Free schools feel the squeeze for space

Francis Gilbert's picture
BBC London News ran an interesting piece about free schools yesterday, focusing upon Toby Young's free school, the West London Free School, and then looking more broadly at the practical problems free schools are encountering in the capital. Even at WLFS, it's clear from Toby Young's comments that it's been a real struggle to get the show on the road, with volunteers spending hours of their time every week helping out, and, as the headteacher points out, wealthy friends providing large sums to do things like provide a library. Setting up a school isn't an easy thing to do! They don't just sprout up out of nowhere in the way Michael Gove first envisioned. It's clear that the central problem in London is that finding a suitable venue is the biggest obstacle, with a report this April revealing that half of the 70 approved free schools have not found a site. And then, as I point out in the report, schools which do have a site don't really have suitable accommodation for a school, with free schools like the Wapping High School having to settle for an office block, and others like Canary Wharf College being situated in an old warehouse. Even at WLFS, one has to query whether it will be able to cope when it's full; the site looks quite small to me.

The trouble is that, as could have easily been seen years ago, and has been much said on this site, setting up a new school needs careful planning and is best done by local authorities who know much better than bureaucrats in Whitehall, or pushy parents, where best to set up a school. It's actually quite frankly ridiculous that London mandarins are supervising the setting up of schools hundreds of miles away, when there's a ready-made structure in the form of the LA there which could much better do it. We know that we're going to need to have many more school places in the coming years and that the free schools movement just isn't going to satisfy that demand; it's a tiny but very expensive movement, set to cost billions yet educating less than 1% of the school population. As a matter of great urgency, Gove needs to bring local authorities back into the process so that they can expand existing provision where it is needed, or set up schools where there's going to be genuine demand. Local authorities have over a 100 years experience in setting up schools; until a couple of years ago, they were the institutions that did it. Removing them out of the equation is proving a costly disaster.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Sarah's picture
Thu, 12/07/2012 - 19:22

Local authorities still are responsible for opening the majority of new schools - although you wouldn't think so from the DfE website. Of course they can no longer meet community demands for a community school because 'choice' means only what Gove allows you to choose ie an Academy. You are absolutely right that planning and opening new schools is and needs to be a carefully planned process - and it should be based on ensuring that children are learning in accommodation that is fit for purpose - and that includes proper external play space and sports facilities. Rather than aspiring to improve the standard of school accommodation this government are binning all the school premises regulations and reducing the area guidelines so that all the hard won additional space schools were allowed in order to accommodate more classroom helpers and children with special needs has been lost with schools shrinking by up to 15%.

What needs to happen is that local authorities should take back responsibility for commissioning school places where they determine from careful strategic planning that they are most needed. If a community decides it want's a free school it should meet the local authority's criteria on need as well as parent's aspirations for choice. Local authorities are better placed than others to plan where new schools should be and to ensure that they are fit for the purpose for which public funding is being provided.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 10:59

What needs to happen is that local authorities should take back responsibility for commissioning school places where they determine from careful strategic planning that they are most needed.

You have a touching faith in bureaucratic planning. Sadly, it is misplaced. If the planners had been half-way competent, we would not be in the position we are in now.
Going back almost a decade, the projection the local authority planners worked on for migration from new-accession EU countries was for a range of 5000 to 13,000 per year. In the event, there more >740,000 in the first three years. With blunders on that scale in the recent past (whose effects are being felt today), we should not trust LA planners again. Besides, it isn't as if LAs were bywords for efficiency. Many of them cannot even organize a weekly rubbish collection, let alone manage the provision of schools.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 11:04

"Besides, it isn’t as if LAs were bywords for efficiency. Many of them cannot even organize a weekly rubbish collection, let alone manage the provision of schools."

One of the things Stephen Twigg promised to do on Tuesday was to work really hard to ensure there wouldn't be this constant ignorant and self interested damning vitriol about the public sector from Westminster in the future.

Sarah's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 13:23

Ricky - it's not local authority data that has caused the difficulties with planning - it's the extent to which the national ONS birth forecast data has been outstripped by actual live births. Added to which in many parts of the country it has proved impossible to get PCTs to share their data on 0-5 year olds. Audit after audit has shown that LA pupil place forecasting is very robust in most cases. What we are also now seeing is a change in the demographics between towns and rural areas where previously families moved out to the suburbs or villages as their children got older - the economic situation is having a dampening effect on this and so there has been a more rapid build up of young children in urban catchment areas. Also, the changes that the government has made to the admissions code which allows schools to increase their published admission numbers or admit children over the PAN means that it's more difficult to predict where places will be needed. Patterns of parental preference can switch quite rapidly with a poor ofsted result or a departing headteacher.

Notwithstanding the challenges and the current volatility surely you are not suggesting that local authorities should abandon strategic planning of school places. I fail to see how the education system can respond to major housing or demographic change unless some locally based organisation is tracking these changes and planning for additional infrastructure. The 'market' simply cannot respond quickly enough - the lead time for capital investment means that you need to be on top of this on a continuous basis.

As Janet says there is also the issue of shifting government policy which has seen the focus on removing surplus places abandoned overnight in favour of retaining significant surplus as a means of delivering choice. Local authorities were named and shamed by the previous government for failing to reduce surplus - and capital resources were often contingent on reducing surplus.

I think you are throwing the blame in the wrong direction frankly.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 11:08

As Mandy Rice-Davies so pithily put it: "He would, wouldn't he."

Mr Twigg represents a clientelist party whose electoral clientele are public sector employees, many of whom are parasitic upon the real economy.

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 17:19

Academy conversion can make matters worse, according to Chris Husbands, director of the Insitute of Education, University of London, especially in primary schools. Academies have control over their admissions and can refuse requests from the local authority to take on extra pupils. If they refuse to do so then this would mean that remaining maintained schools would have to take more than their fair share of extra pupils.

Professor Husbands told TES "There is a potential problem of giving local authorities statutory responsibilities but not giving them the means to deliver those responsibilities."

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 11:12

Do you believe that teachers are parasitic on the economy or fundamental to it Ricky?

Ben Taylor's picture
Thu, 12/07/2012 - 23:16

I am not really sure what stops a local authority (LA) facilitating new free schools. Here is how I understand the constraints: they can't be the proposer; they can't stop them; they have to cooperate in helping the DfE find sites; they have have powers to help proposers. So if I am wrong please anybody feel free to correct me.

Francis makes some objective points about capacity and competence in our state systems. I don't understand why given the statements in my first paragraph being true, plus what Francis says being true, they cannot hook up with the LAs and get things done.

Functionally all that is being asked is for LAs to respond more to children and parents.

My scorecard out of 5 for LAs for effort and attaintment would be;

H+F 5
Lambeth 0

Please could anybody also say whether you prefer free schools to be conceptually small and grow from inception in ways LAs would not (and as far as I can tell DO NOT) approach, or whether they should replicate LAs from birth? Democratically I would think it better to start the smallest way and let LAs build up as a way of being accountable. Use of resources is also a democratic issue.

None of this is intended to demean and devalue teachers like Francis, rather it is meant to focus on how we have a realtionship with our community.

DAVID MOORE's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 06:27

Leeds LEA are in the process of providing more school places in the deprived areas of east Leeds. While the local schools wanted to expand and improve their own resources to provide these places the D of E won't fund this to the extent required. Leeds LEA are forced to plan and build a completely new school BUT are required to advertise for a Trust/Federation/Charity to run it it as a Free School.

Leeds LEA will only run it if asked to apply by the Community ( or of course no Academy chain is interested).

Strange how if a school is so badly needed then there isn't a huge community group of Alpha parents organising their own Free School in this deprived area (sic)

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 07:24

Thank you sarah and David for your forceful comments describing the difficulties that local athorities now face when commissioning or expanding schools. The former is dependent on a chain or another group, say parents or the diocese, being willing to set up a new school. It is unclear what the local authority is supposed to do if no such group comes forward. The latter, expanding existing schools, depends on being able to get finance. The hasty cancellation of Building Future Schools left schools without their promised financial assistance.

Gove announced at the end of July 2011 that dilapidated schools could "bid" for funding but this came with conditions: schools had to demonstrate long term pupil demand meaning unpopular, down-at-heel schools would continue to crumble and be locked into a cycle of decline. Secondly, successful schools would commit themselves to long-term PFI contracts - something which Osborne had said were "discredited" before the last election. A DfE source said that this would free up government money for free schools.

Yet there is money for schools of which the government approves. Bourne Grammar School (now an academy) has just been awarded £760,000 to upgrade its premises to allow for an extra 30 pupils a year (the school increased its Pupil Admission Number within days of becoming an academy in January 2012). Considerable money is being lavished on free schools - just 24 last year, about 50 this year, and an expected 50 next year - while thousands of existing schools have to educate pupils in sub-standard accommodation.

Government funding for schools is discussed in more detail on these threads:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 11:07

This article raises concerns as to whether WLFS will be delivered on time and on budget.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 12:26

Rebecca - the link doesn't seem to go to the article you highlight. Is it possible to provide another link? Thanks.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 13:35

Hmm - not it's not working is it!

I'm looking at a hard copy of Tuesday Evening Standard.
Page 28 has an article about the WLFS which says that the building firm charged with transforming Palingswick House into the new base for the WLFS (Apollo) has pulled out because they were not convince the project could be delivered within the budget.

They seem to be quoting a report in Building magazine last month. My Young says he has a replacement builder now which is Wilmott Dixon and his is 100 confident they'll be able to deliver on budget and on time. It mentions that voluntary groups have been cleared out of Palingswick House to make way for the school.

Today we have this:

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sat, 14/07/2012 - 20:53

If you type in 'Builders abandon free school project' and follow the link to the same web address the article should appear. It's from p28 of Tuesday's Evening Standard.

Essentially it seems the builders at the WLFS fell out with Toby Young saying the project couldn't be delivered to budget. He says he's now got new builders and he's 100% confident they'll be able to deliver on budget and on time.

Are any of the figures involved public or are is the free schools project still protected from all scrutiny to allow huge amounts of money to be shifted in all directions to cover up botches?

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 11:12

Thanks - according to Apollo, the group who refurbished the temporary buildings for WLFS, the contract for the permanent home was worth £7 million. But now Apollo has left the contract because the company says the work can't be done for that amount nor can it be done on time. It'll be interesting to find out how the new contractors intend to complete the project on-time and on-budget.

Perhaps the school's chair of governors will tell the builders not to bother with "inclusive" stuff like wheelchair ramps - far too politically correct.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 17:51

This post took more than two days to appear (no idea why) so I wrote the post below instead.

Rebecca Hanson's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 11:47

The replacement company is Wilmott Dixon. The article refers to the voluntary groups which have had to move out of the new building to make way for the school.

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 13/07/2012 - 12:12

One difficulty faced by local authorities was their responsibility in the past to "manage surplus places effectively." This means that when the surplus capacity in an area, particularly an urban one, then LAs were expected to amalgamate or close schools. The consequence of this is that when there is a rise in birth-rate then there are insufficient school places.

This requirement to "manage surplus places" has now been removed because of the changing demographic but this doesn't help LAs faced with the immediate need to increase school places when they are no longer able to commission schools themselves.

So, LAs had a responsibility to cut surplus places. At the same time they were expected to gaze into a crystal ball and guess what future capacity might be. How, for example, were local authorities to know a decade ago that 10 new countries would become part of the EU in 2004 and there would be free movement of labour? And how could they have anticipated that many workers from these countries would bring families with them? And how could they know which part of the UK would attract these families? Would the then Government have countenanced a local authority keeping a large number of surplus places in anticipation of an influx of immigrants who may or may not appear from know-not-where?

The Government's response seems to be to plough money into free schools which may not necessarily be where there is a need for places (eg the Beccles Free School which is being established in an area which already has surplus places and where there is a good, existing secondary school).

Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 15/07/2012 - 17:23

Rebecca - the evicted charities were taking their fight for compensation to the Charities Commission. I don't know if they were successful.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.