Who Consults? Who Decides? The Whitehall Park School on the old Ashmount site, a request for advice.

David Barry's picture
 2
This is really a continuation from this blog posting.

This is an edited version of an email correspondence between me and the DfE, relating to consultations regarding the proposed free School on the old Ashmount site in Islington (Whitehall Park School). It consists of my original query to the DfE followed by their response. The underlying theme seems to be that the DfE does not really seem to be responsible for very much when a Free School is being set up and that all queries should really be properly made to the proposers of the Free School, who, in this case at least, do not reply. Anyway here it is:-

EMAIL TO DfE

I must apologise for the length of this email and the number of questions asked, but the situation that prompts the email, and the questions, is not of my making.

I am afraid I must start on a negative note. Despite your help Bellevue have still made no response to requests for information, as sent by me, and then later, kindly forwarded by you. It is difficult not to conclude that despite Bellevue's oft stated willingness to engage with the local community, they only wish to do so very much on their own terms.

Which brings me nicely to the issue of consultations, of which there now appear to be two.

Regarding the (earlier) statutory consultation, I can see that your statement [in an earlier reply],

"The duty to consult and how they carry out their consultation rests solely with the trust, the Department for Education doesn’t direct trusts on how they should undertake their consultation."

seeks to close the matter, (so far as the DfE are concerned), but this is despite the way in which Bellevue's consultation clearly did not fulfill your expectations. You will recall that you expressed them thus:-

" The Department expects this ...(The consultation).. 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."

In the event the list of parties NOT consulted by Bellevue, is longer than the list of those consulted. Nearby schools were not consulted. Islington was not consulted. Camden and Haringey were not consulted. The local residents associations, the Whitehall Park Residents Association and the Hornsey Lane Association were not consulted. The local Church of England parish was not consulted. The Roman Catholic parish was not consulted. The Diocesan Authorities for both churches, and which both support VA schools in the area were not consulted. The local population WERE consulted in the limited sense that invitations were sent out to attend consultation meetings. This was done in the main by sending emails to people who had previously registered themselves on the Free School web site as active supporters of the project.

Given that your expectations seem entirely reasonable to me, there must surely be some doubt as to whether the manner in which the consultation was actually carried out could be seen to be reasonable. I would welcome any observations, or indeed, assurances, you may have on this point.

So my first question is:-

1. Did the statutory consultation meet the expectations of the DfE?

As I would imagine you know a further consultation is now being held by Bellevue. I only know of it because, after an extended Christmas break the web site was gone through in detail to see what changes there had been, and a notice was discovered, not on the home page, but under a menu button labelled "consultation" which had previously referred to the statutory consultation and of late had pointed to a message explaining that consultation was now closed. When I say "I imagine you know a further consultation is being held", I am not being sarcastic, the DfE is not mentioned except as a body Bellevue has negotiated with over the site. So it is possible that this consultation is solely a Bellevue matter. It is Bellevue that, it seems, names the old Ashmount site as the preferred site, and not the DfE.

You will not, I think be surprised that I have a number of questions to ask about this consultation, and as Bellevue decline to respond to emails, or phone calls, it seems I must ask them of you.

STATUS OF CONSULTATION

2. Who has decided that this, second, consultation be held? (Was it a Bellevue decision or a DfE decision?)

3. Why is it being held?

4. What will happen to the responses? (Will they be forwarded on to the DfE? If so, in what form?)

5. How does this relate to the previous, statutory consultation?

6. Is it a statutory consultation?

NOTICE OF CONSULTATION

As explained above the notice of the consultation occurs beneath a menu button. There is no reference to it on the home page. There is a section headed "latest news" with a number of items in it, but no reference to the consultation. The "consultation" button, to which no notice has therefore been drawn is like the other buttons along the top edge of the page and is therefore invisible when I scroll down to read the complete text. Unlike the other buttons when a mouse pointer is placed over it, no pop up menu appears, one must click directly upon it to find out that the consultation message has changed. The message is undated. The link to the home page is here so you can see for yourself. I also have the page saved should you need to verify what today's version looked like.

On the home page there is a (quite prominent) invitation to register for further information thus :

"Register Your Interest Subscribe to our email newsletter and be the first to know about the latest developments, news and events."

I am registered, and have had more than a dozen emails since the start of December 2013, informing me of various developments and repeatedly stressing the the school is "on track" to open at their "preferred site" this Autumn.

None of these emails contained any notice of the consultation. In contrast the previous, statutory, consultation was advertised by email.

One of the emails invited me to a briefing event in a local coffee shop on the 9th January 2014 attended by a representative of Bellevue, the Ashmount Site Action Group and the new Head teacher designate. While progress towards obtaining the use of the site was discussed no reference was made to the consultation at this meeting. So although Bellevue paid for and organised the meeting it was not a consultation meeting. And a good opportunity to publicise the consultation was missed.

7. Do you regard this a adequate notice of a consultation?

The notice is undated and does not say when the consultation started, but is very clear that it ends on January 21st 2014, at noon. The previous consultation ran for six weeks. if this consultation had been run on the same basis as the statutory consultation then it should have started on the 10th of December 2013, and, no doubt, announced by email on that day. I found out about the consultation only on the 7th January and myself and a council officer appear to have been the first to know. If need be a number of witness statements could be produced to this effect. It therefore seems that this consultation is open to challenge for want of notice.

8. I therefore wish to challenge this consultation for want of notice and ask for your views on this, including advice as to how I might do so.

WHAT IS THE CONSULTATION ABOUT?

The text of the notice of consultation clearly states that it relates to the site of the proposed Whitehall Park School, and gives as its question:

"Do you think the proposed Whitehall Park School should open on the site of the former Ashmount School at Ashmount Road, Islington N19 3BH?"

Which is certainly clear. Upon finding out about this consultation I sought to publicise it myself, and for example notified the Islington Schools' Forum, and had a posting put on the local residents' association website using the Bellevue text. These actions of mine should in no way be considered to repair the failure to advertise the consultation, instead they highlight the failure of Bellevue to take quite simple steps which also cost nothing. However at the briefing meeting for prospective parents held on the 9th January, there was a development. The Bellevue representative said regarding the up to date position regarding the site (I was there, and took notes):

"Negotiations were (still) on going, but they were confident of a positive outcome as there had been some movement. That he understood a proposal was going to be made to Islington to split the site, with part of it going to the new school and part of it being retained by Islington. This idea was being put forward to overcome Islington's "intransigence".

[Enter ASAG. As the Ashmount Site Action Group have not been mentioned before in my blog postings I ought to explain who they are. They have in common that their gardens back on to the old Ashmount Site, those that had children did not send their children to Ashmount, choosing independent, fee paying schools in Highgate nearby, and they vehemently oppose the use of the site for social housing. None of them are currently parents. They established the "Ashmount Site Action Group" in 2009 when they identified themselves as a "steering group" of six people, since then they have never published information regarding their numbers or membership. They originally campaigned against Ashmount school being moved. This included a number of threats of legal action, which while none of these were actually carried out, did delay the move and involve Islington Council in some expense. (Their chair is a barrister). Having failed to stop the move, ASAG have moved their focus to seeking to keep the school site in use for educational purposes, to prevent the site being used for social housing instead. As such they support the Whitehall Park School and the appropriation of the site for it by the Secretary of State. It is easy to see why they should now oppose the proposal to split the site and use it for both a school AND some social housing as that will not meet their prime objective. A collection of documents relating to the controversy is available from the "Ashmount" section of the Whitehall Park Residents Association website.]

On the 15 January 2014 ASAG posted a notice to the local residents' association website.

"Received by email from ASAG 15/1/13: Is a school playground important? - salami slicing kids' health."

In which they write:

"What Islington are now trying to do is to get the Department for Education to agree that while part of the site will be used as a school, part of it can be used for housing. We don’t have any information as to what percentage of the site they would like to be used for each, nor which parts.

At present there is a consultation going on about the new school, which is open only until 21 January, run by Bellevue Place who will operate the new school. This is an opportunity for you to let Bellevue Place know what you think about this proposal..... While they cannot not control whether the Department agrees to the compromise that Islington is pushing for, the consultation is more or less the only opportunity for local residents to express their views, and show the strength of support for the maintenance of the whole site."

It then goes on to put forward a number of arguments as to why the school should use the whole site, and that in effect, there should therefore be no social housing at all. I am happy to get you the text of this, if you have not seen it.

I will not go into the argument as to whether or not the notion of a split site has been put forward by Bellevue, which was the impression given at the briefing meeting, or by the DfE, or by Islington Council. Obviously you will know the truth of it, but its not relevant at this point. What is relevant is that the consultation started, whenever it did start, as a consultation about the school using the whole site, and was publicised by me on that basis. Now ASAG have part way through publicised it as a consultation about something different, whether the school should get the whole site or not and have started to campaign in the local community on this basis. So there are going to be three kinds of response:-

a.Those made on the original basis because they were made BEFORE the ASAG announcement.

b.Those made after the ASAG announcement and in response to it

c. Those that might have been made, in response to the ASAG announcement, but its not easy to tell.

This is clearly a mess.

From this the following questions arise:

9. Was the ASAG intervention made with the knowledge and support of Bellevue who may regard it as being in their interests to secure the whole site? And so use ASAG in a campaign to this end? (I believe this is a question the DfE ought to ask of Bellevue, especially if, in fact, negotiations are to take place about a split site, as this could be seen as an attempt to stop negotiations before they start.)

10. If it was not made with the knowledge and support of Bellevue, will Bellevue repudiate it? (This is asked as ASAG and the proposers have now become identified in peoples' minds, so some people believe that ASAG speak for Bellevue and at the meeting the Bellevue representative and the ASAG representative were aligned in public).

11. What will be done about, or with, a consultation which starts by consulting on one thing and ends by consulting on an other having changed part way through?

I apologise again for the length of this email and look forward to your replies to my questions.

DfE RESPONSE

Thank you for your email dated 19 January 2013 regarding the Whitehall Park School consultation.

I would reiterate that the legal duty to consult rests with the free school trust under the requirement set out in the Academies Act 2010, section 10. The Act requires the person who is entering into an academy arrangement with the Secretary of State to consult “such persons as the person thinks appropriate”.

You will be aware that the Whitehall Park trust ran their statutory consultation between 16 September and 28 October 2013 and at the time they were unable to name a permanent site. Whitehall Park School decided to extend their consultation by a further two weeks from 7 January to 21 January 2014 (but were not obliged to) once the Ashmount site emerged as the potential permanent site for the school.

The trust has provided the Department with a report of the key findings from the original and extended consultation.

If you wish to challenge the consultation undertaken by the trust, you will need to write to them directly as the legal duty to consult rests with them.

Your correspondence has been allocated reference number 2014/0005171. If you need to respond to us, please visit: www.education.gov.uk/contactus, and quote your reference number.

END of DfE response.

So, esteemed readers of this site, where do I go from here?
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Comments

Barry Wise's picture
Tue, 11/02/2014 - 17:20

David,

Legally, I doubt you as an individual have a leg to stand on. Bellevue ran a six week consultation which you were aware of, contributed to, attended meetings associated with and wrote about in blogs. No way can you argue you were left out, or didn't get a chance to express your view.

They then chose to extend their consultation - something they had no compelling duty to do, according to your DfE source. So if it is "bunce" or extra to requirement, you don't have complaining rights really.

Also, but I confess I'm not 100% sure of my ground here - I remember reading somewhere that all they are required to consult on is if they should sign a funding agreement. In theory, if that is indeed the case, even discussing the merits of the site is optional.

I suspect that if Bellevue want to continue to ignore your emails, they can. They could argue you've had your say, thank you very much, now move on please, sir and give you the bum's rush.

David Barry's picture
Wed, 12/02/2014 - 14:59

Barry,

Thanks for your response.

I should clarify that the emails I refer to having sent the proposers were not about this consultation, they were about other matters. So their policy of non response is general, and has been experienced by, and commented on by others.

When you write "Legally, I doubt you as an individual have a leg to stand on." I would not be at all surprised if that is so. But if that is the case, it would suggest that the requirement for proposers of a free school to consult can be attenuated to such an extent as to render it essentially meaningless. In particular re opening a consultation, but not, it seems giving notice you have re opened it, allows the proposers to move the goalposts any time they want. And in general careful limiting whom one consults clearly has a bearing on the outcome.

But if there is no channel for challenging sharp practice of this kind, well then there is nothing to be done. But if that were so better this be established rather than spurious claims about responding to consultations being made, unchallenged.

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