Whitehall Park School: The Consultations

David Barry's picture
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(Whitehall Park School, is the name now given to the proposed "Islington Free School" which Bellevue Ltd wish to set up using the old Ashmount Primary School site in Islington, to be appropriated for them by the DfE. This was originally posted in the thread The new Islington Free School (see sidebar).

As readers of this site will know the proposers of a Free School are required to carry out a consultation, the outcome of which is then relevant when the Secretary of State decides whether or not to enter into a funding agreement. The DfE describes the process thus:

"the legal duty to consult is on the free school trust to undertake this and to decide which people they think are appropriate to consult. The Department expects this will include all groups or people upon whom the trust believes the opening of their school may have an impact. Examples include nearby schools, the local authority, any surrounding local authorities, groups with an interest, the local population and faith groups."

According to the DfE it was originally planned that the consultation would start on the 21 August 2013. However the first sign of a delay showed itself. Understandably Bellevue wished to wait before consulting until the site was settled. And, it seems that all the indications were that the DfE would have made the final decision well in advance of the 21st August. But, the decision was not made. And continued not to be made. And (I hope this is not a plot spoiler) as I write this post has not been made.

Correctly realising that the continuing delay was making an already challenging timetable for delivery of a place to teach little children in Autumn 2014 more difficult every week Bellevue decided to run the consultation despite the site not having been agreed. They ran it from Monday 15 September to Monday 26 October 2013.

It had three interesting features

1. The consultation was publicised on the day it opened by a notice on the Islington Free School website. Prior to that day there had been a facility to register on the web site to be emailed further information, but in order to register you had to declare yourself to be a supporter of the Free School, so the mailing went only to declared supporters. No other "groups or people" were contacted, no "nearby schools, or local authorities, groups with an interest or faith groups" The "local population" was contacted but only either those who previously declared themselves supporters and who had checked the web site. Internet users all, of course.

2.The consultation was in two parts: The online part which involved four questions only, of such banality that I am afraid I have forgotten them but which provoked the comment from a professional market researcher (and Islington School Governor) that "The consultation questionnaire was one of the most shocking I have seen it its bias." It could only be answered on-line and the response facility was so basic that it made no provision for authenticating who had filled it in. Multiple responses from an individual, if they occurred could not be detected, and again only internet users could complete the consultation.

3. The second part of the consultation involved two consultation meetings, or "drop in" events (as they called them) to be held at the Hornsey lane Community Centre, just opposite the old Ashmount school, three minutes from my house. The first was on a weekday evening at 7 pm with no provision for a crèche. The second was just over a week later in the afternoon, at 2 pm.

I attended both of them

The events were, in many ways, instructive.

(For example we were told that one of the ways in which the school will be superior is that it will " be run efficiently, on good business principles, and therefore be able to spend most of its money on teaching and learning unlike Local Authority Schools".)

But I get ahead of myself.

There were various Bellevue staff present. The attendees, a large number of whom appeared to be prospective parents, numbered about 20 or so - some people came in late, others left before the end. Difficult to be sure, at least one person I thought was an attendee turned out to be Bellevue staff, and several, like, me had no reception age children.

I will list a number of points, those marked * are in answer to questions I asked, so you will see that most were asked by other people. I will not make any comments on the points made at this stage, but look forward to observations from other readers of this site.

1. The consultation is going ahead despite the site not having been decided. The delay in deciding the site is due to long drawn out negotiations between Islington and the DfE in which Islington are dragging their heels.

2. They had no idea when the matter would be resolved. They understood, and shared, the impatience of prospective parents on this point, but it's all Islington's fault.

3. However the proposers very much hope and want to use the old Ashmount site. The change of the name of the school to "Whitehall Park School" was a bit of a clue in that respect. Should they not get permission to use the old Ashmount site they would probably withdraw their offer to set up a Free School in Islington. (If the withdrawal of the offer was due to intransigence on the part of Islington, then the council would be denying the parents of Islington an excellent new school.)

4. * I asked how confident they were that the old Ashmount building could actually be made usable in an acceptable way. The response was two-fold. In the first instance they said they understood it could be. They also said much "desk research" had been done. In the second instance they said that the site would not be handed over to them by the Education Funding Agency (EFA) unless the EFA were satisfied that within the budget the EFA was prepared to set it would be possible to make the building "fit for purpose" so it would seem that the issue of the building is entirely one for the EFA. Bellevue Place do not have to make the judgement themselves, it is all done by the EFA.

(When asking this question, I clearly betrayed that I had some knowledge of the building. I was asked who I was and how I knew this. I explained that I was a former parent at Ashmount with experience of the old building in use and a current governor. I was conscious of the importance of declaring what might be seen to be an interest. I was then challenged and asked why, as this was a meeting for prospective parents at the Free School, was I attending? So I had to point out that it was, as I understood it, a general consultation meeting and I was a local resident. This explanation was accepted and I was allowed to remain.)

5. *As the location not yet determined why had they run the already delayed consultation now? To which the response was that they were so excited about the project that they could not wait any longer to tell parents about it.

6. If delays continued, at what point would they pull the plug on the project for this year? No answer to that could be given, clearly there would be a point at which they would have to do this. However Bellevue Ltd had experience of setting up a school from scratch in three months. It was not desirable to rush so much, but it could be done. Also they had got Rutherford House School, Balham, up and running to a tight time scale.

7. What would happen if, due to delays, the building could not be ready in time? Then they would use portable classrooms, on site, for the first year.

8. What about the admissions deadline of 15 January 2014? Would they not have to know by then? They would not be using the Council's admissions system, so if need be they could use a later deadline, although it would be best to match the council's timetable if possible.

9. They would not be using the council's admissions system for two reasons. First of all they could not trust Islington to manage the admissions fairly (and they wanted to keep admissions under their own control). Secondly, a central part of the project was to provide Islington parents with a degree of choice currently denied them. So parents would be encouraged to apply for Islington schools in order of their preference, and to make a separate, independent application to Whitehall Park School. Parents would then, on offer day, get a single offer for an Islington school and a separate one for Whitehall Park School. They would then be free to choose between them, a choice of a kind denied to parents by the council under the current system.

10. Would the company be making any money on the venture? No, in fact they would be losing money on it but they did not mind because of their dedication to providing good education for children by bringing the values of the private education system into the state system, for example by concentrating on literacy and numeracy.

11. How had evidence for demand been collected? They had excellent evidence of demand. Target groups of parents in various locations, like nurseries and playgroups had been asked would they welcome having an extra choice of school and would they consider applying for a new school, and lots had said they would.

12. Which nurseries and playgroups? Unfortunately the list was not to hand.

13* Was Margaret McMillan one? No, they had not heard of Margaret McMillan. What sort of institution was it?

[Margaret McMillan School is an Islington Nursery School and Children's centre, substantially larger than the other providers and regarded as an example of good practice. It is sought after by parents. See http://www.margaretmcmillan.islington.sch.uk/index.php]

14.* What would happen if, in the event, there was insufficient demand for the school? Their financial calculations indicated that the school would be viable with well under 70 per cent enrollment, although they would not disclose the lower limit on grounds of commercial confidentiality. They would be able to do this because they were able to manage money so much more effectively than the state system and ensure the money was targeted on the children rather than used for council bureaucracy.

15. Was it not the case that setting up the new school could drain resources from other local schools? No. This is an untruth put about by idealogues and is about politics, the proposers in contrast are non political and non ideological. Unlike others they have no interest in politics preferring to be interested in the welfare of children instead.

!6 A questioner who persisted in asking whether there could be an adverse effect on other neighbouring schools was sharply upbraded for bring politics into the discussion, and, in effect, called to order. But not answered.

The formal part of the meeting then ended, but we were invited to remain for coffee and biscuits and to chat informally with Bellevue Ltd representatives: I took the opportunity to ask the Chief Executive of Bellevue Ltd what he thought was the explanation for the Bellevue finding that there was a demand for extra school places in the area, while Islington maintained there was not. His response was to state "I am not talking to people like you" and turn his back and walk away.

The Second Meeting

I attended for a large part - arriving late, leaving early - but not all of it. I was going back for a second bite of the cherry and to ask a couple of questions I did not think of last time, also to find out if there had been any shift regarding use of the site. The Chief Executive of Bellevue whom I had observed to be ill-mannered the previous meeting did not attend this one, so I could not find out if he was still not speaking to me. It was a smaller meeting and began with a general, conversational presentation. The style informal and relaxed. There were several small children present.

Regarding the site there seemed to me a shift. Another person who was there I talked to about it afterwards thought so too. It did not seem to be "Ashmount site or nothing" to the same degree as last time. It was stated that the Ashmount site was their preferred option but other sites were being looked at. Much the same words as last time, but a more cautious tone. It did feel as if they wanted to keep the option open of not using the Ashmount site.

There was evidence for the first time that some one had looked at the building. This was in the context of possible timescales. it was said "Anyone who has looked at the building will know it requires substantial refurbishment" which is a sharp contrast to the air of quiet confidence last week that it could be fixed. It was suggested this might take some time. Obviously what had to be done would be done, even if "it turned out to be more cost-effective to strip it back to the core" which, by implication, would take longer than a simply refurb.

Following from that an assurance that even if the building were delayed they would still open but with portable classrooms. The example of Rutherford House School in Balham was quoted but this time to say to say that the whole building had not been ready on time and so, for example, there was no kitchen ready and school meals could not be provided until February. So the children were having to rely on packed lunches provided by their parents. But the parents were willing to put up with this minor inconvenience because of the excellent education their children were getting.

The Chair of the Rutherford House Governing Body, who is a Bellevue Group Ltd employee, was there and volunteered the information that the adult-to-child ratio in Rutherford House was one-to-eight due to the involvement of volunteer parents. Unlike local Authority schools they believed in involving parents. She also stated that the first meeting of the school governing body met last week. I asked how the governing body was made up and she said it consisted of the Principal of the school, two elected teaching staff, two elected parent governors and two representatives of the community making a Governing Body of seven members, the correct size of a Governing Body according to Lord Nash. (She was precise on numbers without being prompted)

I said this puzzled me, as I had understood that a majority of Governors at a free School had to be appointed by the sponsor. She then explained that the "two representatives of the community" had been appointed by the Trust. When I pointed out that was still only two out of seven, she said there were two other expert people appointed by the Trust. You will understand that just by way of checking and clarification I said "so it is actually nine governors then not seven?" to which she responded that she was not an expert on governance, was not sure how many governors there were, and that my line of questioning was irrelevant to parents' real concerns.

Not long after, I made my excuses, and left.

The consultation having been completed it was reasonable to assume that there would be a report made to the Secretary of State with reasonable speed and a decision announced. Islington, and no doubt Bellevue expected an announcement almost weekly, and certainly by Christmas, but none was made.

Then when Islington Officers returned to work after Christmas they were to discover that it seems that a second consultation is now being held; it is not clear to me how they found out as Bellevue, whom it appears are organizing it as well, have not publicised it, either by sending it out on their email list which is otherwise active with announcements regarding the progress being made towards opening the school in 2014 on the old Ashmount site, or by putting it on their web site.

This is the announcement: I am not clear when it was actually made.

"Consultation

Bellevue Place Education Trust (BPET) is entering into an additional period of consultation relating to the site of the proposed Whitehall Park School. The consultation period is open now and will run until 12 noon on Tuesday 21st January 2014.

Following discussions with the Department for Education and the Education Funding Agency, BPET is now able to name the preferred site of the school as the site of the former Ashmount Primary School at Ashmount Road, Islington N19 3BH.

The Trust welcomes any comments in respect of the plan to locate the proposed school on this site. To participate in the consultation, please email any comments to consultation@whitehallparkschool.co.uk Specifically, we would like your answer to the following questions:

Do you think the proposed Whitehall Park School should open on the site of the former Ashmount School at Ashmount Road, Islington N19 3BH
Please explain your reasons for your answer to question 1
Please give any further comments that you would like to be considered in our consultation
All comments must be received by 12 noon on 21st January 2014"

And there, for the time being, the matter rests.
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