Consultation shows majority were not in favour of free school – but it goes ahead anyway

Janet Downs's picture

“A majority of people who responded to the public consultation did not support the proposal that The Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust should govern Beccles Free School on behalf of the Department for Education.”

So said the Consultation Report sent to the DfE. Cambridge Education, who ran the Consultation, said it was “aware of a separate petition running in parallel with the public consultation but are unaware of the details as information has not formally been provided.” This “parallel” petition against the school received nearly 3,000 signatures and the free school’s own consultation found a majority were against it. The Consultation revealed that a majority of people who attended drop-in sessions were against the proposed school. Even “Any Questions” revealed widespread opposition to the scheme. Nevertheless, the school has been given the go-ahead.

Cambridge Education said the negative feedback was caused by “Anti-Free School campaigners [who] were active at each of the public consultations and approached members of the public. This may have impacted engagement and influenced opinion.” So it’s OK for the free school to canvass on behalf of the school but not democratic for other people, which included five local heads, the Tory head of Suffolk County Council and the local Tory MP, to campaign against it.

The Consultation report was dated 7 March 2012 but has only just been made public. James Hargrave describes on his blog how a Freedom of Information request asking for the report to be made public was ignored. The DfE has apologised, of course, but this does not dispel suspicions that the delay was deliberate.

The DfE has allowed Beccles Free School to open despite the results of a required consultation showing that the majority of respondents did not support the school. This raises three questions:

1 How many other free schools are given the go-ahead when the consultation was as negative as that of the Beccles Free School?

2 How many other consultation reports are unpublished or left unpublished until after free schools are approved?

3 What is the point of consultations if the DfE decides to ignore negative results?


Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 10:58

Janet, be fair.

The key finding surely was:

Amongst parents/carers, a majority were in favour of the proposed
Free School going ahead..

Who cares what vested interests, politicos or left-wing activists say? It's the parents and their children who matter.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 12:16

Ricky - you are correct, that was what the consultation said - a majority of parents/carers who responded were in favour. 142 consultation questionnaires were completed - 37 of these were from parents. 21 of these parents said they supported the school - that is indeed a majority. Note the figure: 21. Given that the declarations of interest sent to the DfE in May 2011 were supposedly sufficient for the school to declare that they planned to open with three years groups of 108 each, then surely those who declared an interest should have signed the consultation saying they were in favour. But all the proposers could muster was 21. 21! And they expect to open the school in September with 324 children.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 12:26

I think it's rather difficult to dismiss the nearly 3,000 who signed the petition against the school, the local Tory MP and the Tory leader of Suffolk County Council as "vested interests, politicos or left-wing activists". Or perhaps the views of parents and children who voted against the free school in the petition don't feature in your definition of those "who matter". Apparently, the only parents and children who matter are the 21 who signed the consultation.

I can hear the sheep bleating: "For free schools, goooood. Against free schools, baaaad." And Squealer's reply:

"No one believes more firmly than the Department that all animals are equal. We would be only too happy to abide by the majority will of all animals. But sometimes your consultations and petititions yield the wrong results, comrades, and then where should we be?” (With apologies to Orwell).

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 13:04

You seem to have spent a lot of time with Orwell recently, Janet. Maybe you should take down the P.G. Wodehouse for some light relief.

Some time ago a friend told me about a public consultation held in her area about attaching a small autism unit to a local school. The responses of many of the public were quite horrifying. It would appear that teachers in that area have historically done so bad a job at educating their charges that a frighteningly large proportion of local residents were worried that their own kids might "catch autism".

I dare say some of the Beccles nay-sayers will have been animated by equally grotesque prejudices. Others will have children at the existing community school.

These consultations are useful only in that they allow people to let of steam (AKA "hot air") and once in a blue moon discover some consideration that no one had previously thought of.

On balance, though, they are a terrible waste of time and money. They should be scrapped.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 13:16

Ricky - I'm surprised you don't change your name to "Sqealer". First - use an anecdote which shows that many people are ignorant and prejudiced. Apply this description to those who signed the Beccles petition against the free school (ie they are equally ignorant and prejudiced). Then dismiss all consultations as so much "hot air". Use this to conclude that really it's better not to ask people what they think, they may "make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?"

Democracy, RIP (unless you agree with your glorious leader, of course).

You mention P G Wodehouse - who in the present Government (or its supporters) would most fit with the character of Roderick Spode, 8th Earl of Sidcup?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 13:33

Roderick Spode, as you know, was based on Sir Oswald Mosley, who had been a Labour MP, so it would be within Labour ranks that I would look for his successor.

Spode liked dressing up in Nazi uniforms, so I guess Ed Balls is the most obvious candidate.

Balls also likes to think of himself as a Tribune of the people. Switch Spode/Balls in this passage and see how it works:

You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 13:52

Democracy, RIP (unless you agree with your glorious leader, of course).

There is a big difference between democracy and ochlocracy and a big enough difference between democracy and majoritarianism.

Representative government is generally to be preferred to plebiscites..... or 'consultations'.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 14:42

Ricky - it is true that one of the dangers of democracy is the descent into mob rule (Thucydides pointed that out). However, it is disingenuous to describe decisions as being made by the mob just because the outcome is one of which you do not approve. In the Beccles case the local MP, the representative politician, said he opposed the free school. Presumably he had received letters also stating opposition (although I have, of course, no proof of this). However, he would have been aware of local feeling and as a representative of his constituents he needed to take their views into account.

The Government has said that free school proposers must consult. The Government set up the system - it must live with the consequences. Instead, it ignores the consultation that it requires (although it takes notice of "expressions of interest" which will, of course, not includes "expressions of no interest"). It also delays publication of a consultation which showed the majority were against the free school and then gives unctious apologies to people whose FoI requests were not dealt with in the statutory time.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 09:26

"Representative government is generally to be preferred to plebiscites….. or ‘consultations’." !!!!!??????

We don't have representative government. We have an indulged idiot pursuing his own very disturbing fantasies while spinning that everyone with the ability to constructively criticise them has vested interests, is a politicos or is a left-wing activist.

Very disturbingly I'm hearing more and more reports about the bullying which has gone on regarding appointments in state education, with anyone who criticises Michael Gove in even a gently humorous way finding it impossible to work and discovering that their bills now go unpaid.

I like consultation by the way. I've been able to make a real difference to the detail of policy over the years by attending consultations and feeding back on how they are working out on the ground. It's not glamorous work - you're never thanked for it, but working on the detail of policy makes it much better and counteracts the damage it does.

Consultations are the way you close the distance between the push button order and the human act.

Who is it who thinks that consultation is not a good idea apart from Michael Gove?

arsinh's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 19:24

Hi Janet,

Peter Aldous is the only Conservative M.P. who has ever opposed a Free School in his constituency. His letter to Lord Hill reveals he received 73 representations from constituents - 9 were in favour and 63 against. It is probable millions of pounds will be spent on educating a tiny number of children - latest estimates suggest there may be no more than 20 children in each year group. Mr Aldous understand that this debacle is likely to cost him his marginal seat (his majority is only 769). Unsurprisingly, Bob Blizzard (Labour) is making hay with it.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 08:42

The Government has said that free school proposers must consult. The Government set up the system ....

Opposition and Lib Dem peers insisted on the consultation and the government rolled over rather than delay passage of the bill.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 11:36

The other main benefit of consultation is that those who take part in it come to understand why the decisions which have been reached have been reached.

It's a useful thing for those who are interested to be able to come to understand that they will then disseminate that information through the education community as and when people ask and it will become better informed.

However that only works effectively if there is a coherent rationale for the policy which is implemented.

It's a big problem with totalitarian regimes as that the professionals who would be challenged to develop and mature through being part of the processes of consultation do not have the opportunity to do so.

Could you explain to me why you think it's a good idea to shut down consultation Ricky?

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 12:50

Thanks, arsinh. I note several points from the MP's letter:

1 He stressed that Section 10 of the Academies Act requires the Seckford Foundation to carry out a consultation to gauge support and assess demand.
2 He said the proposed Free School had initially received 513 expressions of interest in May 2011. As MP he would have expected to be lobbied by the free school supporters. He had received none. This led him to question the depth of support.
3 He questioned whether the DfE procedure for assessing initial demand “was sufficiently rigorous and able to differentiate between casual expressions of interest and genuine interest.” (This problem has been discussed on LSN before). The MP said the procedure had now been made more exacting.
4 He had concerns about the petitions so based his conclusion on the opinions given to him by “a wide variety of people in the Beccles area” and concluded there was a “clear majority “ who wished to continue supporting Sir John Leman High School.
5 He challenged the wisdom of spending money on refurbishing two premises (one for temporary use only) when there was already an excess of high school places and Suffolk County Council faced “financial challenges” following the reorganisation of its school system.

The MP’s concerns were ignored.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 14:58

Ricky - reply to above comment re Spode (no reply button). I rather had in mind this one:

And as for Mosley, didn't he keep changing his mind? First Tory, then independent, then Labour, then the New Party, then the BUF. And the "Voice of the People" (ie the mob) were quite right: "...that frightful ass Spoke swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

I shall remember that next time some politician attacks opponents with such magnificent phrases as "bigoted, bankrupt, backward ideology" and "enemies of promise...happy with failure."

Emma Bishton's picture
Sun, 10/06/2012 - 19:37

Ricky - if the Seckford Foundation were proposing to support children with autism or indeed with other special needs, I think there are very many parents in Suffolk who would be delighted. Instead Seckford are pandering to those who only want a narrow academic focus which necessarily will not provide for the needs of a broad range of children. I don't find using an example where unfortunately there is usually much ill-informed prejudice in any way comparable to the situation at Beccles where opposition has been informed, well-rounded, and where the majority of those who have sought to find out about the school on offer have resoundingly objected to it.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 12:55

The MP's letter to Lord Hill (see arsinh's post above for link) said there had been 513 “expressions of interest” in May 2011. Of this 513, only 21 bothered to sign the 2012 Consultation in favour of the free school. That figure alone should show that the school has not retained its original support, if support it was.

How many similar consultations show an equally steep decline in support? And how many are given the go-ahead anyway?

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 18:19

To understand the go ahead for the BEccles Free School we should consider the provenance of the Seckford Foundation. Historically the Seckford Foundation runs the private Woodbridge School but is diversifying into state funded education.

Mr Gove has somewhat naively tried but failed to persuade Independent Schools to mentor state schools ( and what would be the point of that...the existence of the private schools depends on dis-satisfaction with state provision...doh!!!) .

Granting free schools to Seckford Foundation enables Mr Gove to achieve this aim while presumably it will be ensured that no rival free schools open up in Woodbridge to drain pupils from Seckford's original private school.

I could kick myself for forgetting my euromillions ticket last week...imagine the fun I could have had trying ( and failing) to open a free school in Woodbridge that would rival you think London Free might be interested in a satellite kudos comp....? must pop a note through.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 11/06/2012 - 21:57

"Mr Gove has somewhat naively tried but failed to persuade Independent Schools to mentor state schools ( and what would be the point of that…the existence of the private schools depends on dis-satisfaction with state provision…doh!!!) ."

The situation is not so different to the relentlessly pursued but deeply naive idea that if in a town you have two school - one of which is the preferred school of the sharp elbowed middle classes and the other of which isn't, the 'solution' to the 'problem' of the second school achieving lower exam results if for the first school to 'improve' the second.

The problem in turning this naive idea into a constructive reality is that the schools have very different cultures and the practices which are so successful at the first school will rarely have a simple and wholly positive impact at the second.

You could conclude that the first school won't want to help the second because to do so will compromise its own catchment but in general that's not true Rosie. It's much more that the first school has little of relevance to offer the second and both schools know that. The main think the second school needs is the professional freedom to improve in the ways which it feels are most important for its students rather than relentless persecution for failing to deliver the results politicians want.

Often the first school ends up not helping the second school as much as they intended because they become aware that they can't really help very much at all.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/06/2012 - 09:13

Only 4% of those who declared interest in the free school bothered to sign the consultation but this is hailed by the New Schools Network (NSN), which has a vested interest in promoting free schools, as “evidence of local demand”. NSN quoted a local paper as their source but the local paper was quoting the DfE which, as we know, ignored the consultation and local opposition. What the NSN didn’t do, of course, was link to the consultation document which showed that 96% of those initially interested didn’t continue with their support.

This “evidence of local demand” claimed by the DfE is derisory. And NSN’s trumpeting this as a triumph is even more laughable.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Wed, 13/06/2012 - 11:32


You have made this point a number of times:

Only 4% of those who declared interest in the free school bothered to sign the consultation.....96% of those initially interested didn’t continue with their support.

I was just wondering whether you have any evidence that those who had already indicated their interest in sending their children to the school were included in the consultation survey?

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 14/06/2012 - 09:23

Read the Consultation Report, Ricky, it gives full details of the lengths that the Seckford Foundation Free Schools Trust went to in order to involve “stakeholders”. These included letters, email and SMS text messaging which, presumably, would have been sent to the 513 people who originally declared an interest. The Trust held prospective parent surgeries which, again, surely would have involved some of the original 513.

Despite this high-profile publicity campaign (which raises the question of who paid for it?) the Trust only managed to gain signatures from 21 parents in favour of the proposal which originally attracted 513 expressions of interest. And, yes, I have made the point before. And I will keep on making it. If that’s what the DfE calls “evidence of local demand”, and the New Schools Network publicises this distortion of the truth, then it more than justifies reminding people that “evidence of demand” might not be what it’s alleged to be. And that raises a further question: how many other free school proposals are approved on equally low levels of demand?

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Thu, 14/06/2012 - 13:12

So, in a nutshell Janet, you actually have no evidence at all that those parents who put their name down for the school were included in the survey and rely only upon the inference signalled by your word 'presumably'.

Now, maybe I'm being ungenerous and far, far too cynical, but it strikes me that if Seckford had written to, say, 1000 residents, including 513 they already had on file as supporters, you'd be the first to jump up and say the whole thing was rigged!

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 14/06/2012 - 13:29

Ricky - if the Foundation had kept the consultation secret (ie by writing only to those who expressed initial interest) then I think that there would be grounds for thinking the Foundation was trying to block opposition by only appealing to those likely to be in favour. However, the consultation, with its meetings, mailshots, drop-in sessions, press releases and so on, was well-publicised. Local residents would have had to go around with their eyes shut and ears plugged to avoid news about the consultation.

If there were any real demand for the school, if the 513 who expressed initial interest were desperate for the school to open, then it could be expected that a large proportion would have bothered to sign a widely-publicised consultation. They didn't.

"Presumably" was not inference, Ricky, it was written with heavy sarcasm which, I admit, doesn't come over in a post. I would be very surprised if Seckford didn't write, email, text, tweet, erect banners, send carrier pigeons, emit smoke signals, have a marching band, anything to get locals to sign the consultation. It didn't work. Only 21 out of the 513 original signatories bothered, so they couldn't have been very interested, could they?

I think you're trying a little too hard to dismiss the results of the consultation by saying that there is no proof that the 513 were contacted. Conversely, there's no proof that they weren't. But, as I said, they would have had to have buried their heads firmly in the sand to have been unaware of the consultation.

Arsinh's picture
Fri, 15/06/2012 - 17:22

Janet - most of the 500 odd people were never Free School supporters - they signed their names to a campaign to "Keep Beccles Middle School Open". Most had no idea that their dissatisfaction with the abolition of middle schools would later be used as evidence of demand for a Free School. This all happened before Seckford took over the proposal so they might not even be aware that signatures were obtained in this way. The real demand can be measured in tens not hundreds and the real opposition in the many thousands.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 15/06/2012 - 17:37

Thanks, Arsinh. The question of the validity of free school "expressions of interest" has been raised on this site before. Concerns include people signing for one thing but their signatures being used for something else (ie interest in a free school); improper incentives (such as an I-pad) for people to sign up; and people who just signed because they wanted to be kept informed of developments rather than send their children to the school.

Paul Reeve's picture
Thu, 28/06/2012 - 08:03

Beccles update......

Paul Reeve's picture
Thu, 28/06/2012 - 08:06

"And as members questioned Graham Watson, the director of the Seckford Foundation, there were claims pupils were being induced to sign up to the school by being offered free school uniforms, free meals and “mobile technology”."

From above link.

Add new comment

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