A free school near you - who gets to choose?

Emma Bishton's picture
The proposers of the free school in Stoke by Nayland are not named on their website. They are only ever named as ‘the Stoke by Nayland High School team’. They have not engaged in a joint public debate, despite requests from our opposition group (Compass), and an independent parent via the Suffolk Free Press (our most local newspaper). They have not held a public meeting since May 2010 (the last meeting they did hold was prior to the general election, in the expectation that free schools would be on the agenda).

In response to an email from the Compass group requesting a joint public meeting they stated

“we have been so involved in the detail of the process for so long that we have not been able to engage with the public, as much as we would have wished to. It is important that we share the exciting ideas and developments with the parents and communities that we are aiming to support in our school.”

Instead of ‘engaging with the public’ this rather anonymous group has been relying on cold-calling phone calls and registration via their website to show evidence of a demand for the school. (Indeed they even give parents a let-out clause, stating in their public leaflet that you “will not be committing to send your child to this school, merely registering support so we can evidence potential demand and win the necessary funding”.)

This is extraordinary. They expect to receive several million pounds of public funds, drawn away from other areas of need, in order to plan for a school which is not required, not wanted and would result in loss of funding for other existing local schools, but without needing to demonstrate actual demand for their proposed school. And at the same time they are not required to demonstrate that there is considerable opposition to the school, and nor is there any means of objective consultation that would highlight the concerns of the community about this proposed school to the DfE.

A new Free 11-16 school has already been approved by the DfE to open in September this year in Clare in the grounds of the middle school which is due to close under the LEA re-organisation into standard 2-tier education structure. The LEA (at Conservative-led Suffolk County Council) anticipates that local secondary schools will operate at 81% of planned capacity once that school is up and running. If the additional free school at Stoke by Nayland is given the go-ahead, they predict existing local secondaries will operate at 74% of capacity.

The LEA has stated that the viability of the existing schools – which support a fairly wide catchment as this is a semi-rural area – is threatened if both free schools are approved. The question of viability is an economic one; there is also a significant concern about the effect these new schools would have on pupil choice, as it is also clear that the breadth of curriculum currently available would be significantly affected by small year groups in the existing and new schools, as well as by reduced income in the existing schools. The catchment school that would be most affected by the Stoke by Nayland school, incidentally, was rated good with outstanding features and had the best CVA level results at A’Level in Suffolk in 2009.

Despite all this, parents locally are being ‘sold’ a new school. They are being asked to choose a school which purports to be a ‘Thinking School’ (yet they can’t meet some of the criteria for this scheme until they are open). The proposers also claim it will operate in the spirit of a ‘Henry Morris Village College’ and be a community hub, yet there is no evidence that they have consulted with the community on what might be wanted, and no definition of how their ‘community’ is to be drawn. They make no reference to the fact that the secondary schools in this part of Suffolk already host local facilities (e.g. sports centres) and function very much as community hubs for the wider catchment community and the immediate communities in which they are situated. And they suggest that this is necessary to preserve the sustainability of rural villages, when the school would only be in one of those villages and the LEA already provides transport from the other villages to the catchment schools in the market town.

In essence, the proposers of the free school are marketing a vision of a school with no regard for the damage it would do to existing schools or communities, seeking to appeal to parents under the impression that ‘big’ (1200 pupils) is bad and that small (600 pupils) necessarily means good – when it is clearly systems and actions that matter for nurturing children, not the size of the school. And as outlined above, they are making claims which they cannot validate at this point. They will not enter into public debate to respond to challenge on any of these points, yet they receive support from our local MP and already have preliminary approval.

How is this in anyone’s interest, let alone that of the children who might attend the free school and those who do not, for years to come? Where, Mr Gove, is our right to reply?
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Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 07:55

There seems to be no right to reply. Free school proposers use "registering an interest" (which could be little more than a desire to be kept informed) as "evidence of demand". But there is no requirement by the DfE for the proposers to use more accurate methods of measuring demand - such as referenda. Neither does it seem that the opinions of local authorities are noted. The LA in this case has said the free school proposals threaten the viability of other schools. This could result in closure and reorganisation.

And what on earth is a "Thinking School"? Is there such a thing as a Non-Thinking School? This is an example of the high-sounding but completely meaningless descriptions used in marketing. I look forward to seeing a school being described as "natural", "organic", "holistic", "cutting edge", "robust" and so on.

Sarah's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 12:07

It really is time that there was some proper transparency and accountability brought to bear on free school applications. It seems completely at odds with democractic accountability and transparency to allow free school proposers to act with anonymity like this. If such groups are to have any credibility they should be open about who they are from the very outset. All information about free school applications should be made publicly available, as should any financial assistance they are being given to develop their proposals and acquire/develop premises. I remain amazed that there has been no formal challenge to the DfE's continued refusal to respond to FOI requests - and the contempt which local authorities are treated with in not being allowed to have proper engagement about these proposals at the earliest stage. How this is intended to fit with their ongoing statutory duty to be the comissioner of school places is quite beyond me.

There should be a much more robust and challengeable arrangements for consultation. Local communities should be able to scrutinise these applications in detail and have their concerns taking fully into consideration in the same way as they would if a local authority was closing a school, particularly when there is so little protection in relation to the transfer of assets from local ownership into the hands of academy sponsors. Why can it be the case that a school building which is no longer needed for a school can be whipped away and given to a free school even when the local community may have developed other community uses for those premises?

There should also be a much more rigorous requirement for evidence of demand than the DfE are currently allowing in order to be able to demonstrate best value in the use of public resources.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Fri, 03/06/2011 - 18:01

The consultation is a farce - the report the SoS takes into account is written by the trustees of the school being proposed! The LA can't obstruct, is highly advised to not use Article 4 powers to require planning consultation where none are otherwise required (because of the change in planning regs that allow free schools out of the usual requirements - LAs can use Article 4 to force it, but are 'advised not to'), the planning inspectorate that will essentially 'take care' of any planning opposition. Local Authority schools 'vanish' from the DfE website. Its almost like realising one is in 'The Matrix'.

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