Approved free primary may shrink due to insufficient demand

Tracy Hannigan's picture
 9
It appears the ARK Conway two form entry primary free school slated for White City in Hammersmith and Fulham may have to be reduced to being a one form entry school.Press releases by the school and the local council have recently cited the 63 applications for 60 places as evidence of real demand and need – but we now await confirmation of whether enough parents actually put it as their first choice. Some reports suggest that there may not even be enough ‘real demand’ to fill even a one form entry primary.

This further illustrates the problems with the process. It exposes the ‘red herring’ of ‘expressions of interest’ and application numbers that Free Schools like Ark and Rivendale use to support their process. On the one hand ‘expressions of interest’ seem to be treated as ‘evidence of demand’ by the flimsy Stage 2 process, even though the DfE itself doesn’t use that criteria in determining ‘real demand’ for people who want to set the schools up. Then, these 63 applications are used to show how popular the new school will be – until we find out that this probably doesn’t equate to strong demand either.

Parents usually put children down at multiple schools and yet free schools like Rivendale treat application numbers at local schools (provided helpfully by the Council) as if they are distinct and different children – implying they are all rolling individually in the aisles of local schools and therefore proof that a new school is needed.

Our initial push by Rivendale primary free school was reported to be on 34 expressions of interest . It apparently told a supporters group recently that there were 22 people interested in its second (to be confirmed) proposed location. I don’t know how many expressions of interest ARK Conway had for its Stage 2, but the forty parents on the mailing list at the consultation report date may not have materialised into a viable number of children for the originally proposed school.

When you start with this base of support, then introduce the migration factor, it seems hard to imagine these experimental schools being successful. If these schools manage to open and then flounder, the financial loss in this ‘age of austerity’, the human toll for children and families, the dilution effect on the budgets of other schools, and the division that the entire issue creates in communities will take a long time to heal.
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Comments

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sun, 13/03/2011 - 20:21

When you investigate things properly, you realise that setting up a school is not like setting up a shop; you have to have guaranteed "customers" for it to be viable and they have to "buy in" for a considerable length of time. It needs proper strategic planning at a local level. This is why this policy is rapidly turning into a fiscal and social disaster.

Sarah's picture
Sun, 13/03/2011 - 20:36

It's very easy for parents to sign a petition or to express a notional interest in a new school - it costs them nothing and commits them to nothing. It is only when parents make the decision on which school to name as their highest preference that the true demand for the school becomes evident. Experience of admissions shows that individual schools often inflate the numbers of children they are expecting because parents have told a number of schools that they intend to express that school as the highest preference. When it comes to it some parents change their minds, some opt for the private sector, some parents move out of the area etc. The assessment of 'demand' for new free schools must be made far more rigorous given the immense cost to the tax payer of establishing a new school. It's the reason why local authorities do not open new school without detailed forecasting taking into account migration trends, birth rates, patterns of parental preference and so on.

Gove seems quite happy to test the demand for these new schools after having made the investment rather than insisting on robust evidence of specific parental demand. This could be a costly and potentially educationally damaging approach. The DfE do not seem very interested in the evidence being offered by local authorities that new schools cannot be justified on the basis of pupil numbers and that they may be potentially damaging to existing schools (and thereby the pupils being educated within them).

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 07:55

What I find curious about this is that the school spot was fought over by a couple or more free school groups - this area is supposed to have the most extreme need for pupil places. Some Councillors go on about how people shouldn't have to drive to the south of the Borough for school (its long and narrow) but it would appear that at least for those considering that school, there is either not the pressure on places in the first place or parents continue to prefer to have to travel a bit and stick to a good school that is established and trustworthy as opposed to risking their children's education on a new venture.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 12:45

See this document from the New Schools Network. It states that free school proposers 'must ' provide signatures from at least 50% of parents in the relevant age groups for the first two years of enrollment.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 16:56

I read that but I'm not sure what it means. Pledges from 50% of the total anticipated capacity of the school year groups in question? And is that pledge to attend? It says later the peitions will be verified. I see the guide is dated Feb11 but was it up previously? Due to the previously discussed unverified petition this sounds like part of the new procedure?

Sarah's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 19:33

It's interesting that the guidance has a great emphasis on allowing proposers to protect their anonymity. Surely in this age of transparency parents should be allowed to know the identity of those proposing to open schools in their areas. It also gives guidance on how to obtain the information to make the case without anyone knowing about it - so local authorities are required to offer up all sorts of data on request (through Freedom of Information) and then stand back while this information is used against the existing schools. Because local authorities have no right to see the applications being made they are in no position to challenge incorrect information particularly about pupil forecasts and patterns of parental preference. There's nothing equitable or fair about this system whatsoever. The applicants and content of their applications should be published instead of DfE hiding behind FOI exemptions on the basis of commercial sensitivity.

A pledge from 50% doesn't mean that any of those parents are going to materialise. This is particularly the case where private nurseries are looking to open primary schools and are canvassing their existing parent group - what parent is going to say no when their child is in the care of that organisation?

Ark Conway Parent's picture
Wed, 11/01/2012 - 19:47

I am an Ark Conway parent. All I can say is don't buy into the hype and the marketing. This school is not what is advertised. If any other parents read this article and want some opinion based on first hand experience, feel free to ask. I will answer what I can. I would like to prevent other parents making the mistake I made by selecting this school.

Comfort Porbeni's picture
Wed, 18/04/2012 - 16:47

Please are you able to provide more information on this as my daughter has just been offered a place at the school

Rosemary Mann's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 07:03

I don't support the free school concept at all as a general polic and agree wholeheartedly with the first statements made by Francis and Sarah which I think capture the lack of sense in this policy perfectly. Personally I am pleased that the inevitable cracks are starting to show in the policy but feel sad that parents and childrens education look set to suffer in individual instances such as may be the case here.

There is certainly a lot of hype and marketing around.
A year or so ago some local people in my area tried to set up a free school and conducted a really slick and actually rather good campaign as campaigns go and it was all clearly done enthusiastically with children's best interests at heart., or so it was thought. It was for a Montessori school which isnt actually offensive to me as I had been looking into Montessori pre schools for my children ( most pre schools seem to be Montessori in my area) but I felt the same way as I do for faith schools, in that it might put people off and the concept of trying to meet the increasing local demand in this way with no designated site or location in my borough seemed barmy. The whole ethos seemed to be that location was irrelevant as long as it was in the borough and that there was nothing wrong with travelling by car or bus to the school! The facts were however that the main demand was in a particular part of the borough and there were few available sites in that area either land or unused/undersused buildings.So the capacity to meet the needs of parents and children was actually very unclear.

The campaign as I said was very slick and got up a petition of many local people, however many of the petitioners whose names I knew a) did not have children at all and were in or past middle life b) already had children at other schools and I knew they were very happy there c) lived some way outside London and d) had put their addresses down as Australia and New Zealand! In addition many of the local people who had signed up put their comments for support down to the lack of alternative school places. in the immediate area. The last bit was true however thinking it through, the latter issue would never have been logically addressed by a free school somewhere else in the borough.so those parents had either misled themselves or been seriously misled by what that campaign would achieve.

In addition, it is always possible to be seduced by the concept of a shiny new school set up from scratch, with none of the decaying estate problems faced by many schools today. It does sound appealing ie new school, new building, new approach ( really?) new staff, new head = solution to everyones problems however with that you probably get lack of local authority input and support , a location that can be hard to get to or a lease which is rather short, all planned and put together in haste, unlike the local authority process which plans ahead for several years in advance, not operates a pop up school system which Michael Gove advocated.

I think there will be many problems ahead for the free schools that are emerging and I will honestly take no pleasure in seeing childrens education and lives disrupted but unfortunately I think that will be inevitable.

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