Bedford and Kempston Free School - update

Charles Baily's picture
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.
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Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 12:32

The appointment of the head teacher in a free school has been queried on this site before. Ms Birbalsingh, one of the proposers behind the Michaela free school, appears to think the headship is in the gift of the Secretary of State:

And she may be right. The DfE says this:

"Passionate, committed teachers who come forward with a Free School proposal should be able to take up key posts in the new school to deliver the vision they have developed. Groups who believe that such an approach is both desirable and appropriate in their particular situation will be able to make the case for this in their application."

Research done in July 2011 by the Institute of Education found that about a fifth of the groups proposing free schools by that date had middle-ranking teachers as proposers. The research suggested that if the proposals were accepted and the teachers became heads and senior managers, this would be very rapid promotion.

Davis Lewis's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 13:59

Mr Lehane's interest in setting up a free school has been driven by his committment to help the disadvantaged receive a better education in Bedford. Mr Lehane and his wife however have decided to work in schools with very low levels of social and econnomic deprivation. Mr Lehane could have pursued the NPQH which he could have completed in less than a year and then put himself forward to become a qualified headteacher of a larger school/academy in an area of great need and then made a huge difference.
I understand that he is a very good Maths teacher and it is a shame that his talent is being wasted on the pyre of political dogma and ambition. His talents have been lost to so many young people over the last two years.
What I am really saying is that this man is driven by ego and political ambition and has no regard for improving the lot of those most in need. He shares Ms Birbalsinghs ambitions for political ambition and status.

The success of the Bedford Free School is dependent on the faliure of maintained schools such as Robert Bruce and Hastingsbury schools. These vultures sit on the sidelines waiting for the sacrificial lambs to fail so that they can move in and effect the free school experiment.

Bedford, unfortunately has become the ideological battleground for the free school agenda. The local MP is keen to deliver the successful free school for Mr Gove and therefore rewarded with a promotion. Mr Lehane is seeking to become an adviser and high profile voice of education in the Conservative party a la Chris Woodhead and Bedford College is seeking to expand its empire. Incidentally, Bedford College is a co-sponsor of an academy and the jury is still out as to whether they are making a success of this.
It will be interesting to see whose children actually end up attending the Bedford Free School, will it be mainly those from the independent schools looking for a 'free 'independent school' or will the residents of Kempston be given the opportunity to be a part of this successful high quality educational opportunity.
I am just hoping that these guys can put their egos and political ambitions aside and utilise their talents for the benefit of the kids who really need the help.

James Valentine's picture
Sat, 08/10/2011 - 16:21

Very good piece Charles. The proposed free school seems to be struggling to get off the ground, and I've suggested to Mark Lehain that he should to take the NPQH and apply for a headship in a mainstream school.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 11/10/2011 - 12:36

Since when have Michael Gove's policies every been anything to do with what's best for children? Has he actually claimed they are?

I thought he'd made it clear that this was all about developing policies which would attract voters - i.e. the purpose of education is to entertain potential voters who want to be allowed to do whatever they want with education? Who cares about kids? They can't vote.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 12/10/2011 - 16:31

Bedford and Kempston Free School is among the Wave 1 Pipeline Proposals listed on the DfE website. It has been approved to pre-opening stage.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 29/11/2011 - 09:52

Well, Mark Lehain has been anointed the Principal Designate for the Bedford Free School.

Davis Lewis's picture
Tue, 29/11/2011 - 10:12

I just pity any of the other candidates who wasted their time applying for the position as there was no way Mark Lehain was going to be passed over notwithstanding his lack of experience as a senior leader - a few weeks of acting as a deputy at a local academy. Free schools have the freedom to anointed their own staff and circumvent HR good practice. The prospectus suggests that this laissez faire approach will also apply to admissions. I am sure the Bedford Free School will do very well as most selective schools do. Our local NO must be feeling so proud at this time. In the mean time this adds to the dog's dinner we have in Bedford with free schools, independent schools, lower,middle, upper schools, 3 tier, 2 tiers, academies, federations, trusts and all of this within 10 square miles.

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