Local schools are being starved of cash to fund free schools -- a headteacher speaks out

Francis Gilbert's picture
Michael Foley, headteacher of Great Cornard Upper School & Technology College in Suffolk, spoke out today at the BETT conference about the unfairness of the free schools programme. His school, which is judged to be a good school with outstanding features by Ofsted, has building budget of just £20,000 for next year despite the fact that its building is crumbling and is struggling to keep out the rain during this winter. Meanwhile, a new free school is to be opened in Stoke-by-Nayland, a neighbouring village, for 11 to 16-year-olds; this school will largely have an intake of pupils from more advantaged backgrounds. This school will receive £4.5 for its building programme. Great Cornard admits pupils from a wide range of backgrounds but will definitely lose students from more prosperous homes with the opening of the free school. It's yet another example of communities being fractured by this policy.

Foley was sharing a platform with Cllr. Robert Light, Founder, BBG Parents’ Alliance, Kirklees, West Yorkshire, who is setting up a free school in the area. Jon de Maria, a parent involved with the setting up of the Bolingbroke Academy in "nappy" valley, also spoke in defence of the school, which today was lambasted in the Daily Mirror for seeking to create a school for rich children. This issue has been already very discussed on the site. Jon de Maria came across as much more interested in social justice and "doing the right thing" for the local community than the Kirklees parents who seemed very unappealing to me. Their tone was triumphalist: the PowerPoint was full of pictures of supporters where BBG T-shirts and pictures of lots of very white faces parading the streets in support what looks like is going to be a very "white" school in an area which is pretty ethnically diverse. Phrases like "social justice", "appreciating diversity", "equal opportunities" didn't come up. Their agenda seemed solely focused upon "doing the best" for their children rather than looking at the needs of the community as a whole.

I spoke on the panel and raised a few points about why the free schools policy is so disastrous.

1. It's very unfair. Resources are sucked away from local schools and put into the hands of pushy, socially advantaged parents who only have their own selfish agendas at heart.

2. It's divisive. Wealthy children are separated from poorer ones, children from different ethnic backgrounds are separated.

3. It's ineffective. Research from Sweden and the US shows it doesn't raise standards overall. The fact that untrained teachers are allowed to teach in these schools speaks volumes.

4. It causes administrative chaos. Proper strategic planning for new school places is thrown out of the window and a "free-for-all" ensues. The parents on the podium all more or less admitted to being "out of their depth" with all the paperwork involved. The Bedford free school isn't going to open on time, many schools don't have sites, pupil rolls are unknowns, teachers are not appointed.

5. Competition between schools kills off collaboration, the very thing that raises standards. The success of strategies like the London Challenge show that it's when schools collaborate that standards go up. Competition means that everyone remains isolated, defending their own corner.
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Fiona Millar's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 18:19

Well if it isn't admissions it will be the issue of surplus places combined with funding cuts that leads to free schools being divisive in their local communities.
Like you Francis, I have spoken on platforms with a number of free school campaigners. They often come across superficially as being interested in 'social justice' but when one looks at the details of the schemes they are planning, there is usually more to it than meets the eye and their motives turn out to be more self serving than they would care to admit publicly.

Laura Brown's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 18:45

I'd be interested to see the Kirklees parents in action. It is all somewhat dependent on how you define the "local community" and also the consistency between fine words and the reality of the free school schemes.

Clearly, if you have parents setting up schools, there is always going to be significant focus on doing their best for their children and then it's just a case of hoping for the best and crossing fingers and toes as far as whether they also focus on helping others less fortunate at the same time. It's not wildly encouraging that vast sums of money are committed without proper and formal checks and balances and just a vague hope that those involved do the right thing.

Emma Bishton's picture
Fri, 14/01/2011 - 19:15

Mike Foley is a fantastic head of a good school which has worked very hard to overcome a bad reputation from years ago and now offers an effective and broad education. It's a school that feels relaxed when you visit, has fantastic links with the local community and produces good results. GCUS will undoubtedly suffer if the new free school in Stoke by Nayland goes ahead, for all the reasons given. We have formed a parent and teacher group locally (COMPASS) to oppose the free school, and we're launching a petition on 26th Jan at our next public meeting. One of our concerns is that the free school group don't need to consult with the wider community, so we're doing it and aim to demonstrate that the majority want a good education they can trust - which locally already exists.

Jon De Maria's picture
Sun, 16/01/2011 - 21:59

In reply to the link posted here to the Daily Mirror piece, I would confirm the article ‘Class War / Your kids are wrong for our Classes’ contained numerous inaccuracies. While the newspaper might sympathise with the campaigners against a new community school in south Battersea it nonetheless has a duty to present the facts at least accurately and to represent fairly the response of those who are grossly misrepresented in the article (as do all media channels).

To make clear the facts:

Is Bolingbroke Academy being ‘set up by fat cat bankers’?
• No. More than 2,500 people have signed up to support the campaign for a new school in the former Bolingbroke Hospital. The GMB has identified around 25 (out of hundreds who objected to the site’s planning application for residential development) who work in the finance sector (including banks) – less than 1% of our community support. They did not tot up the many other teachers, doctors, health service workers, local government workers, legal workers, full time mothers and people who work for charities who are as or more prevalent in the campaign. In short, there is no employment group that dominates the neighbourhood or the campaign.
• Of the parents in south Battersea who have been at the heart of the Neighbourhood School Campaign (NSC) since its start:
- I work in the construction industry
- Another runs a local cafe
- Three others are full-time mothers (none of whom have husbands or partners who work in banking or anything related to it)

Will Bolingbroke Academy ‘refuse to take poor children’?
• No, the opposite is true. The feeder system would make the school more inclusive not less and widen the geographic and demographic group that would get access to places at the new school. Straight line distance (which is used at other Wandsworth schools along with banding and the like) would have excluded all but those in the streets around the school which everyone acknowledges is a middle class area. Feeder schools (as well as being fair and transparent) extend the geographic area that gets access to the school and the demographic mix – given that two of the schools have free school meal entitlement well above the national and London average. Without the feeder school policy most if not ALL of the pupils could come from Honeywell and Belleville or indeed from adjacent private schools. Contrary to being a barrier to working class children the inclusion of Highview and Wix schools gives these children access to pupil places at the new school.
• There are natural boundaries in every community. The feeder schools are part of the south Battersea community, ie. the area where secondary places are scarce and which the new school is expected to serve. Belleville and Honeywell are just 428 and 783 metres from the school site, while Highview is 879m. Falconbrook School (which is 1,642m by shortest walking route) is in north Battersea and already close to a good secondary school (Battersea Park, which is one of the most improved in London). Wix is closer to the Bolingbroke site than it is to Battersea Park school. It is a shame that Falconbrook has now been portrayed as some sort of ‘sink school’ in the national media as a result of the GMB press release. This does a great disservice to the head, staff and governors at Falconbrook who are all working incredibly hard.
• Contrary to the claims in the Daily Mirror, Highview and Wix primary schools have 41% and 31% of their pupils respectively entitled to free school meals – well in excess of the national and the London average – suggesting a far broader demographic and income mix than the Mirror article implies. Many of their pupils come from the Peabody Estate and the Winstanley Estate, hardly the leafy homes of ‘well heeled bankers’.
• There was a wide consultation on the admissions policy and all local primaries (including Falconbrook) were sent leaflets and letters and encouraged to respond. We had meetings with a number of primary schools to discuss the policy and invited Falconbrook to meet us. The consultation closed on 31 December. Of 159 respondents, 118 (75%) agreed with the policy and 41 opposed - although most of these did so on the basis that their children went to private schools and would not be in feeder primaries. Arguably this suggests that the “rich bankers’ children” are likely to be those excluded by the policy, in favour of children in local state primaries. At its heart, our school campaign is about a local school for local children. We are not a political group and it is a great shame that some have chosen to make ‘political capital’ out of our children’s education.
• The academy's admissions arrangements will be managed by Wandsworth Council and are subject to the same admissions legislation as other maintained schools. All schools require oversubscription criteria to determine how places will be allocated if there are more applications than places available. If there are fewer applications from feeder schools than places available all other places will be allocated by Wandsworth Council admissions department.
• Lastly it is worth noting that the campaign for the new school was supported by all three political parties at the last general election, all of whom acknowledged the shortage of secondary places in the Northcote area (where birth rates are increasing at one of the fastest rates in the borough).

This type of Mirror article (which pretty much 'lifted' a trade union press release as fact) sadly adds more heat than light to the free school debate.

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