Parent campaigns will inevitably grow

Fiona Millar's picture
One of the most interesting aspects of being involved with this website, is being able to see (both through posts on the site and e-mails we receive) how parent groups are now organising in opposition to government free school policy as well as to try and benefit from it.

Michael Gove and his cronies in papers like the Sunday Times (behind the paywall) and the Telegraph are doing a valiant job trying to pretend opposition is all rooted in those nasty old dinosaur unions. No doubt he doesn’t want to confront the fact that this is real grassroots activity which will almost certainly grow in coming years, for the following reasons.

If there is a need for more schools places there will be growing pressure for a democratic way of deciding what type of school should deliver them. When other local parents see one particular interest group gaining control and either using admissions to disadvantage other local schools (as in the case of the Bolingbroke Academy) or adopting a particular faith or teaching methodology (like Steiner Waldorf) that will cause resentment, and rightly so.

If there is not a need for new places (and parents can now find information about surplus places and sites for free schools on this website), the issue of new schools will become even more divisive because the capital investment required for the new school will come at the expense of capital investment in existing provision (and this will be especially keenly felt in areas that have lost their BSF funding). The fact that the government is refusing to say how much money is being spent on purchasing sites and serial renovations for free schools ( some opening on one site then moving to another) will only make that worse.

Moreover, as I have written in my Education Guardian column today, these new free schools may threaten the viability of existing schools. Revenue funding follows pupils and if there aren’t enough pupils to go round, one or more schools may eventually have to close, possibly the free school that wasn’t needed in the first place.

There is an assumption among some politicians that allowing the market to open and close schools at will be pain free – the logic being that parents in ‘failing’ or undersubscribed schools will be happy to see them shut. However experience suggests otherwise. Just look at the example of Christ the King School in Merseyside. Opened as a new school under BSF with £24 million of public investment, within two years it was so undersubscribed as to be unviable and the local authority announced it would be closing the school down. That closure has now been postponed by a parental campaign to keep the school open. Ministers may well be surprised by how fiercely parents will fight to keep open a school that they see as a vital part of their local community, even if it does appear to be ‘unpopular’.

Estimating the need and demand for new places is notoriously difficult. Parent choice, pupil mobility, the proximity of existing schools to borough boundaries and changing local demography all have a part to play But two things are clear;

  • someone needs to have local oversight of this issue. It should not be a matter for central government or for a faceless quango like Partnership for Schools which played an overly bureaucratic role in the BSF decisions, was not ‘rooted ‘ in local communities and is now heavily involved with free schools ( bizarrely since its nightmarish bureaucracy was one of the reasons BSF was cancelled).

  • The ‘evidence of demand’ section of the Stage 2 free school proposal form is sadly lacking. Proposers are given 200 words max to explain why their new school is needed and we have already seen examples (Rivendale School in West London and the Kempston and Bedford Free school) where other parents have successfully challenged this evidence.

There is a middle way though. Where there is a need for more school places these schools should be maintained schools, not necessarily local authority schools, but within the local family and not ‘free’ to do what they like. Parental consultation about what sort of school it should be, ought to be extensive and  open. A compromise between all views should be sought, rather than giving just one parent group an advantage, before a new school is opened. The competition process set up by the last government could be resurrected so that different groups who want to open a local school have to make their case publicly.

Finally the local authority, rather than central government, should have a role in the process of local place planning and holding the ring on admissions. There used to be something called a School Organisation Committee, made up of local schools, governors and serviced by local authority officers, but that was abolished by Labour. There is still another local democratic body - the Admissions Forum – which has a duty to look at admissions practices in its area. That is now being abolished by the Coalition.

These particular bodies may not always have worked as well as they might but, over time, once chaos starts to creep into the system, and parents are increasingly frustrated in their attempts to access some schools, a future government will probably have to reinvent them, or something similar.

In the meantime where there isn’t a need for new school places, scarce public resources should be invested in existing schools. If  schools aren’t flourishing, parents should be encouraged to say what sort of provision they want and then existing schools can develop in different ways ( this is what has happened in Alberta where schools are diverse, non selective highly successful, collaborative and locally maintained.)

At the moment, many local parents don’t know they have a new school coming into their area, because the DFE is closely guarding the names and localities of all early expressions of interest. Over time that information will have to be made public and in a lot of areas, the battle will commence. If you have a free school coming in your area, that isn’t needed, is going to unbalance the intakes of other local schools, or that will unsettle local provision, please to let us know, we can help you campaign, and also put you in touch with other parents groups in similar situations.
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Sarah's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 20:12

Well said Fiona - and for your Guardian article too. It will be interesting to see how the government expects local authorities to continue their current statutory role for school place planning under a market system where 'parental demand' takes the place of need as the driver for the provision of school places. Local authorities are not necessarily getting to find out about free school applications in spite of what some of the proposers' websites actually claim - they have no greater right than anyone else to find out about how likely the school is to progress, essential would have thought to allow for local schools to plan their budgets and staffing levels, nor what it is costing. Gove says that ultimately local authorities will become 'commisioners' of school places rather than providers but it's far from clear how they will be able to plan strategically without any powers to close down or reorganise under-utilised provision in the way they currently can. Apparently they intend to get to school place planning once they've sorted out the 'simplified' admissions code - something which I've no doubt will lead to free schools and academies getting around the principle of fair access much more easily than they currently can.

Lucy Knight-Ballard's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 20:18

It would be nice if we could go back to using our energy to help existing schools rather than having to fight off the threats from unnecessary free schools.

It is encouraging, however, to have a site like this that provides an overview of all the campaigns that are going on and enables emerging patterns in current practice to be quickly exposed and therefore questioned.
Thanks LSN.

Ben Taylor's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 21:16

Lucy, who says a free school is "unnecessary"? As an example the WLFS has received 445 places for 120 places. Whose opinion says whether these are necessary or not? Certainly 445 parents/carers think it is potentially necessary for them and their children, so who are you or anybody else to contradict their lawful capable choices?

Sarah's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 23:29

Ben - surely the definition of 'necessary' is that it is needed rather than wanted. It's not suprising that some parents are concerned about what the state sector can offer, such is the appalling rhetoric from this government at present about the standards of state education. Parents want to do what they feel is best for their children - and if they are constantly being told that state schools are sub-standard then of course they may feel they 'need' an alternative. But the majority of parents when asked just want a good local school and surely their efforts would be better placed in trying to improve the schools that are already there rather than bleeding the less popular schools to death - what about the education of the children remaining in those schools which are suddenly losing 120 students worth of budget? How will it affect their educational chances? Not very much care seems to be given to that in all this drive for 'choice'.

Lucy Knight-Ballard's picture
Tue, 08/03/2011 - 23:41

Granted Ben, there may be evidence of need in some areas, although as Fiona quite rightly points out proof of this is not always as easy to obtain as we would all like.

My personal issue is with the Rivendale Free School in particular, for which I have yet to see any convincing proof of need, in fact the figures point to opposite. There is no need in the Addison ward for another Primary school and if the housing bill gets through there maybe even less demand for places going forward.

No one wants to see a repeat of the problems Sweden's free school system has seen with schools limping along trying to support a handful of remaining children, while state providers who were forced to lay off staff when the free schools opened, are struggling to provide places for children from closing or failing free schools.

I don't wish to contradict anybody's lawful, capable choices - I just want to ensure that our existing state schools are not undermined and that public money is not wasted in a frenzy to establish schools that may fail to attract enough pupils to make the viable in the long term.

Caroline Millar's picture
Wed, 09/03/2011 - 21:17

Can anyone tell me what proportion of the 445 applications for the 120 places were first choices? Presumably lots of people will have put more than one school on their form.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 09:15

Since this school opened its application process after the Pan London admissions closing date, it is inevitable that most of the parents will have already stated a first choice elsewhere, unless they were only applying in the private system.

Melissa Benn's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 08:57

That's a good point Caroline - and one of the many unanswered questions that are now beginning to build about the entire Free School process. It's very difficult to challenge a process that you know little about - hence the urgent need for transparency in the applications and admissions processes in relation to FS's.

I find it astonishing that even local authorities are kept unaware of bids to start up schools in their area - yet another example of central government undermining local authorities.

Fiona is right - these processes lead local oversight and co-ordination. The mix of so-called parental demand ( and some serious questions are hanging over this so called 'demand' in some areas) egged on by central government keen to undercut local authorities/local schools is toxic.

For instance,one of the first and most famous of the FS campaigns, in Kirklees, was presented almost entirely as plucky local parents fight to save local school. Little mention was made of a thorough report, undertaken by David Woods, head of the London challenge, at the request of the then Minister, which while praising the parents determination, ultimately upheld the local authority plans for schooling in the area in the interests of ALL children.

It particularly angers me when the gov/FS lobby hijack concepts 'the good local school' to undermine the real thing. THE WLFS for instance is certainly not a local school for its founder members - nor for those in its miles wide catchment. I am beginning to hear of children living near to us - I live in Brent - who are being offered places....long journeys every day in order to participate in a slightly bizarre educational experiment - and judging from Young's incredibly ill judged comments on LGBT week ( in the Spectator) - a potentially intolerant/narrow minded one as well.

Toby Young's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 11:39

The 445 applicants for places at the WLFS this year applied directly to the school, but in future parents will apply by filling in the Common Application Form and we'll be part of the Pan-London Admissions system.

One reason why we chose not to admit all the children according to straight-line distance, but to go for a combination of SLD and random allocation within a larger area, was to minimise the potentially disruptive impact of the WLFS on the neighbouring schools. We also want to make sure that well-off parents can't monopolise places at the school by moving into the immediate vicinity. I'm sorry that the Local Schools Network hasn't been more supportive of our admissions arrangements which have been drawn up in consultation with the local authority and surrounding local authorities. You can see them in full here:

As Fiona says, identifying where real need exists, as opposed to just demand, is an inexact science and it's impossible to predict with certainty what impact a new free school will have on a nearby under-subscribed school. However, one way to protect the under-subscribed school from closure would be if the free school was allowed to open on that school's site, making use of the under-utilised classrooms and other facilities, and paying its share of the fixed costs. This would also massively reduce the set-up costs of free schools, something I know the Local Schools Network is concerned about.

Site sharing would need to be carefully managed, but it's perfectly feasible. There are plenty of sites in America shared by high schools and charter schools. At present, one of the shortcomings of our system is that if the number of children at a school falls below a certain threshold that school becomes financially unviable and is forced to close, causing a huge amount of disruption to the children currently at that school and their parents. Sharing school sites could be a solution that problem.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 12:10

I do agree that we should be looking at maximising the use of existing sites rather than spending money we don't have on completely new builds elsewhere but wonder why, if a current school is undersubscribed because it is unpopular, rather than because there simply aren't enough children around ( and this is a crucial point), it wouldn't just be better to explore the reasons for that unpopularity and try and address them, even if it means a fresh start for the existing school, rather than open a new school on the same site?

Perry Manhattan's picture
Thu, 10/03/2011 - 22:45

There are many reasons why parent campaigns against free schools will grow, but I wonder how many of those parents and state education haters who currently support Toby Young's free school so vociferously on his Telegraph blog will justify their support for a man who back in 2001 boasted in a Guardian interview that he "felt like a supply teacher presiding over a group of naughty schoolchildren. I didn't help matters by dipping into the Bolivian marching powder myself"?

I wonder if they will argue that alcohol and cocaine abuse in the past is justifiable in a Chair of Govenors but membership of left wing organisations and support of LGBT acceptance is proof of a degree of moral turpitude harmful to the education of children?

Rosemary Mann's picture
Tue, 15/03/2011 - 08:34

I initially became involved in 'opposition' when I became aware of a free school campaign on a local community website. When I asked questions and expressed concern I was met with a host of indignation and outrage, mostly from people who didn't live in my area, didn;t live in London ( leafy Sussex was mentioned) and who were friends of the campaigners, all questioning my right, as a local parent of a pre schooler, to express my own opinion if it didn't accord with theirs. It has struck me how driven some of these people are, which isn;t a bad thing, but driven seemingly to the position of considering any dissent as unacceptable. It is therefore going to be difficult in many cases to get reasoned debate however its a relief that such groups will now have to present a more robust and transparent case for any funding and to progress to the next stage.

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