Monday, 17 June 2019
A CANDIDATE in the Henley Town Council elections was told off for giving a “political” speech at the annual town meeting.
Michelle Thomas, who is standing for Henley Residents’ Group, began calling for a public protest over government funding for Gillotts School.
But Mrs Thomas, whose 12-year-old son Tom attends the secondary school, was cut off and ordered to stop by town clerk Janet Wheeler and Mayor Glen Lambert, who said it was not an appropriate occasion for campaigning.
She stood up during the meeting at the town hall on Thursday last week during a section in which local clubs, societies and charities could discuss issues affecting the community.
She introduced herself to the audience of about 60 people as an HRG candidate and then said: “Henley’s schools are facing a serious funding cut and we’ve noticed that a lot of parents’ organisations want to do something about it.
“We will do two things: firstly, we will get a date in the diary to march through the streets of Henley to raise awareness and funds for the school.”
Mrs Wheeler interrupted, saying the council was under pre-election restrictions known as “purdah” in which political statements are forbidden on its premises.
She said: “This is not the right forum and some town and parish councils across the UK have cancelled their annual meetings for this very reason.
“We’ve decided to let this go ahead but can’t let it become a platform for electoral and political issues.”
Several onlookers shouted comments of support for Mrs Thomas, who replied: “Does anyone here disagree with me? I don’t know what purdah is but please support us.” Councillor Lambert, who is a member of Henley Residents Group, said: “I don’t want to hear any more political comment.”
Louise Pegley, who also has children at the Gillotts Lane school, raised the issue when individuals could speak later in the meeting.
She said: “As a concerned parent, it was my idea to suggest some kind of demonstration because I feel that headteachers are shielding us from the reality of the situation.
“We were all shocked to read what was actually going on and I would like us to get together so that the Government does something about it. If we don’t, I don’t believe anything will get done.”
Afterwards, Mrs Thomas, of Belle Vue Road, Henley, said she would organise a public meeting after the Easter holidays to set a date for the protest.
She said: “I was contacted by a parent who remembered the marches that took place in Henley for Townlands Hospital and had seen school funding protests happening up and down the country, with teachers and parents marching together.
“Most people at the town meeting expressed an interest and came up to me afterwards saying they would like to be involved in some way. There’s a lot of concern about this issue.
“It’s unfortunate that I spoke up in the wrong section but I think I had the room on my side. I’d have been criticised for not revealing my party allegiance so I couldn’t win either way. I think honesty was the best policy and I was really speaking first and foremost as a parent.”
Gillotts headteacher Catharine Darnton recently revealed she was having to spend money earmarked for education on basic repairs at the academy school.
She says one of her classrooms is now unusable due to smells from failing pipework and she had to spend thousands unclogging and lining a pipe to prevent a sewage leak.
Over the past decade, Ms Darnton has repeatedly called on the Government to increase education funding.
Henley MP John Howell has promised to take the issue up with ministers and says now is a good time for her to raise concerns as the Government is conducting a spending review.
The Department for Education says it is reviewing the condition of state schools across England to decide where to target funding.
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