Free school subverts planning

David Cheshire's picture
According to local media, Swanage applied to set up a free school (not sure of its progress) because falling numbers lead Dorset LA to close its secondary. How can this be cost effective? Their feelings are understandable but then my own Dorset town, Verwood, would also like its own secondary, but to sidestep by setting up a free school would inevitably mean greater costs per pupil and an unfair subsidy, in effect robbing other schools.
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Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 26/06/2011 - 15:43

According to the school's website they are asking for "declarations of interest" which will be used as evidence of demand. So even if you are merely interested in what's going on and don't necessarily want to send a child there, signing up for information will be classed as evidence of demand to be submitted to the DfE. The school's proposers say they have already found a site (a former grammar school) and Partnership for Schools (PfS) have sent a surveyor. The proposers describe PfS as the "funding arm of the DfE."

This appears to be another example of DfE finding money for someone's pet project, whether there's any real demand or not while there are existing schools which are unfit for use. For example, on a televised debate from Westminster Hall this morning (Sunday 26 June), three Coventry MPs were complaining that two crumbling primary schools were in urgent need of rebuilding. The answer was that capital building funding needed cutting back to reduce "sovereign debt" and local authorities had been given money (less than before) and could decide how to spend it.

Yet money is being thrown at free schools, the academization programme and University Technical Colleges.

Paul Angel's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 09:13

I'm a member of Education Swanage who are proposing the Free School. The proposal is for a comprehensive, fully inclusive school run as a co-operative trust to ensure local accountability.

The school that is being closed by the LA is Swanage Middle, which is not being closed because of falling numbers in Swanage (figures here are steady and currently rising), but because of falling numbers elsewhere in the district. We formed as a group to try to persuade the LA to give Swanage parents a choice, but the LA decided not to consult parents on secondary provision at all during the reorganisation to two-tier across Purbeck. Swanage will, unless we get the go-ahead, be the only town in Dorset without any secondary provision, which our research has shown will lead to a reduction in numbers of young families, and logically that will mean the closure of at least one of the 4 First/Primary schools within a matter of years.

It's interesting that you mention Verwood, as this is the only other Dorset town without full secondary provision, but is slightly different as it's both a new town and is within 5 miles of two secondary schools, in Ferndown and Ringwood. It may be that a secondary school can be justified there when DCC get round to 'rationalising' the three tier system in East Dorset, but that may now take them longer than they'd planned anyway.

As an apolitical group of teachers, parents, governors and community activists we are committed to community based comprehensive schooling serving a local catchment, but we find ourselves in a situation where a free school is the only way to keep the town thriving and sustainable, something which the LA told us was 'not in their remit'.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 11:47

Local authorities (LAs) are in an impossible situation. Even when local authorities perceive a need for a new school to cope with rising numbers, they can no longer provide the school themselves because Mr Gove has said that all new schools must be free schools or academies. Neither of these are under the control of LAs. Nevertheless, if there is a real need for places then the LA must search around for either a group willing to set up a free school or an organisation, possibly an academy chain, to set up an academy. Both of these types of school can set their own admission criteria which are supposed to be fair but will be outside the control of the LA who procured them.

Paul Angel's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 13:40

LA's are in an impossible situation, it's true. It isn't a position I'd wish on them, but in Swanage we've been badly served by our LA for many years, and as a result we don't have a local school at all (unless 'next town along' counts as 'local'). As a proposer group we've chosen to go down the co-operative trust route (rather than an academy chain) and our admissions policy is the same as that of the LA. If you read the free school application guide it shows that in fact admissions policies have to be more open and fair than many existing LA schools, but I'm not sure how it works for mainstream academies. I know there are a couple of first-round free schools that are apparantly behaving very badly in terms of admissions, and if what the media are reporting is true it is shameful behaviour and sets all of us in a bad light.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 27/06/2011 - 17:03

I can't comment on Swanage or the Dorset local authority since I don't live there. It would appear from what you say that there is a need for a secondary school in Swanage, and this can now only be provided by either a free school or an academy. Your co-operative trust route sounds as if it's an improvement on some of the "first-round free schools" whose admissions criteria has been criticised on this site. The "human scale" emphasis of your curriculum also appeared wider than some of the narrow, academic models offered by some free schools.

However, the "expression of interest" form can't necessarily be used as evidence of demand because someone could be interested without wanting to send a child to the school. And one of the problems with the free school policy has been lack of transparency over demand, consultation and funding. However, if there is a real need for secondary school places in Swanage (and I can't comment one way or another), your free school is probably a better option than an academy chain.

Paul Angel's picture
Tue, 28/06/2011 - 10:44

Free school proposers are required to collect expressions of interest as an indication that parents would choose the proposed school as one of their options (so it could be the 1st, 2nd or 3rd option). The reason for this, I think, is that parents can't be asked to commit absolutely to a school that hasn't yet had approval, and we certainly can't be guaranteeing places to anyone who signs up regardless of whether they meet the admissions guidelines (so in our case that would be largely based on closeness to home).

DfE ask to see postcodes and age groups of children to show that you have expressions from at least 50% of your school's PAN for the first 2 years of operation. So anybody filling this in is saying that they would have the proposed school as one of their options, and places are then allocated in the same way as they would be in any other Dorset school.

We have an alternative mailing list for parents who just want information, and we held meetings for all parents from all the local feeder schools and a lot of interest forms were filled in at those. I think in a process like this we have to trust parents to be honest in their intentions, but also to accept that some will change their minds (whether they were initially 'for' or 'against').

You are right to say that there has been a lack of transparency nationally with regard to consultation and funding, and it's only in taking part in the process that things become clearer - for example the consultation process is not defined for us but we are required to demonstrate that it will be thorough and that we will amend plans according to feedback. The DfE do need to clarify these issues across the board as it does make it easier for those opposing free school proposals like ours (for whatever reason) to make a case against them.

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