THE BLOG

Fiona Millar Apologises

16/04/2014 11:33 BST | Updated 15/06/2014 10:59 BST

How did those in Turkey who wished to "eradicate" Twitter and a Left Wing Schools campaigner, Fiona Millar, come together to thwart three schools in my constituency receiving significant funding and sponsorship from a publicly accredited university in Istanbul?

It is an interesting tale.

The Governors of The Warriner School at Bloxham, near Banbury, had decided that they wished to apply for Academy School Status.

The Warriner School had also approached all of their local primary feeder schools to see whether they would be interested in joining them as a Federation of Academy Schools.

As it happens, many of the feeder schools for the Warriner are Church of England sponsored primary schools and at the time there were complications over governance which meant that they felt that those schools couldn't join the proposed Academy preparation.

However, two primary schools, Sibford Gower and Hornton indicated that they would wish to become part of a new Academy Trust.

Many new Academies have external sponsors.

The Department for Education had approved as a potential external sponsor of Academy Schools in the UK , the Bahcesehir Ugur university in Istanbul.

Bahcesehir University was founded as a not for profit Trust in 1998. It is publicly accredited in Turkey and has 25 academic Departments, in six faculties.

The teaching medium of the university is English.

The University Prospectus says " . . . Bahcesehir University . . . seeks to give each student a mastery of the fundamentals, with an emphasis on professional and intellectually motivated learning and self-reliance. All our programmes aim to equip students with qualities such as knowledge, creativity and innovation, and transferrable skills that are necessary for employment. They provide options that are responsive to today's economic climate whilst tailoring them to individual student's educational requirements and career goals."

The Bahcesehir University and its founder Enver Yucel had decided that they wanted to sponsor school Academies in the UK.

For this purpose they set up the BAU Foundation and the BAU Foundation set up the Mentora Trust.

The Mentora Trust was approved by the Department for Education as a potential Academy sponsor.

The Trust had amongst its trustees an impressive group, including Michael Bichard, a former Permanent Secretary at the Department for Education, and Dame Anna Hassan, a Head Teacher of a school in North London.

The Department for Education introduced the Mentora Trust to the Warriner School.

The governors of the three schools - the Warriner, Sibford Gower and Hornton Primary Schools - with one exception, voted to invite the Mentora Trust to sponsor their new Academy Trust.

The one exception on the school Governing Body was a local Labour activist, Sue Moon, whose husband is a local Labour Councillor, who abstained.

It soon became clear that in addition to Sue Moon, other Labour Party activists locally were not happy with the idea of the Warriner School becoming an Academy, notwithstanding that the Academy Schools Programme was introduced by the last Local Government and at least one other local school, the Drayton School in Banbury, had become an early Academy under the last Local Government.

Amongst those opposed to the move were County Councillor John Christie, who before becoming a Labour County Councillor, had been a full time employee in the Education Department of Oxfordshire County Council, and his wife, Sue Christie, another Labour Party activist, chaired the Trustees of the Warriner School Farm.

This group almost certainly got in touch with Fiona Millar.

Fiona Millar is a journalist, whose partner is Alastair Campbell, former Head of Publicity at Number Ten for Tony Blair when he was Prime Minister.

Fiona Millar runs a website called "The Local Schools Network".

The Guardian describes the Local Schools Network as simply being as "The Anti-Academies Campaign Group". (www.theguardian.com/education/2012/feb/25/academny-schools-fewer-GCSEs-study. )

If one looks at The Local Schools Network website almost all the articles and contributors focus on and criticise Academies.

On 1st December last year, Fiona Millar started to blog on her website about the proposal for the Mentora Trust to sponsor the Warriner School Academy Trust.

She describes herself on the website as a "parent", which could well give the impression to anyone coming fresh to the website that she was a parent at the Warriner School.

Her blog entries were swiftly followed by those of Henry Stewart and Janet Downes.

Henry Stewart is a prolific contributor to the Local Schools Network website, as is Janet Downes.

They obviously work closely as a team as there are a number of instances of Janet Downes writing on websites to commend Henry Stewart's research, and Henry Stewart writing on the same website to commend the research of Janet Downes.

Fiona Millar, Henry Stewart and Janet Downes get a blog conversation going between them attacking Enver Yucel and the BAU Trust.

Predictably, given that this trio are all anti Academy, they didn't have a good word to say for any potential Academy sponsor of the Warriner.

In due course, some of their claims appeared to be validated by people blogging from Turkey purporting to be staff or former staff who had worked at Bahcesehir University.

The only problem was that all those entries were fake.

The real staff concerned, who still work for the university, have all made statements that these were entries made using their names which weren't from them. So, for example, Neslihan Alpay, the Director of Human Resources, at Bahcesehir University, has sent me a statement in which he says "In the blog someone has used my identity without my knowledge. And the website info mail account - info@localschoolsnetwork.org.uk - has sent my mail account emails to update on the subject as though I have subscribed to receive any updates on the issue which I never did. I work for and am a proud member of the Bahcesehir University since 2004. I am against all the statements of the person that used my identity. I hereby declare that I will take legal action against this blog to remove the comments that uses my identity. Signed Neslihan Alpay. Employment time at BAU - 9 years. Current position: Director of Human Resources."

This is perhaps not surprising as Bahcesehir University and Enver Yucel are amongst supporters of liberal education in Turkey and a western looking, open, university had attracted opposition from Conservative Islamists, exactly those Conservative Islamists who support Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan in trying to switch off and "eradicate" Twitter in Turkey on the basis that Twitter has been used to implicate Erdogan and a number of Turkish Ministers in a corruption scandal, which had been uploaded to YouTube and spread via Twitter.

So one had the curious case of a number of Left Wing, anti Academy educationalists in the UK unwittingly joining forces with Conservative Islamists in Istanbul to try to rubbish the BAU and Mentora Trusts.

They were soon joined on the website by local Labour Party activists - Sue Moon blogging on the 3rd December that "it's great to see so many intelligent people seeking transparency on such an important issue. In a David and Goliath struggle three small schools in Oxfordshire need all the support they can get".

Others, such as Councillor John Christie, soon joined in, in an internet feeding frenzy, where no-one from BAU or the Mentora Trust appears to have a right of reply.

The suggestion became wilder and wilder, without any foundation in fact, that, for example, the university " . . . . . wanted to knock down Warriner School buildings", and " . . . . they were going to send Turkish student boarders to the school . . . they intended to destroy the school farm . .."

The trouble was that absolutely all these assertions had absolutely no basis in truth or, as one blogger put it, "this is pure speculation on my part". That is exactly what it was.

Actually, BAU had commissioned research on how the Warriner School farm could be enhanced and expanded.

Some of the contributions to Fiona Millar's blog were straightforwardly racist, such as "so it is goodbye to the Turkish carpet-baggers . . always a risk if you don't know your warp from your weft".

Interestingly, Fiona Millar made no attempt to remove such references from her website.

In due course this internet feeding frenzy led to an article in the "Sunday Times".

At this point, Lord Bichard (Michael Bichard) and other Trustees decided they had had enough of the Mentora Trust being criticised and resigned as Trustees.

Dame Anna Hassan observed that she was "shocked and disgusted" by what had happened and observed that "in the British education system people who want to make changes for the best always have a battle on their hands - with the adults, not the children".

(For more information on Dame Anna Hassan, see here)

Understandably, with the Trustees having resigned, the governors of the three schools decided that they were unable to progress matters with the Mentora Trust and withdrew from that particular proposal, so a combination of Conservative Islamists in Istanbul and anti-Academy educationalists in the UK had prevented three schools in my constituency from joining a partnership with a university in Istanbul, the sponsorship funding that that would bring and a broadening of the school's horizons.

Everyone has moved on.

The Warriner School, Hornton, and Sibford Gower are again in constructive dialogue with the Department for Education about becoming a group Academy Trust and in the intervening time have been able to have some extremely useful discussions with the Diocese of Oxford, which may well lead to other local primary schools also becoming members of the Warriner Academy Trust.

The Mentora Trust is in discussions with the Department for Education and Fiona Millar has apologised - sort of.

In a letter to the solicitors acting for Enver Yucel and the BAU Foundation and Mentora Academies Trust, Fiona Millar has suggested that she add the following paragraph to her blog on the Local Schools Network site.

"It has been suggested that my post referring to Mr. Enver Yucel, the BAU Foundation and the Mentora Academies Trust and their proposed sponsorship of three schools in Oxfordshire implied serious administrative impropriety in relation to the proposed sponsorship of the schools.

It was not my intention to suggest such behaviour and if that has caused Mr. Yucel, the Foundation or the Mentora Academies any distress, I apologise".

I wonder if any others involved in the feeding frenzy last December against Bahcesehir University will similarly apologise.

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