HUNDREDS of parents and teachers took part in the two-year battle to save Castle Hall in Mirfield from closure. They eventually succeeded in overturning Kirklees Council’s plan to shut the school. But BARRY GIBSON asks if lingering anger over the closure plan will affect how people vote in the general election.
THERE’S a saying that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.
But in the case of Kirklees Council’s unsuccessful bid to close Castle Hall School, the opposite is the case.
The failure to shut the popular Mirfield school bears the fingerprints of all three main parties.
The Conservatives were in charge of Kirklees in September 2008, when the proposal to shut the school was first unveiled as part of a wider £200m blueprint for high schools in north Kirklees.
Four months later the Tories were ousted by Labour and the Lib Dems – who came up with a new schools plan which also included shutting the Mirfield school.
The closure plan was eventually overturned by the Government this January after a long campaign by parents and teachers which involved protest marches, public meetings and a 3,700-name petition which was handed in at 10 Downing Street.
But how might the fight to save Castle Hall affect the result of the General Election in the crucial marginal seat of Dewsbury?
Mum-of-four Karen Rowling leads campaign group Retain Education At Castle Hall (Reach).
The Mirfield woman believes sitting Labour MP Shahid Malik deserves credit for helping the campaign.
She said: “What the issue has shown very clearly to everyone in Mirfield is that we have an MP who cares deeply about local issues and has fought with us every step of the way.
“It has been a pleasant surprise to me and I think most of the people involved with Reach, because you are used to never meeting your politicians and not really knowing who they are.
“Shahid Malik fought every party, including his own, for Reach. I’m not an expert on elections, but I think people who usually would not vote for Labour – or people who ordinarily don’t identify with any party – will appreciate the hard work and dedication he has shown to get the best for Mirfield.”
Mr Malik agreed. “Lots and lots of people who are Conservative supporters have said to me they would vote for me because of the work I’ve done on Castle Hall,” he said.
“Mirfield is the most pro-Tory part of my constituency, but I think my personal vote will be much enhanced in the area.”
Mr Malik pointed out that he had helped Reach, regardless of which party was in control of Kirklees.
He said: “I opposed the closure from day one when the Tories proposed it. When Labour and the Lib Dems proposed closing Castle Hall, I continued to fight them.
“I hope people will see that I was prepared to do the hard things by taking on Labour.”
However, one of Mr Malik’s opponents in the upcoming election tells a very different story.
Clr Khizar Iqbal was a member of the Conservative Kirklees Cabinet in 2008 when the closure plan was first announced. However, the Dewsbury South councillor later left the party and has been a frequent defender of Castle Hall at council meetings.
Clr Iqbal is running as an independent at next month’s General Election.
He said: “The anxiety and uncertainty which parents and teachers suffered has caused a lot of anger and resentment towards the people responsible for the Castle Hall decision.
“I think this will impact on Labour and, to some extent, the Conservatives as well.”
Conservative candidate Simon Reevell said his party’s councillors had changed their minds about closing Castle Hall after seeing the strength of opinion.
He said: “We came up with a plan which went out to consultation and we actually listened. When people said we should change our plan, we said ‘OK’.
“We were right to recognise that the original plan needed modifying.”
Mr Reevell said his party’s manifesto policy allowing schools to opt out of council control would appeal to parents still angry about the Castle Hill controversy.
He said: “Castle Hall and Mirfield Free Grammar will both be able to say ‘thanks Kirklees, we’re out of here’.
“People like the idea of schools standing alone – it’s just common sense.”
But Green candidate Adrian Cruden disagrees.
He said: “The Conservatives plan to have schools opt out and let private companies run them. It’s privatisation by stealth.”
Clr Roger Roberts, the BNP’s candidate for Dewsbury, believes the deficit makes any discussion of a £200m schools plan for north Kirklees academic – in both senses of the word.
“I’m quite confident the whole scheme will fall through,’’ he said. “There just isn’t the money to fund it.”
The Heckmondwike councillor added: “The Tories were stupid to follow the lead of Labour-appointed council officers in suggesting closure.”
Lib Dem candidate Andrew Hutchinson doesn’t believe Castle Hall will be a big issue in the election.
“People are more concerned about jobs and the economy,” he said.