As we walk towards a bench outside Bristol Central Library – a meeting place carefully chosen by Christine Townsend – she laughs. “Is this so we can sit down and talk about parking?”
It’s an early dig by the former teacher who is standing on an education reform ticket at the other candidates’ and the local press’ “obsession” .
We’re meeting outside the library because it’s significant to the big debates raging about schools in Bristol and to the narrative of why she is among the 11 so far (at the time of the interview) to put her name forward to run the city – even though she doesn’t really want to be mayor at all.
“The reason I’m standing is to draw attention to the selection in our schools,” she says, gesturing to the library, the bottom floor of which is being converted into the new Cathedral Primary School.
“What triggered it for me was the Cathedral School saying, ‘I think we’ll have your library thanks to put our socially-selective primary school in’.”
Townsend, who now works with children with learning difficulties, believes adamantly that there is an unhealthy admissions culture in certain Bristol schools which run policies which favour the privileged over the more disadvantaged families.
And the soon-to-be-extended Cathedral Primary School is more guilty than most, she argues, with a policy of plucking children from neighbouring authorities and not helping to address the school places crisis right here in the heart of Bristol.
“You are never going to eradicate inequality and increase social mobility while children are selected on their parents’ affluence,” she says, taking her seat on the bench.
Having worked at one of the city’s most difficult schools, City Academy in Redfield, she knows the system in Bristol well and speaks to the problems directly and passionately, without the slightest hesitation.
Born in Bristol, she grew up in Patchway. She went to Manchester to study sociology at degree level and stayed in the city to work in a casino for two years after (“good practice for dealing with adolescents”).
She took her PGCE at Goldsmiths in London, and worked in schools in Lewisham under the failed “Fresh Start” scheme to pull underperforming schools out of special measures.
Townsend then worked in a secure teaching unit in Coventry for four years, before returning to Bristol and starting at City Academy in its first year as an academy – the first school in the city to get the status.
She worked as a head of year and pastoral manager, before leaving in 2010 to work for City of Bristol College, then 1625, a housing provider for young people and finally Kids, a special needs educational charity.
But after all she has seen in her career and all she’s expienced, is admissions really her main bugbear?
“It was the spark,” she says. Her real fight is for inequality in schools, and the admissions policies of schools like Cathedral Primary are obvious hurdles.
She explains that the school lets kids apply from surrounding authorities, instead of addressing the school places crisis in inner-city Bristol. This means they get applications from far away – but only by parents who can afford to get their children there every morning.
She also attacks similar tactics employed by St Mary Redcliffe School, Colston’s Girls’ School and its feeder The Dolphin School, which has a strange boundary map for admissions going up quite far into Cotham and Redland, but avoiding the massive council blocks in Kingsdown and only touching a tiny sliver of St Paul’s.
“The biggest indicator of achievement in education is family affluence,” she explains. “The richer kids; they have more social capital and they grow up in families and environments where there’s an expectation of achievement and aspiration.”
She points out that some of the schools she has mentioned as having questionable admissions policies are either run by or indirectly connected to the Merchant Venturers.
Hold on, isn’t this all a bit of a conspiracy?
“The reason the Merchant Venturers came into the state sector is because there was a recession and it hit the parents sending kids to their schools.
“Coming into the state sector enabled them to keep the funding streams and have the state pay for it. There are contracts to be had. Someone’s got to do the HR, the maintenance. It would be interesting to look what their connections are as to who has got these public contracts.”
And what about the future school that we are sitting outside?
“The chair of the governing body is Stephen Parsons, who is a Merchant Venturer. We know the history there and how established they are in running the institutions in our city and Ferguson is his old pal, isn’t he?”
She says because of the academy system, schools are under less and less public scrutiny – and that’s partly why she’s running for mayor, to raise awareness of the problems that “nobody locally is challenging”.
She points out the admissions problem is endemic across Bristol. Her old school City Academy remains full of disadvantaged children, because the more affluent parents nearby have the resources and know-how to get their kids into better-performing schools in other parts of the city.
She points to St Mary Redcliffe School which she says accepts children whose parents go to church. “Suddenly, around Year Five and Year Six time, you get certain types of parents going to church for a bit just so the vicar can sign the form,” she says.
“The issue I have is that these schools are not serving a cross section of society. Research tells us there is something called the double dip disadvantage.
“People growing up in poverty are at a disadvantage and they go to the schools with other large numbers of kids in poverty.
“St Mary Redcliffe is held up for doing all these fantastic projects. Well, they take pupils from as far away as Swindon!
“Particular types of parents – and therefore children – are attending the school. When you’ve got your share of free school meal children and you’re still doing well, then you can come back and have a conversation with us.”
She recalls a moment she put her hand up at a meeting with the head of St Mary Redcliffe at The Lord Mayor’s Mansion House in Clifton and asked about how many children they had with on free school meals. “Everybody was just silent. It’s the question you don’t ask. It needs to be said. These people need to be challenged.”
She readily admits she has no intention on becoming mayor to solve the problems, but is standing to make it a top priority for whoever wins on May 5.
She says her plan is already working because she’s right. “The local authority knows I’m right. Marvin Rees [Labour] knows I’m right. They know that it’s true. But it’s just like, ‘shhhh! we don’t want to know’, because if you acknowledge it then you have to do something about it.”
I suggest we talk about something else as the interview draws to a close.
“C’mon, you’ve got to ask me about parking,” she laughs.
Tell me what else gets your goat about Bristol.
“Homelessness. It’s as if it’s only just happened. This has been coming for years as a result of austerity and no one predicted the impact.”
And why is she running as an independent and not through Independents for Bristol, the party she was part of before?
She laughs. “It’s kind of died a death. The idea was that it was going to become a force, but it became obvious quite quickly by the people who set it up that wasn’t going to happen.
“I thought, ‘that’s fine. I’ll stand as an independent, because it’s not about being the mayor, it’s about pointing out to whoever is the mayor that we can’t keep ignoring inequality for our children’.”
I relent and ask her about parking.
She laughs again. “It’s become an obsession, hasn’t it? If there’s an article online about parking it has three or four times as many comments and I just find it, you know, obscene in many ways.”
I was waiting for a big policy announcement.
“No, you’re not going to get it. If it’s been the biggest issue to affect your life since 2010, I think you need to get out a bit more and appreciate what you’ve got. Some people have to go to food banks to feed their children. Get over it.
That’s the first time any of the candidates have ever said that, I say.
“That’s because they actually want to be mayor.”
St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School, Colston’s Girls’ School and The Dolphin School chose not to respond to Townsend’s comments directly.
The Society of the Merchant Venturers, who run Colston’s Girls’ School and The Dolphin School and whose member Stephen Parsons is the chairman of Cathedral Primary School, also declined the opportunity to comment.
However, the Diocese of Bristol, which runs Cathedral Primary School and St Mary Redcliffe & Temple School, said: “All our schools follow strict admissions policies as required by law. We do not feel it is appropriate for the Diocese of Bristol to comment further on a candidate’s comments regarding these admission policies.”
Bristol24/7 is hosting a mayoral hustings featuring all candidates at The Lantern at 7pm on Thursday, April 28. Entrance is first come first served. For more information, visit www.colstonhall.org/shows/mayoral-hustings/