Ham&High letters: Abacus Primary, Wac Arts, The Ponds and remember Adelaide Tambo

Kate Esdaile captured this eerie image of the moon over Hampstead Heath on Halloween.

Kate Esdaile captured this eerie image of the moon over Hampstead Heath on Halloween. - Credit: Kate Esdaile

Letters, contributions and comments sent in from Ham&High readers this week.

Fresh thinking needed on the school?

Vadim Sobolevski, Belsize Grove, Belsize Park, writes:

Those who followed the old Hampstead police station appeal process over the past two months would be forgiven for thinking that the Department of Education, which supports Abacus Belsize Primary, is trying to house a leper colony, rather than a top-performing free school. Camden Council’s hostility towards the school stands in stark contrast to how its Kensington & Chelsea ranks its own priorities. Fox Primary School, a star-performer of Notting Hill, has long been a subject of urban legends and parent war stories when it comes to placing children into an outstanding local school. A small free school with a large catchment area and a distance-based placement policy, Fox turned the nearby streets into the most sought-after property in W8. Kensington’s reaction? Allow the school to expand and give it ten million pounds for the effort.

Let’s bring this closer to home now. Ten million is certainly not on offer but Camden’s concerns include preserving the cells, whether it’s easier to walk uphill in the morning rather than in the afternoon, the potential use of the Heath for school activities (scandalous!), and the fate of the old furniture rotting in the basement of the building. Those wanting a breath of fresh air may want to contrast this with the thinking in Kensington: “modern teaching and accessibility standards … new teacher training … more flexible and efficient use of space that meets current teaching needs… support to the most able pupils and those who find a particular topic difficult … ecology lessons.”

Kensington’s experience doesn’t just show how to reward and promote performance. It also shows what follows as a consequence. In the midst of such constructive engagement with the council, Fox Primary formed a federation with Ashburnham, a school serving a less prosperous part of Kensington and Chelsea, and to a less spectacular outcome. As a consequence, Ashburnham floated from “requires improvement” to “outstanding” in two years - leadership in action.

In contrast, what we see in Camden is a leadership vacuum. This vacuum has caused this grand building in the heart of Hampstead to turn into a ghost of itself. Speaking of ghosts, the illegal Halloween rave over the weekend demonstrates what risks this vacuum is creating for all of us. The community refusing to welcome 200 outstanding pupils gets 800 intoxicated hooligans instead.

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As a parent I am continuously amazed by the dedication of the staff at Abacus. It is a team committed to its mission, despite the challenges of being housed in a remote temporary site, being cut off from its own parents, and being invisible in its own neighbourhood. Despite these challenges, Abacus is growing urban legends of its own, turning into a force capable of challenging this neighbourhood’s standards.

Wac Arts

In a letter signed by 210 members - including Phoebe Waller Bridge, Piers Plowright, Arinze Kenè MBE, Jamael Westman (Hamilton), Kingsley Ben-Adir, Arthur Darvill, Sheila Atim MBE and Dominic Dromgoole - The Wac Arts Concerns Group write:

In response to the recent public statement by the Wac Arts board that the new chair is “listening” to the Wac Arts Concerns Group, we declare this stance to be tone-deaf. At the time of the aforementioned article’s publication, we had received a message from the new chair via the vice-chair as a conduit, showing a partial interaction only. To comment publicly before any genuine introduction or discussion had occurred was deeply inappropriate and paints a false picture of our current relations. Our concerns require authentic and measurable engagement, not PR optics.

We presented the board with a detailed document of suggested changes following consultation with numerous professionals. Most of our propositions remain ignored and reasonable deadlines for our continued dialogue are unmet. Almost all of our finance questions are unanswered, including queries regarding Wac’s financial struggle prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and pay structures within the organisation, where serious allegations have been raised.

We implored the board to delay the recruitment of a new chair. There is no personal animus toward Ms Cruickshank but the interview panel was hastily constructed and severely lacking in inclusivity, alongside other recruitment concerns. Furthermore, the outgoing chair of eight years was vital as an information source for our queries. There was no handover period - as was alluded to during our meetings - and we believe the new chair received only part of our evidence. Going forward, given that the pre-planned exit of other trustees was never clearly expressed to us, the community must have a say in any future recruitments, as such opacity from the board sets an unnerving precedent.

Beyond a pledge to remind staff of policies and a seemingly failed statement of intent to formalise bias training “by this October”, no robust actions to tackle institutional racism have been taken, despite our overwhelming evidence. Aside from private individual recognitions, no substantial apology has been made, notwithstanding the board’s public rebuttal of our allegations as being “without foundation” and bearing “no truth”.

Staff have recently alleged intimidation and gaslighting by the senior leadership team (SLT) with some citing a growing strain on their mental health. The board and SLT defended their erroneous decision to deny furlough to sessional staff members, whilst SLT remained on full pay. Valued employees have requested voluntary redundancy. Class fees have increased and payment for the term is required in advance, excluding students from less affluent backgrounds. Backtracking on bursary availability has caused confusion and distress. Some staff have expressed reluctance to sign this letter despite their wish and support, as they feel threatened by SLT’s conduct.

Change and innovation is fundamental for an organisation’s health. However, the current attitudes at Wac are deleterious to the community it serves. To lay it all at Covid’s door is to shirk responsibility for the toxic culture that had already taken hold at Wac Arts. The WACG does not feel listened to. Therefore, we have no confidence in senior leadership or the board to guide Wac Arts to the future it deserves.


Robert Sutherland Smith, chairman, United Swimmers Association, writes:

Anne Fairweather’s letter, October 22: ‘Hampstead Heath and Ponds Thrive’ invites analysis. Of course they thrive? They have done so freely, for some 150 years. In opening them following relaxation of Covid-19 restrictions, Heath managers are in the company of many managers elsewhere who have done the same.

Although she states that Hampstead Heath is managed as a charity, is it not a matter of fact that the money to manage Hampstead Heath has for many years, largely if not wholly, been provided by central government under a scheme known as the “City Offset” designed to provide finance for Hampstead Heath for discharge of it responsibilities under the 1871 Hampstead Heath Act? Funds which would otherwise go to HM Treasury?

This makes the cash shortage justification for charging for use of the ponds doubly puzzling: a reported £2.6 billion in capital of charitable funds plus some reported £10 million annually in “City Offset” income made specifically for the upkeep of Hampstead Heath.

Following the money is always aided by transparency! Public consultation of Heath users is necessary because it was purchased for the use of the people by public “crowd funding”. But it must be more than a propped up, empty, formality; more than a stage device to achieve a pre-ordained outcome, devised within the City Corporation. Recall, the criticism of the charging “consultation”. Remember that the chair of the Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee refused to allow a vote, when it clearly, overwhelmingly, favoured a joint motion from the ponds associations contrary to the Corporation’s proposal for compulsory charging, contrary to the 1871 Act.

How then, are we to receive her assurance: “We will always listen to the views of the public and our stakeholders and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. And will ensure we are accountable to the public for these decisions.”

With reassurance, or incredulity? Where is the supporting evidence? The culture within the City Corporation, revealed in Lord Lisvane’s report, adds little encouragement. That included a fear of full parliamentary scrutiny of its affairs - dissuading him from proposing radical reform of its troubled governance.

Adelaide Tambo

B J Cairns, Victoria Road, Muswell Hill, writes:

I note, and to some extent agree with, Mr Gold’s comments (Albert Road Recreation Ground), although I cannot share his admiration for Queen Victoria.

Oliver Tambo did indeed spend most of his years in exile travelling the world, furthering the cause of a free South Africa and the ANC. His wife, born Adelaide Tshukudu, became a member of the ANC when she was around 16 and worked alongside both Tambo and Mandela.They were married when Tambo was on bail on a treason charge. There was no honeymoon. In the years that followed both she and her husband continued to work for the ANC. By 1960 it became clear that it was too dangerous for Oliver Tambo to remain in South Africa and he escaped, first to Botswana and then to Ghana. Adelaide remained in South Africa with their three children, one a baby. Finally it was thought by the ANC too dangerous for her to remain in South Africa and she escaped, with the children, first to Ghana and then to England. They lived first in Hampstead and then ANC supporters rented the large house at Alexandra Park Road on the understanding that it would be the headquarters of the ANC UK Government in exile. So it became.

With her husband away most of the time, Adelaide Tambo provided shelter for escapees from South Africa, welcoming people like Trevor Huddlestone and David Attenborough. The house was the focal point for the South African colony in Britain. And, with all this, Adelaide Tambo worked as a nurse at the Whittington Hospital and as a bank nurse, filling in emergencies in the Haringey nursing service.

When the Tambos finally returned to South Africa, Adelaide became an MP focusing on the needs of women, children and the disabled. At her funeral the South African President described her as “a true heroine of our Nation, who dedicated her life to the freedom of our people”.

Oliver Tambo, who made only brief stops in Muswell Hill during his work for the ANC around the world, has a small garden, a bust, a statue and will soon, due to a total misunderstanding as to the ‘Rhodes’ Rhodes Avenue is named after, have a road and a school named after him. Adelaide Tambo lived and worked here, used the shops, walked with her children in the recreation ground and helped care for the sick and elderly. If the recreation ground must be re-named let it be named Adelaide Tambo Recreation Ground.

To our readers

André Langlois, Ham&High editor, writes:

At the Ham&High we’re eternally grateful to our readers who correspond via our print pages.

In future weeks, we’re going to endeavour to allow more room for letters although space is at a premium. To enable as many voices as possible to be heard, I’d be grateful if letters be restricted to no more than 200 words. We will, of course, on occasion run longer letters but (despite the risk of a letter-length debate on the letters page) to ensure a lively debate I’m aiming to fit as many in as possible.