An update is due on the progress of the Bedford and Kempston Free School.
The project arose from the activities of Mark Lehain, a local teacher who came to national attention by appearing on the platform of the Tory party in 2009 conference to extol the virtues of the free school concept. This was followed by interviews on Newsnight and Today.
The school was intended to open in September 2011, but partly due to the difficulties in finding a site, opening was postponed until 2012.
It is worth noting that the business case makes much of the fact that the main upper school serving this area of Bedford, whose intake and therefore curriculum would be the most compromised by the establishment of the Free School, scored, on 2010 figures, only 33% achieving 5+ A*-C including English and Maths. However, provisional figures for 2011 indicate 49%, a gain of almost 50% over last year – the most improved performance in the Borough.
Furthermore, the intention to open an 11-16 school in an area where existing arrangements comprise a 3-tier model with schools catering for 9-13 and 13-18 threatens to destabilise both middle and upper schools. On the other hand, Bedford College, sponsors and project managers for the establishment of the Free School, stand to gain in terms of post-16 recruitment.
In spite of Nick Clegg’s assurance that ‘after the first round’, no further free schools would be approved unless there was a demonstrable need for additional school places (which is not the case either in Kempston, the proposed location of the school, or in Bedford Borough as a whole), the project appears to be proceeding, to the point where advertisements have appeared for a principal designate.
These adverts were themselves curious, in that a full page was taken in the local newspaper, the Beds on Sunday, on 25th September (though what proportion of the potential applicants this was expected to reach is not clear) and the Cambridge News on 26th, with a closing date of 7th October, but not until Friday 30th in the TES, with a closing date shifted to 14th October.
It was no secret from the start that Mark Lehain, the prime mover of the project, was determined to become its principal. He said he would be ‘gutted’ if he didn’t. I asked him at one of his public presentations whether, should he apply for the headship, there would be anybody on the selection panel who would not be known to him personally. He replied that this would be stringently monitored by officials at DfE. Another member of the audience asked him, if he was so determined to be a head, why he had not gone through the training and assessment for the appropriate national qualification, NPQH. He said, in effect, he thought it was unnecessary and a waste of time.
Critics of the proposal organised a public debate, in January 2011. I gave one of the platform speeches, of which the bit that was picked up by the media was:
'So what do we have here? Do we have a community crying out for a new school, or a new school crying out for a community? Is the project really driven by community needs, or by, generously, idealism, or, more sceptically, by ideology, ambition or commercial opportunism?'
The prospectus for applicants, available on their website, contains the statement:
'The size and scale of the school is such that, in comparison with neighbouring schools, it will have a smaller management team and will not be able to afford a Principal at salaries paid by those larger schools.
'To mitigate that risk the Trust expects to appoint for the first few years an experience (sic) Head/mentor for the Principal as it is likely any Principal appointed will be in their first Principal position.'
The accompanying Person Specification, under Qualifications/Training, lists as Essential, ‘Qualified Teacher Status’, ‘Degree’, and ‘Further relevant professional studies’. Under Desirable, it lists, as one item, ‘Relevant further degree NPQH’. A quick comparative check reveals a secondary school in Berkshire, offering the same salary range, but more predictably listing NPQH under ‘Essential.’
So, to paraphrase only slightly, ‘We’re too small to afford, at only £65K, a proper headteacher, so we’re looking for an unqualified apprentice, and to reduce the risk we’ll appoint for the first three years an experienced organ-grinder to keep an eye on things.’
This hardly sounds like a confident assurance of long-term viability.
I am not in a position to comment on the intentions behind these arrangements, but the effect is clear: properly qualified candidates could be put off by the declaration that they will not be trusted to run the ship unaided, and that their NPQH would be regarded as irrelevant. Deterring some potential candidates, and lowering the bar for others, could leave the playing field tilted in favour of an insider, so compromising the chances of the school’s success, to the detriment of families who choose this route for their children’s education.
It is too much to expect that DfE, with its doctrinaire attachment to the Free School model, will take any of the above seriously. But in my view it is illustrative of the kind of cavalier and unaccountable practice that we can expect to proliferate in this sector.