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.