Free schools in the rest of the country causing chaos

Fiona Millar's picture
It might be good to take the focus off London schools for a while and reflect on what is happening elsewhere in the country. At the end of last week, the Yorkshire Post contacted me about this story which suggests the rush to open free schools, before they are ready, is causing chaos in its patch.

Several free schools in the North of England have offered places, outside of the local admissions round, for schools which haven't yet signed their funding agreements ( the legal contracts necessary for them to open). One doesn't have a building, another doesn't have any staff. If they aren't open in time, children may be left without school places, and if they do open in time, children who have accepted places elsewhere may relinquish them, leaving neighbouring schools with spaces.

In her very thoughtful pamphlet 'The Six Predictable Failures of Free Schools' published last month, Laura McInerney explained why, amongst other things,  rushing these projects and not planning them in collaboration with other local provision, might end in tears. See my blog here on the book. Her predictions seem to be coming true already already.
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Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 19:00

Fiona - your scare mongering title says that free schools in the rest of the country are causing chaos.
Could you give us, say 20 or 30 examples of this if, as your title says chaos is really occurring.

Is the reality that you have only one example ?
If not name them and shame them and lets actually see if your article is based in reality.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 19:56

In Yorkshire parents have been invited to apply for schools for their children that may not even be open in September. Some don't even have teachers or buildings. Are you suggesting that is a acceptable way to run a local education system? Clearly the local executive member for schools doesn't since he has said the way the government is handling this process is 'causing chaos'. If you take time to read Laura McInerney's pamphlet you will see that she ( not an opponent of free schools) recommends a minimum of 12 months between application approval and opening. In areas where these policies have been experimented with before, unseemly haste has not led to the best outcomes for the children these schools are meant to serve.

PlaceFarm's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 19:56

Well Andy, here in Suffolk the mere threat of Free Schools is causing chaos. We've been involved in a difficult, important and large scale reorganisation to close middle schools and move to a 2-tier system. Almost all of the county is well on the way, but where I am the withdrawal of funding has delayed the process. And now every middle school that would have closed is threatening to reopen as an 11-16 free school (as is happening in Clare, where the middle school is becoming a free school in September with the assistance of £5m that would be better spent improving existing provision). We already have thousands of spare places in Suffolk, but there are now at least 5 free school proposals. It is causing chaos. We cannot plan and relationships between schools are breaking under the strain.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 21:06

Andy -

With apologies for a (brief) re-focus back on London - and to give illustration that free schools are really causing chaos, I have reproduced here the text from another post on this site showing how the Westminster Adult Education Services are being evicted from the main premises to make room for a Free School. A couple of examples of this trend is deeply worrying. 20 to 30 would be catastrophic and let's hope it really doesn't get to that number Smithers!

"Sadly, more evidence here that the Tories disregard the needs of the majority to pander to the vanity of the few. Adult education is next to be targeted.

The Westminster Adult Education Service (WAES), the largest local authority provider of adult education in London and one of the largest nationally, providing Adult Education services for 12,000 people, will be left homeless as Westminster Council, having failed to build a new home for WAES, has now handed over it’s main premises in Amberley Road, Paddington to a new ARK-run primary school.

According to ARK, this small primary school is being set up as a Free School, with temporary premises in Queen Park and will re-locate to Amberley Road in 2013. However, the Council report states that it is important for WAES to be re-housed in time for September 2011.

It seems that Westminster City council failed to find a new home for WAES after Council delays and Tory in-fighting led to the collapse of plans to build a new home in 2008. To add insult to injury, WAES have also been told that Westminster Council will charge them a market rent for Council buildings occupied, which would mean that WAES would be unable to maintain its current operation.

The WAES is one of the most diverse and dynamic communities in Britain. Their board of governors includes student representatives, elected members of the city council and members from the community and local organisations. They have strong roots in the community, running courses where they are needed through partnerships with the local authority and other community and education bodies.

This government’s educational policy is not just chaotic and shambolic. It is deliberately divisive and discriminatory and will ignore the educational needs of a vast number of children and adults. And at what cost to society?"

Andy Smithers's picture
Wed, 06/04/2011 - 22:18

Fiona - read your own headline. You are a jounalist. Give me the examples from all over the country that back up your claim.

Chaos all over the country. what do you mean by that?

To back it up with evidence give me 20 or 30 examples. Simple. Do not give one.

There is no editor here but in the National Press would they let you get away with such a headline without the evidence.

Come on prove me wrong!

H & F Parent's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 07:30

Andy - Fiona doesn't say "all over the country". She says "elsewhere."

Matthew McGee's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 16:01

Andy - you clearly didn't read Fiona's post closely enough. She didn't give one example, she states that 'several' free schools have offered places before they have legally come into existence, and further states that one does not yet have premises, and another has yet to employ staff. Even in the national press, she would not be required to provide more than 20 examples to back up her story. As others have pointed out, some free schools, in areas outside London, are causing chaos to local admissions systems. You might also want to answer Fiona's question - is inviting children to apply to schools which have yet to exist an acceptable way to run an education system?

Andy Smithers's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 18:25

This headline is a clear attempt at scare mongering.

Fiona highlighted the article she points to in a post last week.

Ditto the previous post on Laura's pamphlet.

Repeating them as one post does not add up to "Free Schools in the rest of the country causing chaos" does it.

It is both lazy and inaccurate and serves no purpose.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 18:30

Andy – there are many posts on the Local Schools Network from people who are confused about the chaotic way free schools are being set up and questioning how efficient they will be run. This isn’t scare-mongering. It is a genuine concern.

The haphazard way in which free schools are being set up are causing chaos in other ways too. Pllease read the example, given above, of the Westminster Adult Education Service being made homeless to provide a new site and buildings paid for by the DfE.

Despite devastating cuts to the Education budget, Schools Minister, Nick Gibb declared on 21 March that £35 million has been allocated to Free Schools this year. This is not happy news for those who have commented on this site that, whilst this cash has been made available for free schools, their existing schools face closure, job cuts, that premises will become run down, that they worry about how this will impact on the education of children.

A quick click on the internet throws up the chaos that this unfair division of the budget is causing:-

•In Surrey, 9 schools make job cuts to avoid plunging into the red.
•In Salford, 3 schools struggle with deficits of more than £1m.
•In Nottinghamshire, a headteacher breathes a huge sigh of relief as his school escapes closure by the skin of its teeth. By the time the county council approved a business plan drawn up as a last-ditch attempt to avoid closure, the school's deficit had reached £1.16m.
•There are signs that schools may be forced to step in to fill gaps left by cuts in local authority services such as libraries and transport.
•In Hertfordshire, a row has broken out after the council suggested schools might use the pupil premium to pay the school bus fares of pupils from poorer families.
•In another school, it’s timber-framed 1950s main block is rotting away, and its peeling paint, exposed pipework and general air of flat-roofed jerry-building shout of neglect and decline.
•In Surrey, 9 schools and three children's centres are cutting jobs
•In Rotherham school staff have been told they face a 5% cut in pay.

Earlier this year, the government quietly published figures showing the financial position of every school in the country – revealing that for some, the situation was already dire. There are 8 schools in the country with seven-figure deficits. All the signs are that many other schools will find themselves facing similar dilemmas.

I am not going to count if these examples number 30 to 40. If they do then it really is shocking.

Tracy Hannigan's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 19:13

It happened here with Rivendale Free School. Enrolments were being solicited even after they were defeated in their first proposed location, mere months before having to open (nevermind consult again, get a building, do a business case....)....even when the DfE rep said they should not be doing so as there was no school.

Laura McInerney's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 19:24

Fiona, I'm really glad that you enjoyed the book and found it useful. It is a shame that even a few schools are acting in this way although - as the book says - it was only to be expected. This happened again and again when Charter Schools began in the US.

Andy - let's hope it doesn't get to 20/30 examples.

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 19:41

There's a very interesting leader on Cameron in the Telegraph today in which Benedict Brogan, who knows what's going on behind closed doors with this government, talks about the shambles that's engulfing it ( He writes:
"...those familiar with the workings of Whitehall will tell you that, behind the scenes, the machinery of government is seizing up. For example, have you tried emailing or writing to a minister recently? Don’t bother. Government correspondence is in chaos. Some departments, such as education, appear to be on the verge of giving up trying to answer letters. Some ministers are refusing to sign correspondence put before them by officials because the content is frankly illiterate. Recently, an exasperated former minister turned up at the reception desk of a major department and demanded to see a minister’s private secretary after five emails went unacknowledged."

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 07/04/2011 - 21:29

Francis - The DfE are reasonably quick off the mark when it comes to answering letters if they don't want to hand over awkward documents, such as funding agreements for free schools.

The information is withheld, as has been explained elsewhere on this site, under Section 22 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000
("the Act") and I do hope that someone will find the resources to mount a legal challenge.

The letter ends with :

"It is not reasonable for the Government to be expected to release piecemeal information in advance of its planned timetable and planned
publication of Funding Agreements, and there is a strong argument in favour of allowing everyone to view this information at the same
time. If it were to release this information as requested on varying occasions this would result in partial information being released over
a protracted period leading to confusion and inaccuracy."

Surely departments have to be in some kind of meltdown to issue this sort of nonsense.? The funding for WLFS has been agreed. The department therefore won't have to release this information "piecemeal", they can release it once, in one go, on one site (perhaps their own website?), where everyone can read it.

That way there would be no danger of "confusion and inaccuracy" but instead "clarity and disclosure". Surely this is reasonable and in the public interest?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 08/04/2011 - 12:40

It took me several reminders and a visit to my MP to get an eventual reply from the DfE justifying its use of the OECD 2000 data (I'm not convinced - more later). I'm still waiting for replies to the following requests:

1 To the MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham to apologise for misleading the House when he said that the achievement of UK school children was "worse than Slovenia" (it wasn't).

2 To Nick Gibb requesting that he answer a question by Baroness Morgan about why the positive TIMSS results had been "airbrushed out of the PM's introduction [to the White Paper]".

3 To Mr Gove asking why a local school feels it is so poorly funded that it has no choice but to convert to an academy. Is the extra money on offer a bribe? Will schools who do not convert be financially disadvantaged?

4 To Mr Gove asking why he had chosen highly visible innovations over measured reforms (as in Finland), and why he does not publicise the evolution value of +2 awarded by the OECD to the UK in 2009 or Sweden's negative evolution value of -8, also published in 2009.

And then there's my Freedom of Information request re the Free Schools Conference which the DfE claims it never received.

And that's only the letters to the DfE!

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