Can the claims of free school advocates be trusted?

Henry Stewart's picture
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.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 12:39

All Saints’ Junior School, Reading, a CfBT Schools Trust school, said in its proposal to become a free school: “We expect the school to open to its first cohort of up to 25 Year 3 students in September 2011.”

It opened with just 16 housed temporarily in a church hall.

In order to be accepted as a free school, the proposers had to show evidence of demand. But whatever evidence was shown doesn’t seem to have come to fruition. The school’s business case was approved on 31 March 2011. On 20 May the school newsletter said that there were only 14 pupils signed up and a newsletter dated a week later announced a public-relations exercise “to raise awareness and help get a few more pupils.” This ten-week campaign only resulted in two extra pupils.

The proposal was for a 120 pupil school, but if the number of children entering per year is only 16 (9 less than intended) then the school will have about 50 empty places when there are children in each year group.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 13:54

Much of the hype around free schools has been the possibility of parents setting up and running their own schools. But this is what the chief executive of CfBT (the trust behind All Saints’ Junior School, Reading, and the possible take-over of many of Lincolnshire’s schools), Neil Mcintosh, told the BBC in August 2010 when the ink on the Academies Bill was still wet: "From time to time, parents' groups will get very closely involved [in running schools] but it's not necessarily going to be the best model". Mr Mcintosh said “the private contractors interested in running free schools would be very big players indeed,” and added that firms such as “Pearson, Serco, Tribal and Nord Anglia” were keen to get involved with free school proposers.

The BBC article also said that the chief executive of Gems, Zenna Atkins, ex-chair of Ofsted, was ‘already working with groups on setting up free schools and academies.’ Zenna Atkins is on record as saying that profit-making should be allowed in the state sector.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 14:03

And there’s also the much-touted promise that free schools (and academies) will not be allowed to make a profit. The New Schools Network collaborated with Policy Exchange to produce a report about academies before the Coalition came to power. The report said this about profit-making:

“At present academy sponsors are barred from making a profit. There is no legislative reason why profit should not be allowed (these schools are simply classified as independent schools). When Tony Blair introduced academies, officials and the most radical ministers (including Lord Adonis and John Hutton) knew that allowing profit would provide a significant boost to the market, but considered the politics unworkable. There is no doubt that the politics are not easy. However, if we seek a large number of chains to drive expansion in the schools sector then this is one nettle that will need to be grasped – at least by allowing management fees between schools and private companies.”

The New Schools Network, then, has promoted profit-making in state schools, whereby money from the education budget which should be spent for the benefit of pupils ends up with share holders. This brings into question the real motive behind the New Schools Network's desire to oversee the dismantling of the state education system.

Howard's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 17:41

"The consultation was not perfect. I would criticise it for only giving two options: academy or free school."
As I understand it, these are the only two options available to a local authority under the Education Bill if it wants a new school opened in its area . Including a third option, eg a new LA maintained school, is not possible - therefore, why include it in the consultation!

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 17:51

Howard -

Interesting point but am I right in thinking that the Education Bill has yet to be passed? If not, it seems as if the local authority has jumped the gun and left itself open to a legal challenge. Until the Bill is passed, LAs and the DfE don't have the right to behave as if LA maintained community schools don't exist.

Howard's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 18:09

Developing the proposals for the new school will take time, so by the time Hackney approaches the DfE for the capital funding it will need to deliver the new school, the Bill will be on the statute books. Even if it weren't, how likely is it that the DfE, under the present Secretary of State, would release capital funding for a new LA-maintained community school? The Hackney consultation simply reflects the reality now - it's a new academy/free school or no school.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 18:45

A number of legal challenges, arguing procedural irregularities, are going through the judicial system so there is clearly a case for judicial review in this case too.

Another interesting fact about the Hackney consultation is that a significant number of Hackney residents expressed dismay at the fact that a third option of an LA maintained school was not an option as this was the sort of secondary school they would have liked. The Hackney LA has been lauded for the way it transformed education in the borough but not enough recognition has been given to its efforts across the board - Hackney has many excellent schools now, Mossbourne being the most famous, thanks in part to it's successful results but also to it having become a willing participant in hyping up the government's new schools policies.

A few months ago, a meeting was held in South Hackney to discuss the consultation. The majority of parents at that meeting said the area needed a new secondary school and that the school ought to be an LA maintained one. The idea of a co-operative school stewarded by the LA was mooted but this was rejected as parents feared that upsetting the government, who were steamrolling through Academies and Free Schools as the only option, might leave them without a school altogether.

This is not the "choice" that central government is pretending to give us. As you say, the reality is likely to be Academies or Free Schools, enforced whether communities want them or not. It seems to me that the work of the partial New Schools Network is to coat a bitter pill with sugar, by using any means at its disposal - even distorting or making up facts - to advance the government's intentions under the guise of free choice or parental demand. As Henry has shown in his post, the boasts of the NSN and by extension the government, are not to be trusted. I suspect the cracks in their policies will multiply and widen. By then, no amount of papering by the NSN will conceal the flaws from the public, especially if it is continues to be, at best, economical with the truth.

Howard's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 19:14

Other than your statement that there is a clear case for judicial review in this case, I agree with what you say here.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 19/09/2011 - 20:59

The Bill may not become law until Christmas. Until that time the existing legislation is in place. This requires a competition between different providers to provide what can either be an academy or a maintained trust, foundation or VA school, unless there is a 'preferred sponsor' chosen by the LA. Local authorities can still bid to run community schools in exceptional circumstances. However this consultation is jumping the gun in giving parents a simple choice of an academy or free school.

Jake's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 11:42

Come on Henry, isn't this all a bit of a stretch on your part? By his own admission your very own Francis Gilbert made a somewhat inaccurate sweeping statement on the same TV prog about creationist and faith based schools. By your own logic does this mean that there is nothing that can be trusted on this site? You can't have it both ways can you!

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 13:46

A recent YouGov poll showed that the free school policy doesn't have as much support as the government claims. Only 51% of Conservative voters who took part in the poll said they supported the policy. Perhaps these Tories are a bit uneasy about the hype and spin surrounding free schools.

Jake's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 14:10

So let me get this straight - the majority of Tory voters polled support free schools but a majority of Labour voters polled oppose them. Who would have thought? I can see a Pulitzer winging its way to you Janet as I type.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 14:35

And then there’s the false description of community schools on the New Schools Network (NSN) website which claims to show the differences between academies and free schools (listed first) and community schools. NSN says that “Community schools [are] run entirely by the Local Authority… [who] employs the staff, owns the land and buildings and determines the admissions arrangements.”

The last two are true, but the first is wrong. Community schools are not run “entirely” by LAs. LA involvement is limited to administrative functions (eg pay roll) and admissions. Heads and governing bodies have considerable leeway to run schools as they wish. In theory, LAs do employ the staff, but in practice they take no part in recruiting them. This is the responsibility of the school’s governing body.

Just another example of misleading the public.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 15:05

The implications of the YouGov poll (see my post above) are not good news to the government. The poll asked the question: “Do you support of oppose the creation of “Free Schools”? 51% of the respondents who indicated they would vote for the Conservatives said they supported free schools. Of the remaining Conservative voters, 23% of these Conservatives said they opposed the creation of free schools, and 26% of the Conservative voters were unsure.

The free schools programme is a flagship government policy. It has been accompanied by much fanfare. But despite the avalanche of publicity, the ministerial statements, the TV appearances, the unsubstantiated data about demand for free schools, and hundreds of newspaper articles, there are nearly a quarter of Conservative voters who oppose, actually oppose, the creation of free schools. And the rest are unsure. It’s hardly a ringing endorsement if only 51% of Conservative voters categorically back one of the most hyped government policies.

Jake's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 18:42

Come off it Janet, this is all pretty thin stuff. Slow news day?

Howard's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 19:49

Fiona (in response to your e-mail below)
"this consultation is jumping the gun in giving parents a simple choice of an academy or free school."
No, it's simply recognising the realities of the situation. Given the amount of work needed to develop further the proposal for a new school after the end of the consultation, it's unlikely that Hackney would be ready to approach the DfE with its proposal before Christmas, so it would have to go forward under the new legislative regime. However, even if it did proceed under the existing legislation, under this the establishment of a new maintained school is heavily dependent upon securing the Sec of State's agreement, and how likely is he to give this? Hackney are also recognising the fact that the DFE has earmarked a lot of its reduced capital funding for academies and free schools, so it stands a better chance of getting funding for the badly-needed new school if it plays the Sec of State's game.

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 20:13

I'm glad we agree. However, until new legislation has been passed, the present legislation remains in force so the authority has jumped the gun. The practical considerations of forward planning for a likely eventuality has no bearing on proper legal formalities, so from a legal point of view there most certainly is a case that can - and perhaps ought to - be heard in the High Court. Pedantic as this might sound, the rushing through of policies before proper consultation and with scant regard for the law has been a feature of Gove's regime at the DfE. He has been criticised already by one judge for abuse of power when he abolished BSF

Fiona Millar's picture
Tue, 20/09/2011 - 21:15

THat may be the political reality but the fact remains that any consultation before the Bill becomes law should not rule out the other options.

Henry Stewart's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 07:36

Jake, no not a stretch. Francis apparently made a slip in a live discussion and came to this site to make that clear afterwards. Rachel's error - as the article states - was made not in that debate but in a carefully considered written contribution. And, though I have contacted her several times, she has chosen not to acknowledge her mistake or retract her statement.

The claims for parental support for free schools are at the core of the work of the New Schools Network. Without that support there is little case for free schools at all. That a claim could be so totally wrong, and have no real substance at all, raises questions about all the claims made by NSN.

Jake's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 08:39

You are boxing shadows here - its a non-story. If this is what you are reduced to posting, then those of us who support change, improving standards and choice in the education sector have little to worry about. Cant you find anything more substantive to write about?

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 12:27

It seems that ministerial statements about the New Schools Network and “expressions of interest” contradict each other. And the NSN contradicts the official DfE line.

Mr Gove told the House of Commons (21 June 2010): “More than 700 expressions of interest in opening new free schools have been received by the charitable group the New Schools Network”

But Nick Gibb told the House (14 October 2010): “New Schools Network (NSN) does not receive expressions of interest. People can, however, enter their details on NSN's website for further information on free schools.”

Mr Gibb’s statement is accurate in so far as he quotes the DfE line. A response to a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in July 2010 said that the NSN didn’t receive expressions of interest but allowed interested parties to request information. These requests, the DfE said, would not necessarily lead to firm proposals.

But the DfE line is contradicted in an interview with Rachel Wolf (9 September 2011): “And the New Schools Network (NSN) has been charged with handling expressions of interest from groups wanting to establish schools, guiding them through the bureaucratic process to the point where they are in a position to have a school approved by the government.”

Mr Gove implied that the "expressions of interest" were from groups keen to open free schools. Yet he, Mr Gibb, the DfE and the NSN can't even agree on what "expressions of interest" are and whether NSN can receive them or not.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 12:38

Janet -

If Gove's people hadn't sent work emails to each other's private accounts, they might not have got so confused. No wonder Mrs. Blurt went ‘AAAAAARGGGGGHHHH!!!!!!’.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 16:44

Here's Mr Gove on 1 September increasing the number of free schools in disadvantaged areas: "It’s why we’ve established 24 free schools – overwhelmingly in areas of educational need – with the longer school days, demanding curricula and brilliant leadership our toughest areas need."

Clever use of words here: "areas of educational need" implies disadvantaged areas, but Mr Gove actually means "areas where free school proposers said there was an educational need". And then there's the link with "toughest areas". I don't think many of the 24 new free schools can be described as being in the "toughest areas".

Howard's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 19:47

I'm sorry, Fiona and Allan, but I think you've misunderstood the relevant sections (7 to 9) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006. There is no compulsion on an LEA to consider the community school option if it wants to open a new school. Under these sections, if an LEA wants to open a new foundation or voluntary school or an academy, then it may invite proposals from providers other than LEAs. If it wants to open a new community school, then it will require the Secretary of State's approval. However, before progressing either of these options, it must consult on its proposed option - and this is what Hackney has done. It has followed the legal niceties. It has identified its preferred option (academy or free school, which is an academy by any other name) and has consulted on this. If you can point me to the legislation which you think requires an LEA to undertake an earlier round of consultation, about the choice of options itself, I'd be grateful.

Fiona Millar's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 20:57

At the moment LAs are required to have a competition unless they go down the preferred sponsor route which is the only way of guaranteeing an academy outcome. I don't think anyone is saying that there is a compulsion on an LA to consider a community school. It is well known that the last Labour government made this option virtually impossible. The competition however is open to other providers/proposals from the maintained sector.
In this consultation Hackney has shut down any other options from the outset. This could be challenged because, given the law as it stands, local families have not been given the choice of a competition, not has Hackney stated that it has a preferred sponsor
It is conceivable that a competition, giving those parents and children a much wider choice, could possibly have been underway before the Education Bill becomes law if this had been handled properly.

Howard's picture
Wed, 21/09/2011 - 21:38

I'm sorry but local families have not been denied the choice of competition, as you put it. The competition referred to in the Act is competition over the choice of provider, not over the type of school. Hackney has complied with the law even though it has narrowed down the options to the only two that were likely to attract the necessary DfE funding before going out to consultation, as the competition will be over who provides the new academy or free school.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 22/09/2011 - 07:59

Here is further evidence that NSN is predisposed to profit-making schools. A link to a City A.M article is on its website. It is written by Anthony Browne, the former director of Policy Exchange and the Mayor of London's advisor on economic development, and contains this:

“Which leaves the question of the profit motive. More important than education is water, food, shelter and health – and water companies, food companies, housing companies and drugs companies all make profits. There is a lot of evidence that the profit motive, in education and elsewhere, raises standards, increases supply, and spreads best practice.”

Mr Browne seems to have missed energy companies from his list which isn’t surprising given the furore over energy prices. He also seems unaware of the request by Consumer Focus for more consumer representation in the regulated industries (eg energy, water, rail, communications). And he uses the vague phrase “a lot of evidence”, without saying exactly what it is. We know what OECD says: the evidence concerning the link between user choice and educational outcomes is mixed.

Mr Browne asks, “Isn’t banning free schools from making profits putting ideology above the interests of children?”

I would put the question the other way round, “Would profit-making companies put profit before the interests of children.” Perhaps the parents at the Southbank International School run by Cognita could answer that one.

Fiona Millar's picture
Thu, 22/09/2011 - 16:26

But parents should still be given the option of a maintained school and a competition would have allowed providers to put in a bid for a foundation or trust school. That has been ruled out before the Bill is law. Incidentally this is not my interpretation but that of David Wolfe at Matrix Chambers who was asked to advise on this

Howard's picture
Thu, 22/09/2011 - 18:04

Thanks for this, but I'd be interested to know under what section of what Act David Wolfe thought that parents should have been given the option of a maintained school.

Caroline Millar's picture
Sat, 24/09/2011 - 14:17

It's not a non story to say that Rachel Wolf who runs a unit which is well-funded by government and has considerable influence made a statement which was seriously inaccurate and misleading and not supported by any evidence whatsoever and that she will not withdraw it. The message we are getting from Michael Gove is that parents are gasping in their thousands to set up new free schools. He was saying this within weeks of coming into power when he had no evidence to support his claim, he continued to say it when an underwhelming small number of parents came forward to set up new free schools last autumn and he, and Ms Wolf are still saying it when there is no evidence to support it. The video on the Hackney free school initiative website is laughable as all it does is show that some people in Hackney would like a new school. The vox pops clearly have been given no indication of what a Free School actually is and even the woman trying to sell the concept does not seem to have a clue. Pretty much like most of the country I imagine.

Fiona Millar's picture
Sun, 25/09/2011 - 13:54

I think you are getting a bit too hung up on the Act. This is an issue about public consultation. The public have a right to be offered the full range of options, which currently still includes maintained schools. When they are not, the consultation can, should ( and has in the past) been successfully challenged.

Howard's picture
Sun, 25/09/2011 - 16:28

It might seem pedantic to harp on about the legal niceties but then again, I'm not the one stating that Hackney's failure to include a maintained school option in its consultation is clearly open to judicial review. A judicial review will ony succeed if it can be shown that the consultation did not comply with the relevant legislation or follow the proper legal procedures. My contention, having read relevant legislation, is that Hackney have followed the law. You and I might have preferred it if people had been offered the maintained school option, and I'm sure Hackney itself would have preferred this as well, but it was not legally bound to. It only offered those options which realistically stood a chance of gaining DfE / Sec of State acceptance. My objection all along has been over the criticisms which Hackney has been receiving over this. If you're unhappy with the consultation, the blame rests with the DfE / Sec of State, not Hackney, as it is the DfE / Sec of State which sets the rules of the game. It's like blaming councils for the cuts they're making, when central government has slashed grant funding and prevented councils raising council tax.

Fiona Millar's picture
Mon, 26/09/2011 - 09:19

I have double checked with David and there is still a requirement to have a competition according to the 2006 ACT . Any provider can submit a bid, including foundation VA or trust schools. This option should have been put before parents.

Mum's picture
Thu, 09/05/2013 - 11:12

Outstanding Primary School in Stoke-On-Trent
Converting to Charitable Trust Academy with no relevant information been given
Governing Body now unrecognisable
Petition from parents not considered
Parents refused information on who Trust will be
Local MPs Councillors claim either powerless or still running the school
Parents are!

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