Free School ‘evidence of demand’ not validated by the DfE

Mark Castle's picture
The Hertfordshire Free School being promoted by the "We Need a School" group (WNAS), which is attempting to build a secondary school for 800+ children and 100+ staff on green belt land in or around the small villages of Woolmer Green and Knebworth, had their Free School Stage 2 application approved formally by the Department for Education (DfE) on 14th January 2011.

In their stage 2 application the WNAS group stated that they have "attracted over 1200 names in support of a new local secondary school". On the 16th February our group the "Save Woolmer Green" Campaign sent a Freedom of Information (FoI) request to the DfE to find out if they had received a copy of the WNAS petition which forms the mainstay of the WNAS Free School application and if so, had they indeed validated the petition.

We already knew that WNAS had received 1000 of their 1200 signatures by July 2009, which was before Free Schools were even on the cards as it was before the General Election. Not only that but the school they were planning was going to be built in a completely different location. We wanted to gain an understanding of where exactly WNAS have garnered this alleged support from.

We were shocked, however to discover that not only had the Department for Education failed to validate the petition they had not even received or requested a copy of it. We find it inconceivable that the DfE simply wave through Free School applications to the business case stage without proper and rigorous substantiation of the 'evidence of demand'.

We note that the DfE states "Evidence of demand and local support are essential components of a strong Business Case and the group will need to demonstrate that they have consulted widely on their proposal." We ask that the Department for Education (DfE) obtain a copy of the WNAS petition and validate it as soon as possible to ensure that the WNAS support is bona fide.

We implore the DfE to examine the WNAS evidence carefully; In their Stage 2 application WNAS used admission figures from 2009 as evidence in support of their application even though more favourable 2010 figures were available at the time of their application. They said: "Knebworth has the biggest allocation problem with 33% not getting ANY of their 3 choices". Ignoring the fact that the other villages in the area had no such problem in 2009 or 2010, the very latest figures from 2011 show that 100% of children from Knebworth received a ranked choice and that overall around 96% of children in the villages concerned received a ranked choice. It is our opinion that the figures that WNAS have used are out of date and should not be relied upon as "Evidence of Demand" for a new secondary school. We request the DfE reconsider the WNAS "Evidence of Demand". Indeed, as there now appears to be no requirement at all for a new school we request that the DfE reject the "We Need a School" Free School application altogether.

The "Save Woolmer Green" Campaign and the School's website
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Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 12/03/2011 - 11:42

I get the impression that it's chaos at the DfE: too few civil servants swamped by all the initiatives that are going on. This is either proof of this, or evidence they are being told to nod stuff through. If anyone has info on this, feel free to contact me:

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/03/2011 - 15:48

DfE information about setting up a free school clearly says that proposers will need to give evidence of parental demand at the proposal stage. The Secretary of State then decides whether the application should proceed to stage 3 “based on the evidence and information provided”. If the evidence is not requested then the Secretary of State has not fulfilled his duty.

I tried to get a copy of the proposal form for free schools to see what information was required. However, the link to the proposal form did not reveal a form but just more propaganda about free schools including a short video about the Free Schools Conference in January where Mr Gove introduced a religious tone by talking to his “believers”.

It appears that Mr Gove’s evangelical zeal not only prevents him from thoroughly examining evidence but causes him to avoid requesting it in the first place.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/03/2011 - 15:52

Latest bumf re free schools on the DfE website, reproduced below, demonstrates that the Department is approaching meltdown:

“General article
Updated: 07 March 2011
The first Free Schools will open in September 2011, just 15 months after the Secretary of State, Rt Hon. Michael Gove MP, invited proposals from groups interested in setting up a new school. That in itself is testament to the incredible energy and commitment of the first pioneering projects. Following their lead are hundreds of other groups with exciting and innovative projects. And as a result of their immense hard work and effort, there will be a greater opportunity for children to learn and develop in the way that’s best for them.”

There's just a touch of hysteria in the last line.

Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 12/03/2011 - 15:58

Something peculiar happened when I cut and pasted the info from the website - the procedure turned garbage into sense! The last line on the website reads:

"...learn and develop in the way that’s best for them."

Laura Brown's picture
Sat, 12/03/2011 - 15:58

That is very interesting. The Bolingbroke Academy free school application also states that a parent petition is the main evidence of demand. I wonder whether DfE actually looked at that one either?

Andrew Nadin's picture
Mon, 14/03/2011 - 19:54

We've never seen the 280 signature petition for Bedford and Kempston Free School. Also, Mark Castle sent me an interesting link today from 'WhatDoTheyKnow', the website which assists people to complete a FoI request (I used it for mine). Apparently, the DfE wants WDTK to stop sending emailed FoI requests directly to the department ( The DfE want to only encourage requests via the 'contact' form on the DfE website. It sounds like the trickle of DfE FoI requests is turning into a deluge....which begs the question: why? Probably because the DfE won't release any information! Now they are swamped with requests, and it's all their own doing.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 08:55

I think the DfE is worried about Freedom of Information requests being sent via WhatDoTheyKnow because the requests become public knowledge. Anyone can read the request - which is just as it should be. FoI requests should not be kept secret. I submitted a request via WhatDoTheyKnow on 21 February requesting the Minutes and Transcripts of Speeches made at the Free Schools Conference, of which we've heard very little since it took place.

The DfE has yet to respond so I've taken the precaution of sending a copy to my MP and asking him to ensure a response by the DfE in the statutory time.

Jane Eades's picture
Thu, 24/11/2011 - 13:28

Further evidence of the falsehood of the "evidence of parental demand" or any sort of demand criteria is in the news that Gove has asked for a survey of buildings which could be used as a 'free' school. One of these buildings is in Balham, nicely placed between two outstanding schools and where there has been no demand for a 'free' school. Apparently, having been thwarted in Lambeth, Katharine Birbalsingh is interested in acquiring the building.

In Wandsworth secondary schools there is already a surplus of places and, although the Council claim that with rising birth rates there will be a need for more places, these can be provided by current plans and are needed in another part of the borough. In addition, Wandsworth "imports" about 1000 secondary students from Lambeth at the moment.

So no demand, no need but still the building is on offer to a 'free' school!!

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