Is there really no minimum standard for a free school?

Emma Bishton's picture
Late last year I submitted an FoI request to the DfE asking why the business case for a new free 11-16 school in Stoke by Nayland had been turned down.

Their response was that it was not in the public interest to disclose this information. I then submitted a further FoI in January stating that I considered it to be in the public interest to release this information as public money had been spent in the process and there is 'a general presumption that government should be open and transparent', but also adding a few specific reasons of my own. One of which was : 'It is in the public interest to know the general reasons why free school applications have failed, as this is likely to be of use to other Free School applicants who can then adapt applications accordingly.'

The DfE response, not surprisingly, was to uphold their previous decision that the information about the Stoke by Nayland bid could not be disclosed, but this time they did go into more detail in response to my various points.

In response to the point cited above they stated:

"We do not publish the reasons for failure of individual projects because the process is competitive, where applications are compared against each other and a range of contextual information is taken account. This means that there is no minimum benchmark for an application to be successful because it is dependent on the number and quality of applications received within the round. This could potentially vary significantly from one round to the next. Therefore, releasing information about individual unsuccessful projects may be unhelpful to future applicants and could stifle innovative solutions."

So when viewed alongside against the raising of the 'bar' in Ofsted inspections, am I wrong to infer that there is a new benchmark for existing schools and no such benchmark for new free schools? Is there really a presumption in the DfE that because the free school process is competitive, all those which succeed are 'above the bar'?
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Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 08:01

The DfE paints legitimate interest in free school proposals as being hostile and uses this to conceal information about applications. In a previous thread (see sidebar "DfE rejects FoI requests...) I wrote:

'The DfE says it is concerned that any legitimate interest (painted as hostile) about free school proposals would “restrict the number and quality of future applications.” This is not an adequate defence. Anyone proposal for a free school should be subjected to robust analysis – not just by the DfE helped along by the New Schools Network – but by the public whose money is being spent on these schools."

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 14:15

In the thread above Amy Lassman wrote on 24th Jan that she had applied for full information on the WLFS Submission and funding appraisal . The D of E sent the reply below which in terms of preventing other free school applicants simply copying the WLFS documents does make sense.
Extract From Amy’s Post
“I have just had my 3rd FoI request for details of WLFS funding refused for another completely different reason….
1) Section 36(2)(c) is a qualified exemption and therefore a public interest test has been carried out. In doing so the following factors have been taken into consideration:
There is a general public interest in disclosure because of the desirability of more open and transparent government and of promoting public accountability.
Releasing approved applications would be likely to encourage future applicants to put forward similar applications or use sections from approved applications. This would undermine a fundamental part of our assessment of a group’s capacity and capability – the ability to put together a coherent and original bid.
Releasing approved applications might encourage applicants to submit bids that they thought would be successful rather than submitting a bid that best reflected the needs of the local community.
Releasing approved applications will give those applications that are rejected greater scope for challenging decisions if they have approved versions to point to, even though each round of applications is a separate competitive process.
Business cases were in most cases produced after an iterative process. Many were approved with conditions and they are all out of date by virtue of the further development that occurred in the pre-opening stage. It would therefore be misleading to publish them.
2)Section 43 of the Act is also a qualified exemption which means that a public interest test needs to be carried out, and in doing so the following factors have been taken into consideration:
There is a public interest in the transparency of the accountability of public funds to ensure that public money is being used effectively, and that departments are getting value for money when purchasing goods and services.
However, there is also a public interest in ensuring that the Department is able to maintain a strong bargaining position during negotiations. Disclosure of the information requested would be likely to prejudice the commercial interests of the Department, by adversely affecting its bargaining position and resulting in less effective use of public money.
It is clearly in the public interest to ensure the Department receives sufficient information before entering into financial arrangements. Disclosure of the requested information would make it less likely that organisations or individuals would provide such information to the Department in the future should they be aware that such information would be published.”

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 14:28

It would appear that the Stoke by Nayland free school campaigners haven't let refusal get them down and are resubmitting their bid .

You could approach the LEA and request to inspect the correspondance at their offices that they had with the Free School applicants the last time around ..presumably there should be some info at least on admissions numbers there.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 17:07

Reading between the lines of the new free school submission it would appear that recruiting the Seckford Foundation as partner will overcome the failure mechanism encountered before ; so presumably the original proposal had flawed governance..

"The 400 year old Seckford Foundation has an ongoing commitment to improve
young people’s education and outcomes in this region of Suffolk. They have a wealth of experience, including the management of Woodbridge School,
Almshouses for the elderly and a small grants programme for local community
groups and individuals. They also successfully applied to run two Suffolk based Free Schools, at Saxmundham and Beccles, which will open in September 2012. The proposed school will undoubtedly benefit from their time and experience in submitting the application The Seckford Foundation will have the full support of the original parent and community team. To mark this new relationship the proposal will be known as the Stoke by Nayland Free School and be part of the Seckford Foundation’s family of schools. The vision for the proposed school, which would improve choice for parents and would have high standards for all children at its heart, will be greatly enhanced by working with the Foundation.
We came very close to success in the last round, and we’re very grateful for the
faith the parents of the community showed in our proposal. With the capacity
and expertise of a distinguished organisation like the Seckford Foundation we
shall be in even better shape for the current application round. The Foundation
will be running events verto give them more informsupport in early January."

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 17:13

The Seckford Foundation bizarrely claims to be an educational charity for the good of Woodbridge children.....shame they have to charge £4,500 per term for such "charity" at Woodbridge School .

Presumably the Stoke Nayland submission needs the help of an Independent School to assure acceptance and meet one of Mr Gove's pet projects of private schools supporting state free schools .

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 07:46

Being sponsored by an independent school is no guarantee of success. A West Sussex academy, co-sponsored by the private school chain Woodard Schools, was judged "inadequate" by Ofsted when inspectors visited before Christmas 2011. The independent school chain, the United Church Schools Trust, has encountered problems when sponsoring academies. The Trust's academies arm, The United Learning Trust (ULT) was banned from sponsoring further academies by the last government after three of the its academies were judged "inadequate" by Ofsted in 2009-10 although Mr Gove has since lifted the ban.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Tue, 07/02/2012 - 17:01

Denying FOI requests on a technicality is the sole source of entertainment for the Office Juniors at the D of E ( save that of polishing their Oxbridge Politics & Philosophy 2.1 Degree Certificates.) They can deny you whole reports based on the sensitivity of one part of a submission. Such sensitive parts can however be deleted from the requests ( but they don't tell you this) .

You can resubmit the FOI request but be a bit more specific

e.g "Please provide a) the "evidence of demand" section and methodology of data collection.and b) a synopsis of the departments appraisal of evidence of demand. "

Then they will have to justify specifically why they won't provide with critical information item which is clearly in the public interest and cannot be classified as confidential on commercial grounds.

Emma Bishton's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 11:16

Rosie - thanks that's helpful I'll report back on my latest attempt to get clarification from DfE in due course!

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 12:41

I note from your other threads that your campaign has an excellent "counter-submission" to the previous Stoke Nyland School submission and that it included a 1000+ petition. I also note from the Stoke Nyland free school website that they are telling people that they need to re-register their interest in the Seckford venture even if they registered before ( as new school proposal different from previous failed one) .

I believe this means that your previous petition will not be accepted as valid protest if you submit it in any new counter campaign to the Dept of Educ. You need to consider rewriting your previous Report with a new petition . AND gIven that people are human I suspect there will be a lot more people keen to embrace the apparent "private" school ethos that the trust is promoting to gain success this time around.

If you are re-petitioning I would do some work on identifying the likely catchment area around this Kudos Comp ; assume a 90% take up and target the parents OUTSIDE this area who in truth won't stand a chance of getting in ( but don't realise this and still register an interest in applying) and will find their children at a school which in 3 or 4 years time will be relegated to "second-best".

Emma Bishton's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 11:44

Janet, I entirely agree that being able to run an independent school (in the case of Seckford Foundation successfully) is no guarantee of success in the state sector.

I asked the Seckford Foundation what the key differences are between providing private and state education and how they would manage these differences - their response was that they would employ people who were used to working within the budgetary constraints of the state system, and also that class sizes would not be as small in the free schools as in the private sector. Which makes it all sound so wonderfully simple, as if securing equivalent educational outcomes with a much broader intake of ability across a far wider social spectrum with bigger class sizes and fewer additional resources is simply a matter of managing a smaller budget!

I think if it was as simple as they suggest, and I was paying school fees of nearly £13000 per year, I'd begin to wonder if it was worth it! I don't doubt the Seckford Foundation's ability (or that of other such organisations in the private sector) to provide an effective (fee-paying) school that meets the needs of its pupils. And I can see that there are things good schools of all sorts have in common, such as good leadership, effective pastoral care, good systems for tracking pupils as well as good teaching. But providing a good service is easier when you have much more money to spend. We are told that the state sector has much to learn from the private sector - but I really struggle to see what it is we should learn, other than to accept 'second best'.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/02/2012 - 12:41

The Seckford Foundation is also behind the approved free secondary school in Beccles that is causing problems for the established secondary.

I wrote on Stephen Mayo's thread (8/02/12) that the head of the established secondary school had told the TES* “It is astonishing, the power that a tiny group of parents have. If there is a school and you set up a free school next to it, it will kill it…[The school] will have to be slimmed down, leading to redundancies and class sizes going up.”

* "The rise of parent power", TES, 27 January 2012, not available on line

Emma Bishton's picture
Fri, 10/02/2012 - 10:38

Rosie - again thanks you raise an interesting point on the petition and we're looking into that. You are also right to suspect that they are seeking to attract pupils from further away.

We are indeed revising our 'counter-submission' to the SbN proposal, partly as there are some significant differences in the detail of the current proposal (particularly around curriculum, length of school day, the fact of the proposer only having private education experience), and also we wish to use it to highlight the fact that this would be one of SIX new and unnecessary free secondary schools in Suffolk where there is already a large surplus of places in the county, including in this area. Will post more info on this in due course.

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