Birbalsingh spins the free school roulette wheel and lands in...Wandsworth!?

Sassy Puff's picture
Not deterred by Lambeth Council selling her desired site to property developers, rather than trust her with a school, “Britain’s most outspoken and controversial teacher” has arrived in Wandsworth.

As a Wandsworth parent who has a child at school in the borough, I was most surprised by the proposed arrival of the Michaela Community School. Not least because like most Wandsworth residents, the first I knew about the free school’s presence in the borough, was a press release on the council’s website.

Truth be told, it remains somewhat of a mystery as to what exactly the MCS is doing considering sites in Wandsworth at all. The MCS was approved based on demand and support in Lambeth, not Wandsworth. That being the case, how and why is it apparently so easy to set up in any borough of one’s choosing when your original plan ends in failure? Especially when the area that you are considering is already well supplied with good schools? Katharine Birbalsingh has previously gone on record stating that "We're very particular about wanting to cater for the community," she says, "we don't want the sharp-elbowed middle-classes to come charging on in.”

Therefore what exactly is Birbalsingh’s knowledge of the Wandsworth community? There has been no local campaign, no evidence of support in the form of any kind of petition; at the time of writing the site for the school had still not been finalized.In fact, the consultation process is not due to begin until January 2012.

In other words, it would appear that absolutely none of the criteria set out by the New Schools Network as regards evidence for a free school have been met. However, such mere trifles such as due process and evidence of community support cannot stop the Birbalsingh bandwagon from rolling into town. Speaking on Women’s Hour last week, Birbalsingh claimed that she would be opening her school in Tooting in September 2012. Yes, that September 2012, as in next year.

But what about the existing schools in the area where the MCS intends to set up? How do they meet the needs of the ethnic minority and disadvantaged pupils that Birbalsingh claims that her school will benefit?

At Burntwood Girls, 48% of pupils do not speak English as a first language; their latest GCSE pass rate is 65% including English and maths. Ernest Bevin Boys have 58% of pupils who do not speak English as a first language and according to OFSTED, the great majority come from ethnic minority backgrounds; their latest GCSE pass rate is 68%, including English and maths. Chestnut Grove school has 75% of pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, a high proportion of vulnerable students, 37% of pupils with SEN statements, 40% who do not speak English as a first language and 38% in receipt of free school meals. Their latest GCSE pass rate is 64% including English and maths.

Given the results that the local Wandsworth schools achieve with a diverse intake, it would be interesting to hear what Birbalsingh thinks she has to offer these pupils. Perhaps the ten years that Birbalsingh spent teaching at five different schools might provide some answers? What exactly is her experience; has she raised attainment, shown leadership, maintained high standards or played a pivotal role in the success of any school? There is no doubt that Katharine Birbalsingh is incredibly media savvy, but her teaching credentials remain unclear.

So to recap, the MCS intends to open in a borough in which it has no pre existing support or evidence of demand, where it still hasn’t confirmed a site, whilst refusing to be drawn on what their proposed intake will be. The school will headed by a teacher who has never run a school before and lasted all of five weeks in her previous post. Indeed, Birbalsingh’s previous post was her only experience of being a deputy head and she has no experience of running a school. Despite these not inconsiderable flaws in her proposal, Birbalsingh has declared on national radio that her school will be opening in less than a year. Under the circumstances, one wonders why the MCS are bothering with a consultation at all.

It is absolutely staggering that Wandsworth have presented the MCS as a done deal, when due process does not appear to have been adhered to in any way. It is even more staggering that what appears to be a vanity project in search of a location, as opposed to a community in need of a school, is being indulged in an area that is already well served with good schools.
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Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 17:25

The whole situation is descending into farce. Free schools are supposed to meet a need, at least on paper, although in reality it's rarely need, but demand. There's a demand by an ex-teacher with only five weeks' experience as a deputy (time spent preparing for the Tory conference in which she publicly humiliated one of her pupils). If there has been no consultation then how can there be any evidence of need?

It is ludicrous that a school should have been given the go-ahead when it doesn't even have a site and when it has to search around London looking for one irrespective of whether there is any actual need.

Allan Beavis's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 20:07

I was under the impression form Katharine Birbalsingh herself that she was a Lambeth teacher dedicated to helping poor children in Lambeth so the migration to Wandsworth was always going to add fuel to the fire of her critics' suspicions that perhaps her conflicting and inconsistent stance had as much to do with keeping her employment options alive as with a zealous mission to rescue the poor from what she branded a "broken" state education sytem.

No doubt the self-appointed spokespeople from the Right will pop up here to justify her actions by politicising her decision to decamp to Tory Wandsworth because the Trotskyites in Lambeth were so mean to her and, by default, depriving all those children of a decent education under Miss Snuff. Perhaps they are right to politicise her move - it does seem that however divisive, controversial and offputting some of these Free School founders are, this is no bar to them being given a Free School so long as they flatter Michael Gove and pander to his ideology.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Mon, 19/12/2011 - 21:31

I think the key insight here is that education was always fraught with conflict but that conflict was between people with different perceptions as to what was in the best interests of the children receiving the education.

The idea that the purpose of state education is to provide fulfillment for adults who wish to run schools is totally alien to us all. I know the perception that the purpose of education policy is to win votes rather than to provide high quality education has reared its ugly head before but this focus on the people who want to run schools took us all by surprise. We had no defences in place Gove couldn't easily shut down.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 10:26

The opposition of people like Janet Downs and Allan Beavis to Katharine Birbalsingh's efforts to set up a free school strikes me as the reductio ad absurdum of their overall position. Here is a dedicated teacher who has spent all her life in public service and who is now devoting hour upon hour of unpaid labour to creating a school aimed specifically at raising the attainment of African-Caribbean boys in one of the most deprived areas of the country and yet, somehow, because the school she's hoping to set up will be a free school she's the devil incarnate. So untrustworthy is she, apparently, that Lambeth Council was quite right to sell off an unused school site to a developer rather than allow the DfE to purchase it. Much better that the site should be turned into a block of flats than a local community school, in spite of the acute basic need for more school places in the borough. Screw the local parents who will shortly find themselves unable to find a school place for their children. The important thing is that the council stopped a school falling into the hands of the evil Birbalsingh.

Can I ask Janet and Allan what they've done for their communities lately? Or do they think sitting on the sidelines and attacking anyone who tries to do something about the shortcomings of our state education system is good enough? I wish they had one tenth of the dedication to the welfare of poor children as Katharine Birbalsingh. That way, they might actually put their considerable energy and intelligence to some positive use instead of just knocking the efforts of others.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 10:31

I'm sure you've gathered that I have a history comparable with Katharine's Toby, but consider myself to be woefully underqualified to lead a school due to lack of senior leadership experience.

It seems you feel that the state education system should exist to fulfill the desires of dedicated adults rather then to fit around coherent planning for the needs of children? Could I ask you why you think this is either a good idea or a tenable idea?

Allan Beavis's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 11:18

Toby -

Thanks for the Tory spin on Katharine. But it's not our fault that she was all about Lambeth and is now taking her act elsewhere. She might have considered keeping her her mouth shut like other more moderate and less attention seeking Free School founders and just got in with it?

Unlike the Hon Toby Young, I don't feel the need to perpetually promote what I do to help my community or my local school to advance my career so if you don't mind I won't advertise my efforts here. If you are the Tory poster boy for Free Schools, then Katharine is your equally pugilistic female counterpart. Quite frankly, if she sets out to be a controversial figure she should expect, and be able to take, the criticism.

Are Free Schools a likely "positive" use to education? Time will well, but the charter example from America is hardly a good advertisement for them is it? And are expensive Free Schools, set up at enormous cost at a time when other schools are having their budgets amputated and educating a minuscule number of students likely to be "doing something about the shortcomings of our state education"? I genuinely hope they do for the sake of the children they are now cared to educate, but again, 20 years of charter schools in America have made little difference to the education landscape there. KIPP and HCZ (I remember you enthusing about the propagandist "Waiting for Superman", which cynically distorted the truth about the miracle of charters) are not only fiscally very well endowed but their presence have not raised standards in other charters or regular public schools.

As for "knocking others". I'm sorry to bring it up, but is this not your own raison d'etre? I recall you falling overself to sneeringly knocking the efforts of Stoke Newington School going about their business with LGBT Awareness as part of their Citizen Curriculum which had the unfortunate effect of not only making the Chair of Governors of WLFS look like a bully but prompted a significant number of people to wonder whether you were not a borderline homophobe. I wonder how students or staff at West London Free School feel about coming to terms with their sexuality? Incidentally, Elly Barnes who is the LGBT Co-ordinator at SNS was named most influential LGBT person by the Independent on Sunday. She is also an outstanding music teacher and doesn't feel Katharine Birbalsingh's need to ceaselessly bang her own drum.

You asked me a question. May I ask you when West London Free School will be publishing its Funding Agreement?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 11:46

Toby - it does not follow that if someone is critical of certain people's efforts to set up a free school that the critic is "sitting on the sidelines". Neither does it follow that those efforts should not be criticised because the one making the effort "has spent all her life in public service". Millions of public servants have done likewise - that does not mean they cannot be criticised if other people disagree with their views. The extension of your argument is that no public servant should be criticised because s/he's spent a lifetime in public service.

I think you are overstating your case - Ms Birbalsingh is not "the devil incarnate", neither is she "evil". She lacks experience of running a school - this is something she shares with many free school applicants in July 2011 according to the Institute of Education (link below) who found that almost a quarter of free school applicants were from "would-be headteachers" and this would be rapid promotion from middle-ranking teaching positions to full headship. It appears that in such cases the main teacher-proposer expects to become the head - whether this falls foul of fair recruitment procedures is unclear.

Ms Birbalsingh has also fed into the propaganda about "broken British schools" which is not upheld by the evidence (discussed at length on this site). That is not to say that there are not schools that cause concern - but these should not be used to "prove" that the whole system is "broken". Such claims seem to be greeted with glee by certain politicians and media commentators. This, too, has been discussed on this site (links below).

Sassy Puff's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 11:59

Toby - Janet and Allan didn't write the piece, I did.
Perhaps it might be an idea to consider why an African Caribbean parent of a teenage boy has concerns about the MCS, rather than leap into the usual 'Lefty' bashing?
That said, congratulations on managing not to to mention the SWP, Trotskyites etc.

I was not aware that Tooting was "one of the most deprived areas of the country", please clarify whether you are still talking about Lambeth?
I do realize it is hard to keep up with the movements of the MCS.

I have given full details of the schools in Balham and Tooting; perhaps you could point out for the benefit of everyone reading exactly how these schools are failing their very diverse intake? In addition, perhaps you could enlighten everyone as to exactly what Birbalsingh's track record with deprived pupils is?
St Michaels and All Angels was a school with a very difficult history and full of the very same pupils that Birbalsingh claims that her free school will benefit.
Therefore would you agree that it was very remiss of her not to stay and give her pupils the privilege of her ten years at the chalkface, as opposed to making a name for herself at the Tory party conference? To paraphrase your good self, screw the children at St Michaels and All Angels who had to find a new school after it closed down.
Most people are judged on their last post; surely even you don't believe that five weeks as a deputy head, out of which two were spent at home, is adequate qualification for working with our most challenging children?

Lastly, seeing as you are here, could you confirm whether the young African Caribbean boy that you sent home from school in October was allowed to return?
For those unaware of the story, the young man in question wasn't sent home for rudeness, fighting, classroom disruption or any of the usual misdemeanors.
Mais non, he was sent home because his hair was too short.

One would assume, and I am so very grateful for Toby's presence, so he can clarify whether this is correct or not, that the following hairstyles are acceptable at the WLFS;


Or even,

But for some reason, not this

In fairness to Toby, he did justify his decision;
"I don't think you can have a different set of rules for black boys than for white boys. My view is that the way to get the best out of every pupil is to hold them to the same high standard. Not to make an exception – regardless of ethnicity and background.
"One of the problems in some state schools is that African-Caribbean boys are held to a lower standard. That's one of the reasons they under-achieve."

Just to clarify; are you claiming that not allowing a young black man to wear his hair in the manner of our brave servicemen and furthermore sending him home because of this, is actually addressing African Caribbean underachievement in schools?

Over to you, Mr Young.

Toby Young's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 11:16

You've got it back to front. Free school campaigners like Katharine place the needs of children above all else, while for their opponents someone else's needs always come first, usually the dues-paying members of the teaching unions.

But let me ask you this. If Lambeth Council are genuinely committed to providing places for the children in the borough why did it obstruct the borough's best hope for a new secondary school? Is it really a good example of "coherent planning" to leave hundreds of children in the borough without any school places? Or is this a case of the councillors attaching more importance to pursuing their own narrow political agenda than the needs of local children?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 16:54

Oh Toby it sounds like you've fallen for the Tory spin machine which has decided that all those who serve on the consultative bodies for education and all those who work in LAs are self interested and ignorant. It's so shocking to watch. Some of them clearly really believe what they're saying!

Can't you see through that to the reality that there is a vast gulf between the depth and flexibility of discussion such people are involved in and that which Gove and his clique are capable of understanding - hence the spin campaigns against education as it is, the debates about calculators behind close doors and so on.

Education is full of gifted, dedicated and altruistic people, most of whom understand that part of their duty is to see their hopes and dreams for the futures of our children repeatedly dashed because it is the nature of things that one vision must prevail while others fall.

If you're interested in understanding the politics and realities of education I strongly recommend you read a book like this one: which gives a good beginners insight in plain English and teaches us a lot about the history of UK education along they way.

Of course the sickest thing in all this is that the government has labelled the vast majority of those in senior positions in education as being self interested and has promoted those who tell Gove what he wants to hear. They can't see that it's those people who Gove has promoted who are the self-interested ones (or in some cases the young and ludicrously naive ones and perhaps in some cases the ones with rather disturbing psychological profiles over which they may have no control). Many have spoken the truth and have of course committed career suicide for doing so. They do it because they care as much as Katharine, as much as me and in the same way you do but extrapolated to it being their whole career and with the personal attachment to children, organisations and society that brings.

Hugo is a damn fine film by the way. Royal Jelly for the imagination for all ages. Our 3-year-old was a bit scared and restless so I would say better for 5-150.

Leonie Cooper's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 15:02

Sassypuff, as well as your excellent round-up of the results of Tooting secondary schools, you do not mention Graveney School, also in Tooting. It was due to expand, at the same time as changing its admissions criteria, which would have had the effect of making it more accessible to local parents. The same with Chestnut Grove. Sadly, the expansion money was pulled.

I think, speaking as I do on a regular basis to Tooting parents, that most support your position, and are very surprised at this development, and would prefer investment in/enlargement of our existing excellent schools. There must be question-marks over unsupported proposals such as this - not least because the school will be small, something we have previously avoided in the Borough.

Sassy Puff's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 15:36

Hi Leonie!
Graveney is an excellent school. However, I made a point of not mentioning it in my post as I wanted to focus on the schools that have an intake similar to that which Birbalsingh claims her free school will help.
Graveney has a somewhat different intake to the three schools that I mentioned, so I did not feel that it was a fair comparison.
I agree that expansion of our existing successful schools would make a great deal more sense. It is a shame that Wandsworth is so ideologically hell bent on supporting free schools, they would rather champion a free school with no local support and rather questionable credentials, than expand our local schools.
There is a discussion about the Michaela school on the local website Streetlife. Any comments from yourself and any other Wandsworth parents, would be most welcome.

Rosemary Mann's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 18:03

Toby, I really have to smile when I read some of your stuff in print about state schools. As a parent of a child who has just started in a state primary, your comment about people like Katherine being the only one with kids interests at heart is to me so unlike anything in my experience both as a parent and also as a professional who works with schools in another field. If you had any experience of state schools you would know that your comment is way off beam. At my daughters school, the teachers work very hard. At my husbands school, its the same. My husband drove to his school through inches of snow last year leaving the house at 6am for what was normally a 15 minute journey so that the kids could have their education- as did many other teachers. He and his colleagues demonstrate their committment in so many ways. In the schools I work with, many of which are struggling on the results front , the staff committment is inspirational.
Therefore Toby, on balance, I find your persistent view to be complete rubbish. You havent a clue what goes on in a state school because you probably have never been in one. Please do us all a favour and admit it.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Tue, 20/12/2011 - 18:32

He runs a 'Free' School Rosalyn. They're state schools.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 03:24

From South London Press:

"Councillor Peter Robbins, Lambeth’s cabinet member for children and young people, said the Grade II listed site was “unsuitable” for the new school.

He also said Lambeth’s demand for extra places was in Streatham and West Norwood. "

Hats off to Ms Birbalsingh for putting a school which is hopefully a convenient bus ride from Streatham and probably Norwood if it is somewhere like Tooting Bec, rather than asking the kids to trek up to somewhere like Shakespeare Road near Herne Hill/Brixton where the old rubbish depot was. All speed bumps on a narrow road and completely cut off to one side by the railway - wouldn't fancy getting up there from Streatham or Norwood as a kid on a bus.

Maybe we should give Lambeth a break on selling Lillian Bayliss, given that its era of design and construction it may well be a turkey from point of view of a refurb - and also they need housing and probably also the money. But are we sure that there are no other largish structures they can't accomeodate people in? Well perhaps, they seemed to have pushed the boat out to build on Shakespeare Road so maybe they are desperate - but I am sure they could have accomodated MCS somewhere if they really tried. It's political rather than planning this matter.

Still as we often hear this website is not about Birbalsingh is it? So I assume nuff said and we shall hear no more about the matter.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 08:33

Ben have you taught in a school where the head has been an imposed head from outside rather than one who for whom the ability to command the respect of the staff they've going to manage has been a key part of the appointment criteria?

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 13:52

Short answer is yes.

What does this appointment process have to do with it all? I bet you that she is well oversubscribed with applicant teachers to work at MCS. She won't have a problem finding teachers who want to work for her and respect her.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 14:31

Oh, I see, lots of Birbalsingh enthusiasts from outside to replace the current teachers who work in that area and know the community and the children?

Having worked in such as school how did you feel about the contrast between the fantastic way what was going on was spun to parents and the reality of what actually happened to those staff who were the generative hubs of discipline because they could command the personal respect of the students and the community through the way they taught?

Sassy Puff's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 11:53

"She won’t have a problem finding teachers who want to work for her and respect her."
Respect based on what exactly?
Please give links that illustrate the achievements of Katharine Birbalsingh; where has she added value, increased attainment, turned a failing school around or played a leadership role of any description?
I'm not being facetious, I'd really like to see any evidence of Birbalsingh actually possessing the credentials that she evidently thinks that she has.
Maybe you and Toby, who is conspicuous by his absence, know something that the rest of the world doesn't?

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 19:07

Sorry Rebecca I can't see the point you are making. I bet you £100 there is no problem fully recruiting this school with teachers and pupils (barring any technical issues such as churn as discussed in other posts). The demand and need comes from the parents and can be met. It is the normative needs and demands of unions and a certain political party which are the obstacle to this school because they contrast with those of the parents.

If there is a difference between perception and reality of schools then the public seem to be more inclined to believe Birbalsingh.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 19:10

It's a shame you haven't the experience to easily understand the point I'm making Ben. Can explain better over a beer maybe if you like. Feel free to find me through linkedin.

The public believe many things. This government is learning from experience that it's a good idea to listen to the people who actually understand in detail what they're talking about too.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 23:44

Toby Young always runs off when asked when West London Free School will publish its Funding Agreement.

Kate Johnston's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 11:22

But surely if it's a new school, the head will appoint the staff and therefore will choose teachers who want to work in the school, following the school's values and ethos? I can't see how this is an imposition if there isn't actually a staff in place yet.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 20:57

Recruiting teachers is easy, Ben - Free Schools don't have to employ qualified teachers. The problem isn't filling the school, it's the quality of staff that counts and this is a challenge facing all schools, not just Miss Snuffy's. In fact, appointing charismatic heads with leadership and managerial qualities who inspire staff, pupils, parents and the local community is the biggest challenge of all. Perhaps this was the barrier that prevented Miss Birbalsingh from getting a job in a state school, rather than the enmity of the unions or - Heaven forbid! - the Trotskyites hiding under Toby Young's bed.

Who is the this "public" that is inclined to believe Birbalsingh? Do you have any statistics? If you do, share them. Given her propensity to polarise opinion, I would bet more than your paltry £100 to bet that a significant number of people are very suspicious about her motives.

The real problem in Lambeth is the lack of primary school places. Renovating or building a new Free school for Birbalsingh would have been a waste of money better spent on primary schools. The MCS will enrol just 120 pupils. Fat lot of expansion of choice.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 21:42

"Recruiting teachers is easy, Ben – Free Schools don’t have to employ qualified teachers."

I don't think they aren't going to employ many unqualified teachers. It is available to get people into the profession from atypical bckgrounds but I don't think it will be prevalent. Look at WLFS which has one unqualifed teacher who is in any case completing a PGCE.

The only statistic I have is having observed the oversubscription of WLFS by several times I predict this will also happen at MCS, given that I think the circumstances are similar.

"I would bet more than your paltry £100 to bet that a significant number of people are very suspicious about her motives." My bet is easier to measure and decide who is right.

"The real problem in Lambeth is the lack of primary school places. Renovating or building a new Free school for Birbalsingh would have been a waste of money better spent on primary schools. The MCS will enrol just 120 pupils. Fat lot of expansion of choice."

Well it is 120 who don't want to attend the alternatives on offer. Can't wait to see the union heads and labour front bench telling amongst others the Lambeth resident parents who are black, Portuguese, African and working class white that their children can't go this new school where their children can leave having learnt to read, write and being broadly functional.

Allan Beavis's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 22:10

You write as if Free Schools have the monopoly on oversubscription. They don't and they are not unique and they certainly don't have the monopoly excellence or commitmen - many good schools are oversubscribed. 120 is minuscule number to bandy around as if a miracle is occuring.

Your introduction of gambling speak here is truly horrendous. Educating children is not poker Ben (I recall you using "busted flush on another post"). This says an awful lot about you, I'm afraid. I'd rather not bet on who is right or wrong - it is morally bankrupt to bet on children's lives. This is not a competition - but that is what is so wrong about people who introduce the concept of competition in schools. Where there is dog eat dog competition with people willing to bet on outcomes, there will be great casualties. How shameful.

Ben Taylor's picture
Wed, 21/12/2011 - 23:23

I don't think Free Schools are exclusively good or committed. I am happy for a diverse manner of schools types to exist depending on the opinions and jugdements of parents, children and regulators - unlike most LSN supporters who tend to want 100% compulsory comprehensive coverage based on my observations of postings here.

You are also betting on child education whether you like it or not if you insist on comprehensive education. This is a form of all or nothing bet being made by a group of politicians. I would rather let the parents and children decide their stakes. What right has anyone to bet the lives of other people's children? There may be a case, I will leave it you to punt the moral solvency of it.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 00:12

What parents want is a good local school for their children - most aren't that interested in the labels of comprehensive, Academy or Free School. The government know this, which is why they have perpetuated the exaggeration that our schools are broken, our children are barely literate and that standards must be driven up so that they can pander to the fears of parents about their local school choices whilst promoting the superiority of Academies and Free Schools as if only these were guaranteed to deliver better results. Since for quite some time communities have been unaware of the political agenda behind school reform, the government have stealthily but successfully used the reform card in schools to open education up to free market intervention and profit, as well as selection and a massive decrease in local accountability. And it is the lack of accountability and the centralisation of decision making that betrays the lie of "choice". The incoherent and competitive landscape of schools has become much worse under the Tories, with a two or even three tier system of education in which the haves consolidate their advantages whilst the have-nots see even provision of even basic school resources being sliced away from them to fund Academies and Free Schools, many in more affluent areas. This sadly reflects Conservative government policy as a whole.

As always Ben, you ignore what other nations teach us about education. Charter Schools have not raised standards in the US across the board; selective schools in Germany have not meant they rank higher in PISA tables. "Comprehensive" education - meaning little choice, good local schools, great teaching, no selection, equal access, no segregation are the hallmarks of the nations that are the top of the PISA tables. You do the maths, Ben. Those nations protect the rights of all children. It wouldn't enter their heads to gamble. When it comes to morality, they have got it more right. Degraded education as a result of profit-first companies, financial incontinence for the favoured few and a tightening of purse for the majority, along with social segregation embedded in schools might be your version of ethics but I suspect a lot of people would be uncomfortable when the grotesque inequality erupts once again in desperate protest or rioting.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 19:09

The most constructive ways to ensure that students, parents and able teaching staff are able to make appropriate contributions to the vibrancy, quality and diversity of state education are:
1. To ensure that the reforms to Ofsted described by the Hampton review and to which Ofsted became legally obliged in 2009 (instead of the random collection of reforms Gove is driving).
2. To properly harness available technologies to ensure we shift from high stakes <14 narrow assessment to a wider system of low stakes assessment which allows schools to professionally track and accredit a more healthy and appropriate diversity of objectives for each child and which is sufficiently flexible to be responsive to the objectives agreed by the school community.

The free schools and academies agenda is irrelevant. Why do you think it will drive the objectives we agree on Ben?

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 21:10

I don't think your ideas mentioned in that last post are bad Rebecca.

However with regard to the relevancy of academies, they are a structure which is an improvement in regulation since they allow the school to operate with the most autonomy possible. The other side to that coin is allowing parents and children more choice, since it allows them more opportunity to reject schools they don't consent to and go to the ones they want. This is another form of regulation. It's good to trust the people as well as the professionals and politicians.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 21:48

"they are a structure which is an improvement in regulation since they allow the school to operate with the most autonomy possible"

This isn't true Ben. It comes from a vein of extreme right wing thinking which draws on the free market economics of Hayek and which promote the ideology that all central planning militates against autonomy and freedom. Experience or reflection or academic study of the nature of education systems which are obliged to provide complete coverage to include the most vulnerable rapidly reveal that this ideology is almost completely irrelevant in state education. It's other factors which are at play in driving freedom and autonomy. Local level planning only becomes a factor if it is seriously mismanaged, in which case the solution needs to be that inappropriate practice is eliminated.

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 22:14


To relate this issue to the main post idea.

Here is a school which people want. I agree that this is disputed as a fact by some posters here. Let's assume that it is true for the purposes of argument. So you propose to increase the freedom and autonomy of the parents and children by removing the school which they have chosen.

If you say that this is down to the market economics of Hayek then presumably all those people choosing contraception and abortion, choosing who they sleep with, what clothes they wear and so on - they are all right wing extremists. Which big brother is supposed to plan their freedoms in these matters?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 22:34

No Ben you've missed the point.

"Here is a school which people want."
is the point at the crux of matters.

In order to establish what the people want you need to have public processes of consultation.

It's tempting to assume that these can be done by newspaper poll without any proper discussion or by just consulting in a very small area where a particular idea is popular but experience has shown us that these processes produce outcomes which are not actually what people want.

It takes time and proper processes of consultation to reveal all perspectives on a situation as perspectives are contextual and change in the light of the kind of evidence which emerges during a well managed consultation. To not understand this and to not provide for it makes it inevitable that simple, extremist viewpoints which are easily expressed will dominate. How does creating a climate where the views of the extremists will dominate those of people who are more reflective provide for proper autonomy and freedom?

As a separate issue, micro planning processes which focuses on only one particular service for one particular community are seriously economically inefficient. Each region in Scotland has gone through a 10 year consultation process which has examined education and all related services and has eventually created efficient plans for the rebuilding of schools which often have many integrated services incorporated into them. The idea that England can afford a vastly more expensive system where each micro-area and each service is planned separately is ludicrous and many of us find it obscene when we are going through so many cuts and the services now provided in many areas of Scotland are so good.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 22/12/2011 - 23:33

Not only does Ben miss the point about the importance of a proper and honest process of consultation but that school reform under Gove has been sold by the Right Wing government to the public as a tool of empowerment for parents to conceal the government's real agenda of pushing forward a two tier and segregated system of education. The Tories had a real chance to bring real cohesion into state education but, true to form, they gathered to protect the commercial and ideologies of their own. In this case, these are the lining the pockets of private companies ready to suck more blood out of schools and rabble rousing, divisive attention junkies such as Birbalsingh and Young.

So, this is not a "school which people want" but one that the Tories want because it is another tinpot trophy they can hold up as proof that they are doing something about the state of schools. But that is not true because the impact of a handful Free Schools over the whole of tax payer funded education is insignificant. It comes back to the fact that parents want a good local school. Snuffy promises much but the point is can she deliver? Her track record so far is, at best, undistinguished; at worst, appalling. She will be leading a school from scratch, with little more than rheotoric and inconsistent passion behind her. There is a wonderful school a mile from where I live, in the neighbouring borough, whose head turn the school around because of her dedication, leadership qualities, a strong board of governors, forward planning and money from BSF which transformed the rundown premises into a bright, open, welcoming place that sits proudly in its community. Once branded a sink school and deserted by the middle classes, it now reflects the diversity of the area it services, educates the less well off as well as the more wealthy and is officially an outstanding school. I asked to interview the head but she declines all interviews because she has spent 12 years quietly going about transforming the lives of thousands of children under her care without the need to shove herself on television or radio, write tiresome and witless blogs in the Telegraph or spout any political agenda on behalf of herself or any political party.

This head has given choice back to her community where once the wealthy opted to go to private. The less affluent who never had much choice anyway because they could not afford private education, are relieved that their local school delivers outstanding results and has a proven record of teaching to help each and individual child to reach their own potential. This, I suspect, is what people of all socio-economic backgrounds want. I am not sure they would prefer a school led by an inexperienced, divisive and combative individual which will not be accountable to their local government.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:03

Successful free school bids have to show demand in order to open. See here how DfE explain how lack of demand is one reason to bounce an app:

I agree the documentation of demand could be better published. I am sure this will get ironed out eventually.

In summary a lack of consultation is a factually incorrect assertion. I predict this school will be full and probably oversubscribed. It might fail, Birbalsingh herself has acknowledged that there are no guarantees, and schools have to be allowed to close when they fail badly enough.

As for integration of public services we can agree it is a good idea, but what in particular about free schools is especially deficient in this respect? What problem does MCS present? Lambeth LA had a chance to reuse an old school or find a place for MCS and they could have tried harder. It's Wandsworth which has integrated in this case.

Still waiting to hear how stopping parents and children going to a school they want to go to increases their autonomy and freedom.

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:14

This is really about your personal dislike of Birbalsingh isn't it?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:32

Ben do you understand the difference between getting lots of people to sign a list to say they want something and establishing a need/desire in the context of professional consultation which examines all the options? Do you think it's a good idea to change society so it's run according to the former criteria for establishing demand?

Regarding the planning of integrated services - established schools are as they are. If you're thinking of opening a new school you should consult regarding the way extended services will integrate with that school whether it's a free school or any other type of school. Ideally you should have holistic local consultation which considers all local schools and extended services as the Scots have done.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:34

Yet more nonsense from Ben.

You quote from the DfE as if this were the Holy Grail of truth and transparency. Have you not noticed that Gove has been hauled up for acting unlawfully and misrepresenting facts and reports? Where have you been? Or are you just willfully blind, like Cameron when he hired Andy Coulson or James Murdoch when phone hacking was endemic in his empire?

Ironed out eventually? They've had almost two years in the job - how long do they need to reverse their incompetence? If it's not incompetence, then the mask has well and truly slipped off the face of private enterprise fiddling around in state schools hasn't it?
Who is stopping anyone going to MCS? It hasn't opened yet, has no premises and no staff so how can you stop people subscribing to something that is still theoretical?

Can you explain - coherently please - how schools which have the power to amend the Admissions Code, have opted out of the mechanism of local accountability which protects parents' rights, been so far covertly or overtly selective in their pupil intake can be deemed to have increase autonomy and freedom?

You yourself have never answered how you think importing a cripplingly expensive and failed charter School model is going to be scaled up to benefit all schools in Britain when they have not done so in the US. America remains with us in the PISA rankings.

You repeat the same nonsense over and over again. Are you trying to convince yourself or other people? All good schools are oversubscribed. And there are enough failing schools that could be turned around with proper resources and time allocated to them. Instead, their budgets are further cut, diverting funds away from the neediest, to invest in a failed American project to flatter the governments' chimera of doing something radical about schools and paying back the likes of Young and Birbalisingh for their nauseating sycophancy.

Schools are "not allowed" to close if they fail, Ben. They are forced to. If you are unable to grasp this basic pygmy level difference, then I am not that surprised you have been unable to see the much bigger picture.

Sassy Puff's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:44

Excuse me, but what is your evidence that there is demand or support for the MCS in Wandsworth? I live in the borough, as does Leonie Cooper and neither of us are aware of any support for the MCS. The MCS is being presented as a done deal in a borough with which it has no links whatsoever and without any concern for anything so lowbrow as due process or consultation.
I would respectfully ask that you actually read my original post and acquaint yourself with the issues at hand. Then your posts might actually have some relevance and move the discussion forward.
Continually repeating that people want this school - what is your evidence for this statement? - would suggest you have no understanding of what is going on in Wandsworth at all.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:37

And more nonsense. No it isn't Ben. Try and read properly. It's about inspired and inspiring teachers who make a real difference to literally thousands of children and their community. How did you miss all that? Willfull blindness again? Or something much worse?

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 00:43

Allan said:
"I am not sure they would prefer a school led by an inexperienced, divisive and combative individual which will not be accountable to their local government."

Inexperienced. 5 weeks as on senior team = inexperienced. What life experience does she have beyond school? These things matter terribly when you're young and you're trying to command the respect of and inspire people with tremendous family burdens to carry.

Divisive. If you doubt that then you have no idea how much disrespect she has incurred for talking publicly about her school and the hurrendous consequences its brought for them. Obviously I've thought about these issues a lot as I have done similar. Personally I chose not to do it until my school had been shut for two years. Even then I think its a divisive thing to do and it worries me. I would not have done what Katharine did. On the other hand she's ludicrously popular with some with celebrity type status. That's divisive Ben.

Combative - definitely. She's been fighting very publicly for what she believes in.

Not accountable to local government. Obviously. It matters Ben. Most other people in teaching are and think it's a good idea that they and those who manage them are.

Personally I like Katharine. I get her. But the best heads I've worked for have had the support of all their staff without having to hand select them against the criteria of whether they support that head teacher or not. That's the standard she should aspire to and it's a standard I think she could reach if she took a coherent career path rather than fighting to lead a school right now in these divisive circumstances.

Sassy Puff's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 01:01

Given what Allan has written is that really the only response that you could muster?

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 01:25

Your'e choosing to attack me personally Allan you need to stay on the issues since it's not about me.

Sorry you have to give some credit to published information from a government department. You are always asking for more information, you have been given some which contradicts the assertion that there is no demand.

I don't claim that the free schools will necessarily be a cure all. I am most concerned with the democratic right of people who ask for schools to be given them. Knocking the turnaround of struggling schools is not what I am interested in, it's okay, also don't care what kind of school it is. Another option is to start new schools, it is the right of the parents to decide this issue. That is accountability.


I am assuming the school will be located in Tooting, as reported, but will somehow mostly serve Lambeth children via allocation in its admission criteria. We have already seen that there is a problem with lack of places in Streatham and Norwood, and they are reasonably commutable on public transport to Tooting based on my recollections of south London. The school is still listed in Lambeth in the DfE list o f new schools so I am reading some intention in to that.

If the school is indeed to serve Wandsworth, then unless there has been a new consultation, you may have a cause for complaint.

Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 02:00

I am staying on the issues Ben. It's you who is now avoiding them when you are challenged, so please don't play the victim. Is that your last and only resort? To accuse me of personally attacking you because you are unable to properly and coherently defend a policy which sets out not to guarantee the improvement in education for the majority of children but

i) the profit making potential of education companies? And
ii) realising the ideologies and vanities of a tiny number of people whose pact with the government is to get their school in return for promoting a policy that has flopped in America?

You still have not given any comment about just how American Free Schools can be scaled up and spread over the entire education system in Britain when it has utterly failed to transform the majority of schools, and especially those in poor areas, in America.

Perhaps I am not as gullible as you Ben, but there is much on the DfE website that has been discredited, is plain wrong or a distortion of the truth. If you care to look through previous posts here, you will find them highlighted, quite easily.

You say that "Another option is to start new schools, it is the right of the parents to decide this issue. That is accountability". That is another one of your nonsense statements, Ben. That isn't accountability, that is consultation and try as you might to deny it, there is well documented history - even in Sassy's post right here - that Free Schools do not properly and openly consult. I suggest you invest in a dictionary.

Streatham and Norwood. Dear oh dear. Reasonably commutable on public transport doesn't render the school local to those two places then does it? How does a child commuting to school every day compute with your confused ideas about "choice" in the local community?

Perhaps the school is listed in the DfE as being in Lambeth because they haven't updated it or don't want to draw attention to the fact that Birbalsingh's main concern was not in fact to help the poor in Lambeth but to get herself a job in any old borough so long as the council were sympathetic with central government's diktats? But then you believe everything on government websites don't you?

Ben Taylor's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 03:09


You have said I lack comprehension and am gullible. I can say that on the contrary it is you who have these qualities, but has this helped the argument? I don't think so, so I won't say it.

On private profit making companies, what relevance is this to the MCS? It's going to be a charitable trust if I understand it right. If it contracts parts of its service with a profit making entity, well such things already happen in our school system. If people don't like it then they should voice that. I also think they should be able to avoid such a school. I would be uncomfortable with univeral provision of profit making education but this is not what is being proposed.

On the scalability of free schools, I don't know about the American experience, it's just enough to know that they do occur as chains in Sweden, such as IES, with thousands of students and above average performance on the whole. A student only goes to such a school if they choose to do so. So in principle there is a system of scaling private profit making good quality schools which could be imitated here.

You are right I don't understand something. How a parent's right to choose a school, even to the extent of getting new ones created, is not a form of accountability. I have asked again how stopping people going to a school they want to go to increases their freedom and autonomy and still don't have an answer from anyone.

In everday English it seems reasonable to call a school in Tooting local to Streatham and Norwood. About one or two miles distance on a map. Not as local as if Lambeth provided a premises but a practial compromise. It does still increase choice even if you don't want to call it local.

Sassy Puff's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 10:49

"In everday English it seems reasonable to call a school in Tooting local to Streatham and Norwood. About one or two miles distance on a map. Not as local as if Lambeth provided a premises but a practial compromise. It does still increase choice even if you don’t want to call it local."

You just don't get it do you? It is hard to ascertain whether you are just being wilfully obtuse or indulging in passive aggressive trolling.

Let us all imagine that I am setting up a free school; we'll call it Sassypuff Towers.
Sassypuff Towers gets approved in the basis of demand and support in Sassington.
Unfortunately, Sassington council sell my desired building for my school.
However, being a very determined little Sassypuff, who will not be denied Sassypuff Towers under any circumstances, I start looking around for a new location.
I am not overly concerned about where my new school is going to be, as long as it gets to open.
I notice that Puffytown has a council that is very supportive of free schools.
Therefore, despite not having any links with Puffytown, I don't feel the need to do any of the following;

Establish demand and support in Puffytown, by speaking to its residents, collecting signatures and starting a local campaign.
Find a building.
Explain how I will improve on the local schools in Puffytown, which are all good, successful schools which serve their diverse intake well.
Give details of exactly what my credentials for running Sassypuff Towers are, especially as my only experience of running a school only lasted a matter of weeks, including two weeks of hibernation.
Adhere to any of the rules or criteria set up by the New Puffy Schools Network, which everyone else setting up a free school has to abide by.

Despite all of the above, I have no qualms about announcing on national radio that my new school will be opening in Puffytown in nine months.

Now, the above reads like a rather far fetched tale of everyday Sassypuffs, but unfortunately for the parents in Wandsworth, it happens to be real.
Aside from making a video using hand puppets, I really don't know how I can make the situation any clearer for you Ben, but I feel confident that everyone else reading this thread understands.

Merry Christmas.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 11:02

Ben - you mention IES. It has been given the contract to become an education provider in a proposed free school. Being an education provider is more than just providing administrative, legal or caretaking duties. It is taking over the running of the school - making staff decisions, for example. The Trustees, however, will still be legally responsible even if the education provider fails to provide an adequate standard of education. This is discussed more fully on these threads:

You say that IES educates thousands of Swedish pupils. In 2010 this figure was 9,047 in a total of 15 schools. In 2011 the number of IES schools had risen to 17. 9,000 is a small proportion of Sweden's nearly 1,300,000 pupils. One interesting comment by IES* says this about private equity involvement in Sweden (note, IES is not a private equity company, but one100% owned by an entrepreneur):

"Private equity was initially positive as it highlights education as an interesting sector, but turned negative after public scrutiny following the Academedia buyout. Investors were perceived as only interested in fast money, and tax evasion."


Allan Beavis's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 14:05

Your demand for someone to answer your question about "how stopping people going to school increases their freedom is and autonomy" is so obtuse that it places your lack of understanding about the issue of Free Schools - and how they have corrupted education in both Sweden and the United States - in context. It's no wonder no one wants to answer.

Your final paragraph is absurd. Two miles away is not a local school Ben. "It does still increase choice even if you don't want to call it local"? What sheer utter, unexpurgated knicker twisting nonsense is this?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 10:10

Thanks for the link, Ben, to the DfE guidance for free school applicants. The guidelines state that proposers should have "Identified an available, viable and affordable site."

If a free school is still having to look around for a site then has the above criteria been satisfied?

The guidelines also say that proposers should produce "Strong and verifiable evidence of demand from local parents confirming they would choose the proposed school for their children, to a point where the school would be oversubscribed or at full capacity in its first year of operation."

Note that the DfE is using the word "demand" not "need". This gives the impression that a small group of self-selected people can demand a school even if there is no need for extra school places - the situation in Beccles, for example:

If the demand for a free school is alleged to be because of a dearth of school places in Location A, is it acceptable for the free school to set up in Location B on the grounds that it will be serving pupils from Location A not Location B? How would the admission criteria address this? Or would an annex to the free school's funding agreement give priority to pupils from Location A (after the priority places for the founders' children, of course, as suggested by Toby Young in the TES article entitled "Jumping the queue is just deserts").

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 23/12/2011 - 10:19

Toby Young issued this statement below the TES article:

"I did not say that parent-founders of free schools could take advantage of any clauses in the new Admissions Code to secure priority access for their children. Rather, in exceptional circumstances they will be given the latitude to be non-compliant with the Code in just this respect in Annex B of their Funding Agreements. Any schools granted this privilege will be expected to embark on a 8-week consultation before changing their admissions arrangements so there's no risk of those arrangements not being transparent."

This raises the question as to what are the "exceptional circumstances", and why free schools should be allowed "latitude to be non-compliant" with the code. And what form would this 8-week consultation take? A letter of a website, perhaps, as has been the case with so many academy conversation consultations?


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