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.