Whitehall Park School, Islington, is a Free School proposed for opening Autumn 2014. It is to use the old Ashmount site. The planned intake is 56 children. Before the closing date Bellevue Place, the proposers, described applications as "flooding in"; after the closing date the proposers confirmed they had had “many more applications than we have places available” and subsequently the DfE described the school as "popular with parents" and the school's reception year as "oversubscribed".
However a Freedom of Information request to the DfE has established that the ACTUAL number of applications to the school was just seventy two. The statements by Bellevue and the DfE are misleading. In fact the viability of this project for lack of demand is now in question.
As earlier reported (see here
) on the 6 February there was a short report in a local paper, the Islington Gazette
. The article was written by a journalist, Rory Barron, briefed by a "DfE spokesman". It read, in part:
"interest in the school, which is due to open in September, appears to already be "through the roof".
A DfE spokesperson said: “Whitehall Park Free School is being set up in response to significant local demand – and the school’s reception year is oversubscribed for September 2014.
“Free schools, such as Whitehall Park, are popular with parents – they provide more choice and freedom and ensure children have access to the high quality education they deserve.”
On the 24 February a long article appeared in the Evening Standard
. (It is worth reading in full.)
In it Alison Roberts wrote:
"Tom Legge, lead sponsor of Whitehall Park...... says that it (the school) has had “many more applications than we have places available” for next September’s first cohort of two forms, although he won’t give precise numbers."
Earlier, before the closing date for applications, a spokesman for the new school at a public meeting, referred to "overwhelming demand" and applications "flooding in" to "a surprising extent".
However, both Bellevue and the DfE preferred, it seemed, not to say HOW many applications there had been. So good news for the Whitehall Park School then. But no numbers. So I put in an FOI.
It turns out that this "flood of applications", "overwhelming demand",“many more applications than we have places available”, "oversubscription" and "through the roof" amounted to....
Seventy two applications For fifty six places.
Lower than the applications received by 40 out of 45 Islington Schools, and the five with fewer applications than Whitehall Park all had vacant places - and for smaller planned intakes. (footnote 1)
HOW MANY APPLICATIONS IS A "FLOOD"?
To put the "flood" of applications into perspective, last year, for example, Ashmount School had more than three and a half times as many applications.
(Ashmount is the school which before moving half a mile down the road occupied the site - open market value 10 million pounds - that Bellevue expect to acquire for nothing when the DfE requisitioned it for them from Islington Council, so the comparison is telling.)
However as Janet Downs pointed out in an earlier posting
boasting about numbers of applications is not a good basis for assessing the popularity of schools.
Counting every application in which a school is mentioned, irrespective of preference, is not reliable, as a child cannot occupy more than one place, even though applying for several. (In London parents applying to existing schools can indicate up to six preferences, and they are strongly advised to use as many preferences as they can.)
So the point here is not "look how many applications Ashmount got". It is that the claim by the DfE and Bellevue that THEIR school is especially popular falls at the first hurdle when the number of applications is only a fraction of those normally received by a neighbouring school. And a neighbouring school which occupied the site for which the Free School is destined up until last year. And less than all the other neighbouring schools. And less than the applications received by 90 per cent of Islington Schools. And the ten per cent with less applications had lots of vacant places... (Footnote 1)
TWO KINDS OF APPLICATIONS
Moreover, what is going on is two separate things; the application process for existing schools (run through Islington), and the special application process run by Bellevue Place for Whitehall Park School.
The first kind - Applications to existing schools
Parents apply for existing London schools through the pan London admissions system. The three schools closest to the old Ashmount site are: To the East, Coleridge School in Harringey, Ashmount School on its new site in Crouch Hill Park, both close to Crouch End, and each other. To the West Hargrave Park school. Hargrave Park is the same distance (to the west) as Coleridge and Ashmount are to the east. Parents living near the old Ashmount site will have been wise to apply for all these schools in order of preference. They can do this because the pan London admissions system allows them to apply for up to six schools (in order of preference).
So while last year Ashmount had 256 applications and Coleridge School, twice the size of Ashmount, had 549, this does not mean that there were 805 separate children looking for a place... In fact because Ashmount and Coleridge are, (since Ashmount's move), within a short distance of each other, a significant number of people who apply for Ashmount also apply to Coleridge in order of their preference. This apparently direct competition for pupils benefits both schools, as it means that, in general people who apply for both schools get the one they preferred.... When someone applying through the system is eligible for an offer at more than one school, they still only get one offer through the system - for the highest preference school for which they qualify.
At that Ashmount was truly "oversubscribed" last year in the only sense that matters. It filled all 60 of its reception places. So how many applications would Whitehall Park need to have a reasonable chance of filling its 56 places?
NB: Local Authority Schools do not have a marketing budget.
The second kind - Applications to Whitehall Park
We need to understand that, for this year only, applications to the new school go direct to the new school. As Bellevue Place were careful to explain:
"Apply directly to Whitehall Park School … … and gain an extra choice of primary school. In essence, an application for Whitehall Park School is a risk-free choice for 2014 as applications are made in addition to the usual Local Authority process."
So an application to Whitehall Park School is an ADDITIONAL application. Thus, in this area, for this year only, parents have up to seven choices.
Given the substantial marketing effort carried out by Bellevue Place, including a number of public meetings in the area, and for that matter the publicity also given to the school by articles in the local press, in the Evening Standard and an appearance on BBC London it is striking that such a low proportion of local parents have used the "risk free" option proffered to them of an extra choice.
When offer day comes, as Bellevue explained:
"Those who apply directly to Whitehall Park School will give themselves the chance of being offered two Reception places, one from Whitehall Park School and one through the Local Authority"
On that basis one would expect that the 72 children for whom applications have been made direct to the Free School have also, separately, made an application through the pan London system for up to six other schools in order of their preference..
On offer day the pan London admissions system will send out an offer to parents. If their child was eligible for a place at more than one school, then the one offer they get is for the highest preference. If they have applied to the Whitehall Park School as well, they get two offers, at which point they choose the one they prefer.
All that we know, in advance of offer day, is that an application for Whitehall Park School COULD BE a first preference, but it could also be as low as a seventh preference. Now this matters because last year everyone in the Whitehall area was eligible for an offer from at least one existing school, sometimes more than one. We know that the same will be true this year, we do not know the exact details yet, but everyone who gets an offer from the Whitehall Park School will indeed get an extra, second offer from the pan London system. Providing of course, they have made the applications.
So how many places could Whitehall Park School expect to fill with 72 applicants who have a choice between Whitehall Park and another school?
CALCULATING THE ODDS
I hope it is clear there is already good reason to expect a serious shortfall in numbers, at this school, this Autumn. - Not very many applications, applicants having more than one choice. - But it may be possible to make some predictions of the size of the shortfall.
Making a forecast of how Whitehall Park will do by looking at the experience of other schools does not work where those schools have been able to fill all the places. For example we know that on 256 applications Ashmount filled last year, but so (obviously) it would have on 300 applications. In the other direction because Ashmount filled on 256 to suppose that it would not have done so on 225 is not valid either. All we know about schools that filled their places is that the number of applications they had was at least enough for that, but actually they could have been more than enough.
However because Islington has a surplus of school places a number of primary schools (10 out of 45) were truly "undersubscribed" last year - they had unfilled places. They simply did not have enough applications. By looking at the ratio of applications to places actually filled in these schools, assuming applicants to Whitehall Park School for 2014 behave like applicants to Islington schools in 2013 we can predict:
With 72 applications one could expect to fill between 19 and 23 places.
Would the best case result of 23 places filled out of 56, that is about 60 per cent empty be regarded as good enough by the DfE? If not, NOW is the time to rethink before very large financial committments are entered in to.
However there is good reason to believe that this calculation is a serious over estimate of the number of places that will in the event be filled. I made the assumption that applicants to Whitehall Park School will behave in the same way as applicants to other Islington undersubscribed schools did last year. But unlike them, they will get two offers on offer day. So they will have a choice to make. They will be choosing between an existing school rated at least "good" or "outstanding" by OfSted and, as Ms Roberts put it in the Evening Standard:
"the real choice parents will be making when places are handed out is whether to stick with existing schools or take a leap of faith on one that is not yet built."
How many will make that leap of faith?
AN EDUCATED GUESS
One can only guess how many will make that leap - and it may well turn out that quite a long leap is needed, as Ms Roberts also reported that Bellevue Place:
".... admit the school won’t be ready for them (the children), and that they may well be taught off-site."
Which raises the possibility that the new school for at least the first year will actually be housed some distance away (Bellevue, I have recently learnt, have bought new premises in Muswell Hill, which may be relevant. As commercial landlords they could rent them to the DfE to house the new Free School, which they would then run. No doubt they will give the DfE a good price.)
So one would guess that the rate of converting applications to filled places would, in those circumstances,- school unknown quantity and further away than the alternatives - be rather inferior to existing Islington schools.
However in an attempt to do more than make a guess, albeit one with some supporting reasoning, let us return to what happened last year. Let us imagine what it would have been like if Whitehall Park school had been open then.
Last year Hargrave Park was, it is fair to say, not on the radar of parents in the Whitehall Park area. There was little tradition of people going there in preference to the (previously ) much closer pre-move Ashmount, consequently there were a number of parents who only applied to Ashmount and Coleridge and did not think of Hargrave Park. For all such parents to the east of the old site, this point was moot, as they were offered a place either at Coleridge, or Ashmount, depending on their preference. However there was a total of six children whose parents had applied only for Ashmount and Coleridge, who lived in the Whitehall Park area and did not get an offer of a place. As Hargrave Park still had vacant places, Islington admissions offered all six children places at Hargrave Park. Three of these places were accepted, but the other three sets of parents declined, choosing to send their children to private, fee paying schools instead.
Would the three families who took places at Hargrave Park have accepted Whitehall Park instead? Well if Whitehall Park School was closer than Hargrave they would have had some incentive to overcome other concerns they might have had regarding taking a "leap of faith". If, for at least the first year, Whitehall Park School somewhere else altogether its a more complicated decision.
Would the three families who opted for independent fee paying schools instead have chosen Whitehall Park in preference? Perhaps, but fee paying schools in this area are selective so it is impossible to know whether state schools were merely a prudent back up strategy in case the application to the independent failed.
That brings us back to guessing again. So, instead let us assume that ALL the people left without places at Ashmount and Coleridge opted for a place at Whitehall Park.
That would have been six children. Schools on remote Scottish Islands have been closed with more children.
This year, of course, we will not know what is happening regarding places until it happens. But so far we have no reason to believe that, in this area, the pattern will be significantly different, except that, local, good reports, have been coming back about Hargrave Park school. It is now firmly on the radar, so the competition faced by the new school is now greater than it would have been last year. And if the new school has no premises announced on offer day (footnote 2) it really will be vulnerable to competition. And this is competition in the context of a surplus of places in the area BEFORE the extra 56 Free School places are taken into account.
In conclusion, my educated guess, educated in the sense that it relies as much as possible on established patterns in admissions in the area, and a guess because there are still so many unknowns, is this:
THEY WILL BE LUCKY TO REACH DOUBLE FIGURES.
(Footnote 1) And of the four schools with fewer applications, only one was the same size as the proposed school, the others were smaller.
(footnote 2) As it seems the DfE have now realised the old building is useless as it stands, prohibitively expensive to fix up, and even then the outcome unsatisfactory and really poor value for money, they are now contemplating a demolish and rebuild. Not possible in six months, (lucky to just get planning permission in under five in an election year) and children cannot share the site while you are doing it. Offer day is April the 15th and it will be essential to announce the arrangements for September 2014 by then. There is a bus service to Muswell Hill.