THE HEAD teacher of All Saints National Academy in Bloxwich, Walsall, is not a woman readily given to despair. Michelle Slymn grew up in this part of Walsall, which ranks in the top six per cent of deprived areas in the country. She is part of the community here, and is passionate about giving children in her school the aspiration and self-esteem that they will need if they are
to venture further than Bloxwich itself.
She is cheerful, feisty, and energetic. So her admission that she cried when the school’s application for funding to repair its crumbling building failed — for the second time — is telling, to say the least. Having seen this school for myself, I cannot write about it other than with anger and disbelief, feelings that are more than shared by the indefatigable Director of Education for Lichfield diocese, Colin Hopkins.
The school, formerly Bloxwich C of E Primary School, had been in special measures, and became an academy in 2015. The new name reflects the history of a school that generations in Bloxwich have always referred to simply as “the National” (C of E schools were historically often called National Schools, because they had been opened by the National Society).
Great strides have been made in the past 18 months. A sense of worth and belonging is acknowledged to have returned, and the place exudes a brightness and purpose that is a tribute both to the teachers and to the resilience of the children.
You couldn’t ask for nicer children or better staff, observes Mrs Slymn, as we tour the iconic high-street building, which dates from 1857 and is a key part of the community’s heritage.
But I am open-mouthed at the crumbling plaster, the patched ceilings, the ill-fitting window frames, the jungle of old wiring, and the open drains within the building. Children had to be moved out of a classroom that the teachers have gallantly taken over as their staff room: it smells like a musty cellar, and the damp is seeping through over-painted walls.
Around the school, decades of quick fixes are evident. Thin carpets that have been down for 30 years are stapled together. But that’s nothing to the grim state of the lavatories, which feature exposed patches where the floor surface has crumbled away. “These toilets serve all the classes
for the girls on site. It’s distressing,
to say the least,” Mrs Slymn says.
We haven’t got to the worst part yet. “Brace yourself for this bit,” Mr Hopkins warns as we cross the yard to approach the gym.
“My children come into PE twice a week this way,” Mrs Slymn says, of the dark and damp-smelling entrance, and there is a choke of anger in her voice as she adds: “This is where the girls get changed.”
There is one ancient lavatory. And in the gym itself, with a vaulted roof that could make this an inspiring space, the plaster is so damp that the skirting-board is separating away from the walls.
The school applied to the Condition Improvement Fund (CIF) of the Government’s Education Funding Agency (EFA) for £1.3 million for essential work to be undertaken. The bid failed, even though a deputation from the school had met the Minister for Education, Nick Gibb, at Portcullis House in February last year.
The Labour MP for Walsall North, David Winnick, an ardent advocate, secured an adjournment debate on the state of the building in April 2016, during which he invited Mr Gibb to visit the school with senior EFA officials.
Mr Gibb did so in July 2016, and was heard to mutter, “Awful . . . just awful. . .” as he toured the building. He told the Express & Star newspaper at the end of the visit that the school was “a lovely old building that we need to preserve”. He wished the school the “very best” as it bid again for funds.
The second bid, for £2.5 million, was reconfigured with the active help and encouragement of the EFA, so that it would meet its criteria. The school learned this March that the bid had failed. “We followed their advice to the letter, and there is still not a single penny for the children here,” Mr Hopkins says. “I was so livid, my instantaneous reaction was to think about asking the Bishop to seek a meeting with the Prime Minister.”
What really distresses Mrs Slymn is that the children think that the state of the building is normal. “They don’t know any better. You put up with rubbish because that’s what you’re used to,” she says. “When I got the news that the bid had failed, I felt like saying to the Minister: ‘You come and tell my parents. You come and tell my children that they’re not worth it.’
“We have to fight for the children here and for future generations. I’m on a mission now.”