as when they were actually given the correct information by the IWCA Athletics Club Secretary, Dona Velluti, and asked how they were planning to redress the wrong they had done to our reputation, they simply cut all communications with us. In light of all this, Mr Sithole’s comments appear, at the very best, mischievous.
Though individually, staff at all levels of Pegasus School have apologised for the actions of their governing body, the Blackbird Academy Trust remains silent on the issue and despite the previous fruitful working relationship between teachers and the IWCA, the ban on working with our organisation is still in place.
Though the 2014 BBL Mile went ahead without the support of local schools it is worth noting that some school staff continued to provide their support as volunteers despite the orders of the trustees and that the event was described by many of those who took part as the best so far. Nevertheless, we were disappointed with the lack of attendance of primary school children and we are concerned at the direction that the event is taking.
The BBL Mile is in danger of moving away from the family, community event we set out to create and towards one that attracts more serious runners from further afield. Though we were very proud to attract such competitors and we will be happy to create an event in the future that caters for more competitive runners, this would be a fund-raising event for our youth activities, not one that is self-funded as the BBL Mile has been.
Of most concern at the 2014 BBL Mile was the absence of pupils from Pegasus School whose participation had previously underpinned the event. We believe that this was solely because of the decision of the Blackbird Academy Trust to withdraw its support. As our involvement prevents the Trust’s participation, we feel that the best course of action is for us to step aside from this year’s event to encourage the Blackbird Academy Trust to run the event with the full participation of its pupils, and we have written to the school suggesting this. If this year’s event is successful without our stewardship, we will be proud to have played our part in re-launching the BBL Mile and happy that local children now have an event to call their own. If things don’t work out, we will of course discuss taking up where we left off next year.
NB. The Labour Party controls Oxford City Council and also has a representative on the Governing body of the Blackbird Academy Trust (which is dominated by well-to-do governors of the elite North Oxford Dragon School). In 2006, in the wake of the IWCA’s successful incursion into the former Labour ‘heartlands’ of East Oxford and with the promise of so much more, Labour were forced to pay damages and issue a public apology when the party’s beleaguered deputy leader, Bill Baker, made defamatory allegations about us in a Labour pre-election leaflet.