Rivendale School - cracks start to appear in the free school model

Fiona Millar's picture
 16
We may be starting to see a few cracks appearing in the shiny new free school model.  The proposers of the Rivendale Free School, in West London, have announced that they are withdrawing their bid for a local health centre which they had planned to convert to a new school by September. The reasons for this are two fold - the site was not suitable and not available in time to rush through an autumn opening. But more importantly large numbers of local parents protested about a new school moving into an area where they felt there were already enough places in good schools which might be threatened by surplus, unecessary provision. Several parents have already made their views known here and here.

I suspect we will see more stories like this. Finding and converting new sites will be difficult , especially in urban areas, when it may just be simpler to expand existing schools. And, as we know, in spite of the endless criticism we see of local schools in the media, many parents are happy with what they have already got and are prepared to fight to protect it. Local Hammersmith and Fulham MP Andy Slaughter said yesterday that this experience points to the need for more consultation and planning when new schools come into being. Free schools tend to pop up rapidly and often after little consultation with local people - in the case of Rivendale the consultation was still taking place while the proposers were seeking applicants.

Free schools are 'driven by politicians seeking soundbites and lack authenticity' said Mr Slaughter. 'Schools should fit into their communities and be built to last. '

Rivendale would have been the third free school to have been pushed through this year in Hammersmith and Fulham, a flagship Tory authority. One of the others is a primary academy that has had only 63 applicants for 60 places this year and the issues surrounding the West London Free School have been well aired on this site.
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 19:06

This is an important story. It really shows what happens when local parents get together to protest against injustice! Their campaign was excellent. I suppose the problem is that if parents are not well informed, or so confident, then injustice can prevail. I am thinking of possible situations in rural areas like Northumberland, where many parents do not have access to the internet etc or know how to set up a website. Or have an "on-the-ball" MP like Andy Slaughter. Is it worth drawing together relevant groups to form an alternative coalition?

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Wed, 23/02/2011 - 21:24

The local newspaper quotes the lead of Rivendale as saying that enrolment is still open - but the consultation is closed and the proposal for the site withdrawn.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Thu, 24/02/2011 - 22:53

I heartily endorse this view and am pleased that its being put so forcefully and simply.
As someone with a professional development and planning background I really do deplore these ideas that sites can be found quickly and schools set up with relative ease. It is really not that simple. Schools are relatively land hungry ventures creating large amounts of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, placing significant demands on the local community's resources as well of course as meeting a vital need. They have particular layout requirements which are necessary to meet 21st century educational needs. However they are extremely expensive to set up and the potential for things to go wrong is considerable. Deciding on the best location for a new school is both an art and a science and needs to be done with almost technical precision based on a tightly geographically defined need. Most existing schools have grown from and merged with their local communities in a synergistic manner over many years, which is why they have worked. To create a new school anywhere has the potential to upset local communities and existing provision much in the way that any major business set up would do. We, as a country, cannot afford for any state school to be put in the wrong place , disrupting the local provision either by creating a surplus of places or by taking away students from existing schools. How under any audit criteria can this be considered an appropriate use of public funds, in such an age of austerity. There have been many documented state failures on this site which just goes to illustrate how difficult it can be to get it right. I have no idea why its such a good thing for free schools to be able to operate in essentially substandard premises, with lower design and space standards, or to be technically substandard in town planning and building control terms. Do people really want this for their children? Free schools are all about, apparently demanding the best for children. Why then is it considered so necessary to bend the rules to allow inappropriate, badly designed, and inadequately planned premises? The answer is probably that this government will do anything in order to meet its political targets even if its at the expense of the education of most of our children.

Andrew Nadin's picture
Fri, 25/02/2011 - 20:35

I think this issue can be summarised "a community seeking a school, or a school seeking a community". This whole problem would be avoided if the DfE did something about their Stg2 proposal process. There is scant requirement for FS proposers to provide evidence of parental demand. The DfE won't tighten the evidential criteria - it would be a major obstacle to the majority of Free School applications.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Sat, 26/02/2011 - 12:01

Has anyone ever successfully submitted a FoIA request for the information presented to support Stage 2 of the process moving to Stage 3?

Fiona Millar's picture
Sat, 26/02/2011 - 12:36

Not that we are aware of, although I think the powers Gove is giving himself in the Bill to requisition LA land for free schools and academies will provide some interesting opportunities to get this sort of information. The Bill says the Sec of State must take into account the effect of any new free school on other local schools. He could be judged to be acting unreasonably if he takes land to aid a project that actively harms other schools if there isn't a need for more places. It would be good to start gathering information about how some of these stage 2 applications look. There should be more openness about this process.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 27/02/2011 - 17:58

Tracy see here for one redacted form presumably under FOI.

Emma Bishton's picture
Sat, 26/02/2011 - 17:55

Francis - in reply to your question is it useful to get groups together who are opposing free school proposals - yes please! It would be very helpful to learn what is working elsewhere and, given the extremely limited requirements for the free school proposers in terms of consultation, in particular to understand what the most effective ways are of making sure our opposition is registered formally.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Sun, 27/02/2011 - 18:51

Fiona, that's brilliant. I contacted them to see what they used for language. We've submitted heaps of FOIA requests, and are awaiting replies - All language and responses will be posted to our website when we get them.

Emma, I'm working on something along those lines. I'll be developing a 'what we did' and will let you know how to get hold of it!

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Sun, 27/02/2011 - 19:17

What is shocking about this is the use of 'parental interest'. I have seen a quote from the DfE refusing to respond to a FOIA request for names of people interested in setting up free schools on the basis that 'interest' does not equal 'actual demand'. How then can a stage 2 proposal, with 'expressions of interest' be considered by the DfE to be equivalent to 'robust evidence of parental demand' ? I have not seen Rivendale's form (yet) but from what was explained at consultation there were about 30 expressions of interest in various areas around this ward - a horrifically far cry from the hundreds apparently received from this particular proposer. Indeed there is only fluff that backs it up - interest does not equal demand (even if interest is gathered in a fair and objective way) - and demand does not equal application - and application does not equal offers - and offers do not equal enrollment. It is stunning how many hurdles of logic a marketing budget can obviate.

Tracy

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 28/02/2011 - 11:56

Tracy , the DFE stage 2 proposal form here states that all the information contained in it will be published on the DFE website. Not sure if that is happening currently or not?

Mark Castle's picture
Mon, 28/02/2011 - 02:43

The "We Need a School" groups redacted DfE stage 2 request can be found here

Surprisingly WNAS published this themselves when we asked.

Also, I've got an FoI request in regarding part of their "Evidence of Demand"

Not holding out much hope of getting much of a response there though (given how all other 'Free Schools' FoI requests have been dealt with).

Andrew Nadin's picture
Mon, 28/02/2011 - 19:49

The date of publication is a question I am currently pursuing with the DfE. As of today (28.02.11), this is the latest in email response to the question of why they have not done as they promised (i.e. publish the applications): "There is no further news, the Department has not published Free School proposal forms. I will contact you when further information is available." I'll keep you all updated if I get a positive result.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Mon, 28/02/2011 - 22:26

This issue about 'interest'' equating with 'demand' is, well, an interesting one! The group campaigning for a Montessori in Lewisham have stated that they have around 300 signatures and that the DfE has commented positively on the level of demand that this indicates. However a significant number of these signatories live outside the borough, outside London and some outside the UK.! There have been other local campaigns in Lewisham about other things - not schools- which have obtained many more signatures of support in minutes than the free school campaign achieved in 4 months. I don't really see that this figure is anything to be impressed about nor does it tell us anything. Statistically its probably only a minor proportion of these who would in reality be sending a child there.

I would therefore , like a number of people here, like to know what precisely is considered good evidence of demand and how this is justified. What constitutes demand at all?! Is 'preference' and a wish list to be equated with 'demand'? There is indeed demand for an increase in school places in my local area but not necessarily for Montessori nor for a 'free school'. Its true to say there is a need for something but how many parents would really want to take the risk on an unknown experimental venture when push comes to shove. If it were a mainstream school I probably would have a less opposing view. The school in question is not proceeding with plans to open a school by this September but says its on track for next Sept 2012.

As a local parent what rights and ability do I/would I have to question any such statement of ' demand' in my area?

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Wed, 02/03/2011 - 20:01

Very good question. We put in a request to the DfE but I'm going to just ask our local FS if they will make it public. From what we were told at the first Rivendale consultation, there were about 19 'statements of interest' in one area, 6 in another and 5 in another. It is a shocking excuse to spend £144K. And as Andy Slaughter asked and found out 28/2/2011 in Hansard, schools like these can seemingly keep going back for funds as if there is a blank cheque. Rivendale is on the move again but it all begs the question - do we pay for another round of consultation, and if they do all of this to get set up in temporary accomodation, I guess we have to pay again to have them move plus buy more property? Building 'relaxations' seem to imply that if no planning is required then neither is a traffic consultation, but if traffic calming is needed for safety, the LA has to pay for it. It seems endless.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Thu, 03/03/2011 - 13:59

Rivendale has expressed interest in another local building, 250ish metres from another good one form primary. The building is on a large busy road across the street from Brook Green. The building, previously a school, is too small to house Rivendale for more than four years. At that time, they will either have to move the entire school to a larger building, or get another building nearby to house the rest of the school. One has to wonder how many times a school can attract funding each time it wants to move location or get larger.

The supporters of the school locally want to promote competition, saying it will help all schools improve. How can a budget starved LA school fairly compete with the likes of Rivendale, with the ability to go back for a refill on the bank account when they need one, with £24K min of marketing money, with a Planning Inspectorate that will mean any local objections to planning for free schools can be 'dealt with swiftly'?

Or is that the point?

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