Whenever there is a story about plans for a free school, the advocates talk of the huge support from local parents. Normally I have no idea whether this is the case but I was surprised to see Rachel Wolf (Chief Executive of the New Schools Network) make this claim in her debate with LSN’s Melissa Benn (Prospect magazine, Sept 2011):
“Take the thousands of parents who signed a petition in Hackney, asking a superb school in a disadvantaged area – Mossbourne – to set up a new Free School. It should open next year”
I have been a Chair of Governors in Hackney for over ten years now and like to feel I know the local education scene pretty well. I was sure that, if thousands of parents had been signing a petition for a Hackney free school, I would have heard something about it. I checked with the Learning Trust, who run Hackney’s education, and they also knew nothing of it.
So is there any basis to Rachel Wolf’s claim? Does a petition exist with thousands of Hackney signatures calling for a free school? Is there any prospect of a free school opening here? Or was her statement based on invention rather than fact?
Sir Michael Wilshaw, headteacher of Mossbourne, had earlier this year stated his intention to establish a free school in Hackney. However, after this option was comprehensively rejected in a consultation with parents, both Sir Michael and the governors of Mossbourne have made clear they no longer have plans to set up a free school. (It was never planned to open next year, as Rachel claimed, but instead in 2014 or 2015.)
There was a petition in Hackney for a free school last year, but this was for a primary school. And it was deeply flawed: No addresses were collected so we don’t know if the signatories were from Hackney or not. And it is clear from the campaign’s own video
that many people signed because they thought a free school was definitely better than one you had to pay for. This is very different to active support for the Michael Gove/Rachel Wolf vision of schools free from local authority involvement.
A new secondary is planned in Hackney and a consultation of local parents has just been completed. Of 208 responses, only 22 (just 11%) voted for a free school, and many of these made clear it was not due to support for the principle of free schools but because they felt it would be more likely to get funding from the government.
The consultation was not perfect. I would criticise it for only giving two options: academy or free school. Rachel Wolf feels that it was not made clear that the free school option was associated with Mossbourne. However if thousands of parents were actively campaigning for a free school in Hackney, surely the free school option would have got more than 22 votes? The option of a community school, which wasn’t listed and had to be written in, got almost twice as much support.
I have asked Rachel Wolf, in an email exchange, where the petition is and if she can substantiate the claim of thousands of signatories. She was unable to give any details, or any contact who knew of it, claiming only “I was informed of the petition and its numbers by one of its organisers”.
This is simply not good enough. Whatever your side of the argument, you need to be able to back up your claims. My response to any claim is normally to ask for the evidence and I always try and give clear sources when using data. To make a claim based on a supposed telephone conversation with somebody that she cannot identify is simply not acceptable from somebody in an important government-funded position, having significant impact on government policy.
Mossbourne did earlier this year submit an expression of interest in creating a free school, to the DfE. For this they needed evidence of need and they used the fact that they received massively more applications than they have places. They have told LSN that they also, when parents came in for their appeal for a place, gave each a card to express support for another Mossbourne-type school. The school estimates between 200 and 300 were filled in.
It is clear that there is no petition and never was. There never was a plan to open a free school next year in Hackney and, at the time of publication, plans for one in the future had already been dropped. Up to 300 parents made clear they felt a new Mossbourne-like secondary school was needed in Hackney. This is very different from thousands of parents calling for a free school to be established. That is four significant inaccuracies in the claims made in a single sentence.
This must cast doubt on the claims made generally by the New Schools Network. Is there any basis for their claims of parents across the country wanting to set up their own new schools? It is certainly not the case in Hackney. There is no evidence of any parents wanting to establish their own secondary school, only of concerns over lack of places in some parts of the borough and of the desire for the existing provision from successful and highly-regarded local schools to be expanded.
I would ask journalists and politicians to show caution when they hear claims like this, especially when they come from the New Schools Network. If told there is massive support for a free school, ask for the evidence. Check if the claimed petition or signatures exist. Check if the support is for a free school, or just an understandable desire to have a new school in the area. The important education decisions to be made over the next few years should be based on fact and not on the wishful thinking of the advocates of new and untested approaches.