The new Islington Free School.

David Barry's picture
Ashmount Primary School is a Community School in the London Borough of Islington, it is a highly diverse school with a higher than average proportion of children on free school meals. It is rated "good" by OFSTED under the current criteria. It was a good school in a terrible building. An early example of modernism, (built 1957) clad entirely in glass, very cold in winter - the most expensive school of its size to heat in London - and very hot in summer, and now wearing out and falling part.

Islington Council decided in the end, on finding that refurbishment was just not cost effective, to move the school to a new building nearby. A decision supported by two thirds of residents in an official consultation, and by 90 per cent of the parents who had experience of the old building.

Islington expected to raise at least some of the cost by selling the old site, at a discounted price to a housing association. They thought they would get about 3 million, but if sold on the open market, the site large, and in between Highgate and Crouch End would have raised ten million. The Council were in effect making a political decision to sacrifice money for social housing. Housing which they had promised to build in their election manifesto on which they had successfully defeated the outgoing Liberal democrat administration.

When they proposed this change of use for the site, from being a school to housing, an Independent Government planning Inspector commented:-

"Having carefully considered the question of educational need, I am satisfied that the Council’s evidence on this issue is robust and clearly demonstrates that the loss of this site for educational use will not undermine the future provision of school places either in Islington or in the adjacent London Borough of Haringey. Furthermore it is clear that refurbishment of the school buildings has been thoroughly investigated and has led to the conclusion that they cannot be easily adapted to meet modern educational standards. I conclude that the allocation is supported by robust evidence on the provision of educational accommodation.”

The overall conclusion of the Inspector was that the allocation of the Ashmount site “for residential and community use, including open space” was “justified, consistent with national policy and effective...”

However, as the Inspector observed “it (the site) remains in education use until permission has been granted for a change of use by the Secretary of State for Education.”

Today it was learnt that the Education Funding Agency has chosen to requisition the old Ashmount Site from Islington Council, which they have the power to do, without paying any compensation to the Council.

The site is to be transferred without charge to private ownership; the site will be given to Bellevue Education Limited for a Free School. Bellevue Education Ltd is a commercial (for profit) company, which runs a chain of nine for profit fee paying schools here, and in Switzerland.  Bellevue made profits last year of £1.5m on a turnover of £3.7m, so it's what I believe one would call "a nice little business".  Although if you want to rush out and buy some shares you cannot at the moment as they are not publically listed. Instead the investors are venture capitalists based in Switzerland using Russian money. Perhaps there will be a flotation at some point in the future. I am sure we will be all poised to add a bit of diversity to our share portfolios.

This decision will have some consequences for Ashmount, and indeed other schools in Islington.

1. First the capital account for Islington schools is now short by 3 million pounds. This was the, rather conservative figure, that Islington had assumed would be available from selling the site, at a special low price, to a housing association. It might well have been more. Consequently all Islington schools will experience a further cut in capital allocations. This is, in accounting terms, a straightforward transfer of capital resources from all the community schools in Islington to Bellevue Education Ltd. Ashmount will be less affected than some of our colleagues in the short run as our building is new. So one would hope that for a few years at least our capital requirements will be low.

2. From 2014 there will be an additional 58 places at reception in this area. All the indications from actual admissions figures this year is that certainly in 2014 there will be a significant surplus of places created in the immediate area. This could have the effect of intensifying competition between schools as there may not be enough school pupils to go around. The Free School website states that it will use the same admissions system and criteria as other islington Schools so the schools likely to notice this are, (In order of distance from the old Ashmount site) Hargrave Park, Highgate Primary, Coleridge School, and furthest away, Ashmount. (Incidentally going by the photographs on the school web site they appear to expect that all their children will be white...ref 3).

However it would be rash to jump to any conclusions about this as the Free School, at least in its first year may have significant difficulties in recruiting pupils. We know from the experience of other Free Schools that where they have been set up in areas where there are surplus school places that, untried as they are, parents are nervous of them. By definition they have no track record of any kind, no parental opinions, Ofsteds, or SATS. In this particular case there is also the issue of the building. It was left i because it was terrible. It was left because we knew that even spending millions of pounds one still ends up with a building which we thought not good enough for our children. We also know there were people in significant numbers who would not send their children to Ashmount because of the building. Our undersubscription only stopped when the move to the new building was fully confirmed. So it does seem that even if they work out a way to clean the windows, that there is an issue here.

On the other hand Bellevue Education may be willing to invest some of their own resources in marketing; were they to choose to do so they could certainly outspend any community school. A reason why they might do so is related to the otherwise puzzling point as to why Bellevue Education are interested in getting involved in running a Free Primary School from which they are not allowed to make a profit. The obvious answer is that the Conservatives believe that state schools should be allowed to be owned and run by profit making companies, on a profit making basis. This is not allowed at present, because the Liberal Democrats do not agree,. However Mr Gove has promised a number of times that should the Conservatives be elected to Government in the next election, fixed for the summer of 2015, when the Free School will have been open for less than a year, the law will be changed to allow Free Schools to be run at a profit. Bellevue Education could well feel that the old Ashmount Site represents a useful speculation.

I would be interested in any comments, or further information, anyone might have.

David Barry is a governor at Ashmount Primary School.

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