Free Schools and Academies will wreck Suffolk's plan to improve children's achievement

School Duggery's picture
Sleepy Suffolk is turning out to be a shocking example of what happens when you take away the ability of a local authority to plan school provision.

Suffolk has suffered low educational achievement for decades. It is largely affluent, although has pockets of true poverty and it should be doing a lot better than it is. There are two main reasons for this, in my view. The first is low aspirations among too many of its residents. Until recently, Suffolk had not a single university. Higher education was not something that parents expected their children to achieve. Slowly, this culture is being turned round – but the new University Campus Suffolk may end up as one of the early casualties of the market in higher education that the new fees regime will introduce.

The second issue reason for underachievement is a structural issue with school provision. Large parts of the county have operated a three-tier education system since the mid-1970s. Under this system, children change schools at the end of Y4 and again at the end of Y8. The middle schools straddle Key Stage 2 and 3, without having overall responsibility for either stage. This causes two difficulties: that children suffer two “dips” in performance as a result of disruptive school transitions; and there is no clear accountability for performance at either KS2 or KS3. These issues mean that, despite huge efforts on the part of teachers and the local authority, there remains a gap in performance between the two-tier and three-tier systems of nearly 9% at KS2 and 7% at KS4.

To address this issue, the Tory-dominated authority embarked upon an ambitious plan to convert the whole county to a two-tier system. There was local resistance to the proposed closure of middle schools that parents liked, but the logic for the change was accepted by most school leaders, particularly in first and high schools. The first two phases of the reorganisation are well underway. The funding crisis and cancelling of BSF has delayed the final phase or reorganisation, affecting schools in Bury St Edmunds and Stowmarket, but we were assured that the reorganisation would be completed.

But Gove’s new freedoms could mean an end to the reorganisation before it is finished. We already have the problem that Free Schools are being allowed to open on closing middle school sites, completely wrecking the carefully planned provision that was agreed in the course of the review – Stour Valley Community School is the first Free School to get permission to open. It will be a small 11-16 school unable to offer a broad range of provision. It will take children from other local secondaries, threatening their viability and creating surplus places that cannot be afforded.

And now, entirely predictably, two middle schools are to take academy status in conjunction with an outstanding high school to avoid closure. This throws the whole reorganisation in the Bury and Stowmarket area into doubt. A plan we have worked on for years to improve the education of every child will be wrecked because of the local authority cannot stop this happening. Here we are faced with the problem that the local views of some parents are allowed to override the accepted view that reorganisation is the best solution overall.

School provision has to be planned. The decisions of each individual school ripple outwards to affect every other and, without central coordination of school places and admissions, education for the children of Suffolk will remain poor.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 22/01/2011 - 15:55

These new 'freedoms' trumpeted by Mr Gove seem to be resulting in chaos. Schools that have been closed because of surplus places are now sites which can be opened as 'free' schools thereby causing surplus places again. If there are too many school places locally, which schools will be required to close? The LEA schools, Academies or 'free' schools?

I think we need to know.

Michael Tidd's picture
Sat, 22/01/2011 - 17:06

While clearly a patchwork of provision is not helpful, let's not start buying into the nonsense put forward for the reorganisation. Middle Schools serve their students particularly well, and no independent evidence suggests otherwise. Indeed, the Cambridge Review suggested that middle schools should be protected where they exist.
The problem here is not middle schools!

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 20/01/2012 - 22:28

I have read Stour Valleys website and find their reasons for establishing a Free School in their town justified. Am I missing something ? Is the only problem that it's a free school ? Other middle schools must have closed and populated the two secondaries 10 miles away?


Some five years ago Suffolk County Council (SCC) announced a School Organisation Review aimed at moving the County from a three to two tier system of secondary education. As a result, the small town of Clare in the south west of the County was informed that its popular and thriving Middle School was to be closed in 2011 as part of the first phase of this process. The pupils thus displaced were to be housed in local primary schools (years 5 and 6), and secondary schools in towns outside the community (years 7 and 8), which would be extended for this purpose. The Town’s purpose-built secondary school building, which had been converted to a middle school in the 1970s, was to be decommissioned. It should be noted that Clare is a key service centre serving a population of some 10,000 in the Town and the surrounding villages on the Suffolk/Essex border.

Local resistance to this plan was clear. A number of families formed a group to represent the interests of all those who wanted SCC simply to return the School site to its original status as a secondary school rather than investing in secondary schools some 10 miles distant, with the resultant need for children to be bussed long distances on B roads and country lanes. The group was called Campaign for Local And Rural Education (C.L.A.R.E) and it lobbied SCC vigorously to change its mind. A plan demonstrating the need for, and viability of, a new secondary school at the location was presented to the Council, together with some 1,500 letters of support. However, SCC made it very clear that such an initiative would not be supported and that the SOR plan would be implemented.

In early 2010 the group learned of “The New Schools’ Network”, a new charity based in London, the role of which was to promote the introduction of a new model of State-owned school established by teachers, parents and community groups to provide quality, diversity and choice in areas of identified need. This concept of “Free Schools” had recently been adopted as part of the Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto. Of course, Free Schools might or might not become Government Policy, dependent on the result of the forthcoming general election, but, with time running out and no sign of SCC changing its mind, Keith Haisman and Patrick Bell of the C.L.A.R.E. Group agreed to pursue this option. They were joined immediately by Derek Blake and these three in February 2010 set about the process of building a case for a Free School in Clare. These three founding trustees established the Stour Valley Educational Trust Ltd in April as part of their initial framework proposal for Stour Valley Community School. This 200 page proposal , containing evidence of demand and the vision and plan for the School, was worked on for the whole of March and April 2010 and was presented to the incoming Coalition Government on its first day in office.

Paul Reeve's picture
Sat, 18/02/2012 - 17:55

"Pupils are made to line up before going into class and taught to put up their hands if they want to speak in class."

WOW!! A major breakthrough!!

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Sat, 18/02/2012 - 20:09

I don't know why parents fall for the glossy marketing b*llshit from the education companies e.g from Paul's link above

"We are passionate about education" said IES's chief executive Peter John Fyles.

"Our ethos is about working with young people and developing them to the best of their individual ability."

Examine any LEA school website and you will find essentially the same sentiments expressed albeit in a usually amateurish web design ( LEA schools don't squander their resources on paying flash PR companies to repackage the generic ethos of any school into some mission statement that the acadmey and free schoolpaying them can claim to have invented.

Emma Bishton's picture
Sat, 18/02/2012 - 20:31

Rosie: I would agree that Clare acts as a market town for the surrounding villages. But I think it's a bit of a stretch for them to allow the inference that a school there would be serving a population of around 10,000. The population of Clare itself is around 2000. The two nearest towns are Sudbury and Haverhill and there is already upper school provision in those towns. The county provide buses to the upper schools.

There was no need for a new high school in Clare - though it's certainly true to say there was strong opposition to the closure of the middle school and that this was effectively translated into support for a new free school. The re-organisation in Clare was particularly complicated by the fact that Suffolk County Council agreed to a staged closure of middle schools even though Clare Middle fed into both Haverhill and Sudbury uppers, (depending on which side of Clare the pupils came from). Haverhill converted to two-tier in September 11, whereas Sudbury doesn't convert until 2013.

So Sudbury Upper (SUS) took on years 7 and 8 for the first time, last September, just as Stour Valley opened. SUS should have had a PAN of around 60 in years 7 and 8 (expanding to a PAN of 240 once the middle schools in Sudbury close in 2013). But because Stour Valley Community School drew pupils away, SUS has around 25 pupils in years 7 and 8 COMBINED! (who have to be taught some subjects together, of course, because there are so few of them). And without any of the additional resources the free school gets for small year groups, of course.

Stour Valley Community School, incidentally, has only 30 pupils in year 9, and around 180 in years 7,8 and 9 combined. The capital costs alone for converting the previous middle school into a high school were cited as 4.8million. (Plus had there been no educational 'need' for the old middle school site, the LEA would have sold it and used the proceeds to support the building work required in the primaries and upper schools to take on the additional year groups).

The situation at Sudbury Upper is, it seems to me, partly the fault of the LEA which should have adapted its staged re-organisation from Clare Middle once it was clear the free school would open. (There is a certain irony in the fact that this Conservative-led schools re-organisation in Suffolk has been victim to Conservative policy nationally - so much for localism!). But the end result is that vast amounts of public money have been spent creating year groups in two schools which are too small to be of benefit to the pupils.

All this is a depressing example of how the doctrine of choice has been followed at all costs, with no eye to the consequences for either the existing schools or the pupils at any of the schools concerned. And to make matters worse, this duplication of provision is set to be replicated five more times across Suffolk.

Ruth Coomber's picture
Tue, 01/05/2012 - 13:57

My children are at schools in the Stowmarket Pyramid, and I feel very angry about the whole situation. Firstly, the County Council have made up their minds in advance of any "consultation" and no matter what parents or teachers, or (most unimportantly to the council) pupils have to say will have no impact at all. The Government introduced academies and free schools so that local communities can organise education for their children that they feel is not being provided currently, and is such a "good thing" that Michael Gove has actually branded one set of parents as "Trostkyist" for resisting academy status being imposed on their "failing" school. You can hardly blame the local communities for taking the only opportunity they have of being heard and their views acted on. However, despite the emphasis on localism and the desire to "free" schools from government interference, once again these communities are being ridden rough shod over and the academy bid has been scrapped at the highest level and it was explicity admitted this was to allow SCC to come up with a plan to scrap the three tier system. In other words, SCC can do what they like regardless of what the communities want, and the government is prepared to tear up all of it's own "reforms" to enable it to do so. You might think I have a particular drum to beat on behalf of middle schools, which I don't particularly, I just find the whole episode smacks of bullying and rule-changing to suit the big players.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Fri, 04/05/2012 - 11:30

Unfortunately Ruth the phrase " organised by local communities" is misleading implies democracy but in reality is often a bunch of alpha-parents employed in the private sector who believe that , as they have children at school" that they understand education whilst in reality they just want to maintain or improve their status quo ; they ignore the effect of their actions on funding for other schools because they naively believe any community can do the same. .

Ruth Coomber's picture
Fri, 04/05/2012 - 11:44

I don't think you can accuse the governors and staff of the local middle schools, who are the main drivers of this particular academy status bid, of being ignorant about education, or unaware of the impact on the funding for other schools. The only reason this application came up was because the schools were threatened with closure and this was the only way they could see of keeping them open. Who, really, can blame them for taking advantage of this opportunity provided by central government? I am against academy schools, and not sure about two vs three tier schools, but what I am sure about is that the academy bid followed the rules from the schools' side, but was unfairly torn up on the regulators' side.

Emma Bishton's picture
Fri, 04/05/2012 - 12:21

Localism is only valid when the views of those expressed at a local level accord with the policy intentions of those in Whitehall - or so it seems to me.

Emma Bishton's picture
Fri, 04/05/2012 - 12:25

I mean't to say: Localism is only valid where views expressed at a local level accord with the policy intentions of those in Whitehall – or so it seems to me.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 18:16

Quote "I don’t think you can accuse the governors and staff of the local middle schools, who are the main drivers of this particular academy status bid, of being ignorant about education, or unaware of the impact on the funding for other schools."

Sooooo- absolutely nothing to do with maintaining or improving their status quo then ????!!!!

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 18:21

"but was unfairly torn up on the regulators’ side"

I doubt it was unfairly torn up... it would appear that Mr Gove is slowly coming to his senses and realizing that, however well meaning ( or possibly self-seeking" )" a free school bid is the impact on other schools has to be taken into account . Until now his department has rubber stamped free schools under his "free market" ethos to acheive his target numbers with little consideration for impact on funding for nearby schools.

Ruth Coomber's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 18:48

Rosie, I'm so glad you trust Mr Gove, there's just so much wrong with him and his government it's hard to know where to start. It WAS unfairly torn up, on the very day it was due to be signed off, with no hint of any opposition from government, after Suffolk MPs lobbied for it not to be accepted. There was nothing "wrong" in the sense of incorrect with the application, but it was rejected to suit County. Either the process should use the same criteria and rules every time, or we are living in a country ruled by people who make and break rules on a whim.

Of course the purpose of the application was to maintain the status quo - that was the only reason for the application. The application was made in spite of the impact it would make on other schools, not because the people doing so really believe that academy schools are desirable.

Suffolk County Council were, on the day the application was refused, given until Christmas to come up with a timetable for converting the schools to two tier. You will notice the date is now May and they have only just let us all know what the plans are, kicking off with "consultation" in September. I don't support academies and free schools, and I am not anti-2 or 3 tier school system, but I am very angry by the ability of those in charge to move the goalposts to suit themselves. That is my point of view on this subject, not to support 2 or 3 tier schools, but to ask that a consultation be just what the word usually means, and for the government to play by their own rules. One really interesting point was raised by the head of my daughter's school. He suggested leaving the 3-tier schools alone for 5 years to see if the schools already converted to 2-tiers experience a significant up turn in results.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 19:12

"trust Mr gove ".....well I've never been so insulted ( well I have but not recently).

Any "no" to a free school is something to celebrate as far as I'm concerned and certainly not something expected from the Gove's track record of rubber-stamping any free school application after reading the applicants lip service " win an ipad" method of "proving demand" ( \i mean the man had approved Steiner schools as being state funded ( shudder) .

Ruth Coomber's picture
Mon, 07/05/2012 - 19:22

There is bubbling away an application for a free school that actually I do support - it is for a school for children with Asperger's Syndrome - many people are of the opinion that mainstream schools are particularly unsuitable for Aspies, including me.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 08/05/2012 - 15:44

Agreed there are exceptions indeed many special schools/colleges are privately run .

There is a proposal for a dyslexia free school in Leeds ..which I am reluctant to support as there are LEAs such as Swansea and Cornwall which deliver admirably on dyslexia within the maintained school system.

The driver for the Leeds school is wholly because Leeds LEA is so deficient in dealing and supporting dyslexia in primary schools ( they have a flawless dyslexia policy document which places mitigates all their responsibility by placing it on the schools but no auditing or quality management system to ensure primary schools follow the policy. Leeds LEA is however tip top at allocating educational Psychologist resources in the months before a child Year 6 SATS).

The solution is for Leeds LEA to be forced to improve not to provide a "special " school for dyslexia.

Paul Reeve's picture
Wed, 27/11/2013 - 13:50

Suffolk schools still under the cosh!

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 27/11/2013 - 17:42

Paul Reeve's picture
Wed, 27/11/2013 - 18:57

Thanks, Janet. Another great posting by you. What can we do??

Ruth Coomber's picture
Thu, 28/11/2013 - 08:38

Interesting that Gove is again pressurising a school to convert to academy status, despite Rosie Ferguson's optimism on 7th May last year that he was "coming to his senses" on the issue. More evidence of the unfairness imposed on the middle schools in this area.

Paul Reeve's picture
Sat, 30/11/2013 - 09:19

Now we've had a visit......

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.