Sort out your finances, free school told after first year of operation
Chetwynde Free School, a former Barrow in Furness independent school faced with dwindling pupil numbers before it became a free school in September 2014, has been told to sort out its finances. The Trust has failed ‘to demonstrate appropriate levels of financial management and governance’, the Education Funding Agency (EFA) said.
The school’s accounts for year ending 31 August 2015, the first year of operation as a state-funded school, show the EFA gave a grant of £1,343,000 for a new Design and Technology building. But the Independent Auditor’s report said that while the spending on the new building had been put out to tender, ‘other major expenditure was not tendered for in accordance with the financial procedures’. The Independent Auditor found the governors had failed to put in place systems to ensure financial procedures were followed correctly.
At the other end of the country from the Lake District, Inspire Free Special School in Medway, another free school which replaced an existing school, has changed hands following an Inadequate Ofsted judgement in January 2016. Its predecessor school, The Oaks, was one of two units in the Silverbank Centre which had been judged Inadequate. The other unit, renamed The Rowans, is now a pupil referral unit run by the local authority, Medway, and was upgraded from Inadequate to Outstanding in February 2015. Inspectors praised the local authority for working well with the unit to help it establish itself as a ‘separate and very effective school*.
Support for Inspire Free Special School was, on the other hand, woefully lacking. Inspectors wrote:
‘Since the school’s formation as a free school, there has been no access for leaders to any external support, other than the visits from the Education Funding Agency adviser. This lack has proved a key element in the school’s declining effectiveness, following an initial period of improvement. The school’s vulnerability, caused by staff absence and unfilled roles, was not recognised quickly enough.’
The Department for Education denied Inspire lacked support saying the department had quickly recognised problems and secured the help of another multi-academy trust (MAT), Parallel Learning Trust. Inspectors disagreed. As well as criticising the slow recognition of problems, inspectors said the governors’ focus on seeking support from a MAT had drawn attention away from governor monitoring of the school’s effectiveness.
Inspire transferred to Parallel Learning Trust on 1 April 2016. The transfer cost, if any, is not known because the DfE has not yet published the promised data.
These two cases raise questions on the EFA’s ability to cope with an expanding number of free schools. All new schools are now expected to be free schools but this risks hasty introduction without due diligence. The New Schools Network (NSN), the taxpayer-funded charity which promotes free schools, has announced an amorphous category of ‘social need’ to justify setting up free schools. This has raised fears of a ‘free-for-all’. In a desperate attempt to bolster support for free schools, NSN has attempted to justify ‘social need’ by implying free schools would help to reduce the number of racist incidents in schools. I look forward to further NSN claims suggesting free schools will help cut obesity rates (especially in those free schools without playing fields); mental illness; bullying, HIV infection, social media addiction, teenage pregnancy, head lice epidemics...